Astrosmash (Mattel Electronics, 1981) is one of those incredibly simple games that defies all attempts to explain why it is fun to play. It's a step below Space Invaders in terms of complexity and strategy, and right around there in terms of graphics and sound. The graphics were blocky and pixilated, and the background music, if you could call it that, sounded like someone hitting a snare drum over and over and over. Astrosmash was released in the early 80s as a free game included with the Intellivision video game console, and was one-player only. It seems Mattel also made a version for the Atari 2600 called Astroblast.

The story behind the game, such as there was one, placed it on Earth's moon during a meteor shower. Thousands upon thousands of meteors were raining down on the moon's surface, placing the moon colony in danger. You played a small vehicle with an upward facing laser cannon, very similar to the one in Space Invaders, driving back and forth across the screen to shoot the meteors before they hit the ground.

Sounds simple enough. And there wasn't all that much more to it. Meteors came in two sizes, small and large. Large meteors randomly either split into two small meteors or simply exploded when shot, small meteors exploded. Small ones were harder to hit and were worth twice as many points. They rained down from the top of the screen at random speeds and angles, and if one hit the ground you would lose half as many points as they were worth if you had shot them. If one hit your laser cannon, you lose a life. When a meteor exploded, it would send shrapnel out in a very small radius, and anything hitting that shrapnel would be destroyed. This could sometimes result in nice chain reaction effects that really rack up the points.

As you accumulated points, you would earn more extra lives and advance in levels. There were infinite levels and no ending or goal to the game. The screen's background color would change to signal that the level had advanced, and every time that happened the meteors would increase in number and were worth more points, and the speed of the game would increase.

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. There were a few surprises hidden among the meteors:

Spinners: Large and small, they looked a bit like spinning lightning bolts. If they hit the ground before you shot them, your laser cannon would explode, even if it didn't land anywhere nearby. These would appear every minute or so, more often as your level increased. Quickly falling small Spinners were very difficult to hit. The small Spinners were most easily destroyed by waiting for them to get close to a meteor, and shooting the meteor. The shrapnel from the meteor would destroy the Spinner.

Homing Missiles: A beeping, flashing ball, the Homing Missile would follow your laser cannon around as it fell from the top of the screen. If it hit the ground before you could shoot it, it would travel sidewise across the floor toward your laser cannon. Since you had no side facing weapon, your only option at this point would be to hit the emergency hyperspace button to teleport to a random location on the screen. This might save your laser cannon, or it might teleport you right under a meteor. Unlike the Spinner, the Homing Missile would be destroyed if it hit a meteor. These would appear mercifully infrequently.

UFO: A spaceship that would travel across the screen and actually shoot at your laser cannon. Meteors would pass harmlessly through it, but its shots would destroy meteors if they hit. Your laser blasts could destroy its shots in midair, and one shot could destroy the UFO. UFOs only appeared after a certain level, I think level ten.

So what's the appeal? You drive back and forth across the screen shooting at things falling out of the sky. I think the answer was the constantly increasing challenge of the game. With infinite levels and no end goal, the game just kept getting faster and faster and more and more difficult. No matter how good you got, there was always a greater challenge waiting for you. The closest thing the game had to a point was to rack up the highest score possible, and see how long you could hold that score before someone beat it.

In 1982, Mattel held the national Astrosmash Shootoff! to find the best Astrosmash player in the United States. Grand prize was $25,000, Second prize was $12,500, Third and Fourth won $10,000, and Fifth through Eighth each won $5,000. All qualifying contestants received a very nice commemorative sew-on patch. People qualified for the contest by sending in pictures of their high scores on the TV set, and competed in person for the prizes.

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