One point for man, one giant high score for mankind.
The second generation of gaming is synonymous with space shooters. You think Atari or Intellivision, and you think space. In the late ‘70s, Star Wars re-energised popular interest in the cosmos and swept aside the Nixon-era mentality of cynicism to make way for fun and having a good time. Coincidentally, the home video game console market happened to be aligned with these excitable years that saw George Lucas’ transcendent phenomenon become a representation of American optimism. True enough, just as the Death Star met its final end in 1983, so did the video game industry meet its first, in an economic crash that dissolved an unstable empire. Though, like the Death Star, gaming would once again rebuild from the debris.
But enough of the history lesson and convenient analogies. My point here is that there were so many space shooters in the years between 1977 and 1983, to review them all would be not only futile, but redundant. From Space Invaders to Asteroids, they all pretty much revolve (Asteroids pun) around the same gameplay mechanic: Shoot stuff against a dotted black backdrop. So let’s skip the arcades and Atari and look at something a little more obscure: one of the defining titles for the Intellivision. Yes, I’m talking about Astrosmash.
Shoot stuff, indeed. Forget the evolved combat of Halo, or the deep story and universe of Mass Effect; this was classic arcade mayhem at its finest.
Shoot stuff, indeed. Forget the evolved combat of Halo, or the deep story and universe of Mass Effect; this was classic arcade mayhem at its finest. Asteroids are falling from above, and it’s your job to take them out before they can take out your base. Move your spaceship, or cannon – it’s always hard to tell what’s what in these early games – left to right, blast away at all the intergalactic refuse hurtling towards you, and don’t get hit… simple.
It may seem straightforward, but what started off as a slow descent of debris quickly became a violent onslaught of UFO’s, satellites, and missiles – again, I can only speculate to what the on-screen sprites represent. Shooting the larger asteroids sometimes split them into two, leaving your ever-shifting ship even more vulnerable to a hit. Though avoiding meteors would result in a fractional point deduction, there was no death penalty for evasion, so you didn’t have to shoot at absolutely everything, but firing at the satellites was a must; if they made their way to the bottom, the player would lose a life. If you did find yourself in a snag, you could always go into hyper-space, sending you to a random part of the screen; this was a useful option in the later hectic portions of the game, but only as a last resort as you could just as well teleport into another incoming rock.
Shoot & Score
Like most pre-Crash days, Astrosmash couldn’t be completed; it could only be climbed. The higher your score, the harder the game predictably became. Score milestones would change the colour of the screen, but more importantly, crank up the tempo. After you hit 20,000 points, Astrosmash really became difficult; now you had alien UFO’s shooting right back at you. A score of 50,000 was signified by a grey background, and if you dare to risk inducing an epileptic seizure, 100,000 would revert the game back to black and offer no console whatsoever.
What I do still find extremely rewarding about the game, however, is that even during those reflex slumps when you’re quickly losing all of your accumulated lives, you can still bounce back and regain your composure. This is because lives are as easy to gain as they are to lose, a 1-UP granted at every 1000 point increment. So even when the chips are down and all hope has been lost, the game can still be conquered if you only have the will.
The controls were as fluid as you’d expect from a second generation title. Of course, given the limited range of motion involved, that’s not saying much. Obliterating the smaller satellites and meteor fragments demanded pixel precision; miss your mark by a hair, and jittering the joystick frantically would be fruitless – skipping your target by a pixel, leaving you unable to concentrate your fire on incoming attacks – and render you one life shorter.
Of course, what’s to say about the sound effects? One word: awesome. Naturally, like the space operas of the cinema, these classic games were more about the fiction than the science; i.e. there is no sound in space. Nonetheless, the absence of music makes the early Atari-era games so much more viscerally vintage, as the effects of destroyed ‘roids heighten the heart-racing intensity of staying alive and beating your ghost scores.
Born to become the tie-in packaged game for the Intellivision, Astrosmash was the space title for the system. It combined the gameplay of Asteroids with Space Invaders, two of its most successful competitors. Obviously, gaming was still young and in the hands of the corporate cash-mongers; it was better to rely on the factory output of what would be a guaranteed hit, instead of taking the extra time to innovate on the genre. Ultimately, Astrosmash is not necessarily any better than the throng of other space shooters from the second generation, but it plays just as well any of them, and remains as addicting. Indeed, I only revisited the classic from my childhood with the intention of playing enough to re-familiarize myself with the game to write a review on it; seven hours later, I’m locked in the darkness of my bedroom to the sound of crickets, my eyes seared with the flickering lights of a sweated-for high score.
Prefer moving pictures and sounds? Then watch our video retro reflection here.