Growing up, I always loved the Atari 2600 version of Asteroids. The colorful graphics, the nifty sound effects, the “Jaws”-esque music ratcheting up the tension–it was a thrilling arcade experience. It was also an incredibly difficult experience. I would always get my butt kicked before I reached even 5,000 points, even sooner if I dared to flip the left difficulty switch to A, enabling the flying saucer enemies. I spent a lot of time playing the “kiddie” mode, game #33, which only has four asteroids per wave, and the big asteroids only turn into one medium asteroid when hit, instead of 2. Even still, I would be lucky to get 10,000 points.
So it was quite a surprise to me when I started playing Asteroids on my Atari 2600 emulator while waiting for my spaghetti water to boil, and before I knew it, started exceeding 20,000 points. I was playing it on the default difficulty, game #1. I hadn’t played it in years. But I managed to grasp something that my younger self couldn’t quite get. Unlike the arcade version of Asteroids, which has rocks coming at you from all directions, every wave of Atari 2600 asteroids starts on the left and right side of the screen, going up and down in two orderly rows, and only very gradually move horizontally towards you. Furthermore, hitting the asteroids with your gun makes them smaller, but doesn’t affect their velocity in any significant way. They just continue on the same trajectory. So if you just stay in the center of the screen and blast whichever of those two rows is closest to you, you can destroy most of the asteroids before they even get close to your ship.
This simplistic but effective strategy got me past 40,000 points…
To 60,000 points…
And beyond. The asteroids didn’t even speed up until about after 80,000 points or so, but by then I had so many extra lives (and getting more every 5,000 points) that it didn’t really phase me at all. Here’s me just about to roll over the score counter at 99,950 points:
As you can see, I still had plenty of lives left. By that point, the novelty of my accomplishment had worn away and I was getting pretty bored. So after the score had flipped back to 0, I flipped the left difficulty switch to A and turned on the flying saucers. This did not increase the difficulty at first. If there were a lot of asteroids left in the level, it would almost invariably crash into one of them, as the saucers always start on either the left or the right and move horizontally to the other side. It was only after most of the asteroids were clear that the saucer would present any sort of challenge. There, my strategy of staying in the center of the screen was pretty much useless, and the saucers finally whittled down my extra lives at 147,970 points… a new Asteroids record for me. No save states or cheats… just me blowing up a whole bunch of space rocks.
So, my question to those reading this article is, which games that you struggled with endlessly as a child are easy to you now?
As a corollary, are there any games that were easy for you as a kid that you suck at now? I can think of a few: mostly those early, clunky RPGs for the NES and early home computers. As a kid, you have a lot more time on your hands to memorize the spell system in Wizardry, map the towns and dungeons of The Bards Tale on graph paper, and trial-and-error yourself through the Marsh Cave in Final Fantasy without just dropping it and being distracted by work, or your spouse, or your social life, or whatever. What I wouldn’t give to have that level of attention to a video game anymore, or for that matter, anything else.
So, what do you all think?