|rumors that players in the field were earning scores many
times as highthat they were, in other words, beating the machine, which won't
register a score higher than 99,990.
The engineers were incredulous. They refused to believe that ordinary humans could beat them at their own game. And they didn't start believing it till someone from marketing drove them out to an arcade and made them look for themselves.
"What had happened, " Eugene Lipkin, then president of Atari's coin-operated game division, told me, "was that a player had been smart enough to understand the movement and the programming on the product and had then come up with an idea of how to work around it. It took about three months for that to happen. Then, all of a sudden, we began hearing the same thing from all over. People had figured out that there was a safe place on the screen. "
What Lipkin meant by "a safe place on the screen" requires an explanation. One of the principal challenges in Asteroids is a tiny flying saucer that zooms across the screen toward the end of every onslaught of rocks and fires bullets at the player's spaceship. This saucer, if destroyed, is worth one thousand points, but because it has better than average aim, it's a formidable adversary. Or at least it was until players began to figure out that if they picked off all but one or two little asteroids, they could safely lurk around the edges of the screen and wait for the saucer to appear. If it appeared on the side where they were lurking, they would fire quickly and destroy it before it had a chance to get off a shot. If it appeared on the other side, they would fire off the screen in the opposite direction (bullets can "wrap around" in Asteroids) and send a couple of quick salvos up the saucer's tailpipe. And they would keep doing this until they had accidentally destroyed the remaining little asteroids (causing a new onslaught to begin), or crashed into the saucer, or earned 10,000,000 points, or simply fallen asleep. As long as one or two rocks were left on the screen, the little saucer would continue to appear. Playing the lurking game isn't as easy as it soundsit takes an alert player with a steady eye to pull it offbut once a player gets the hang of it, Asteroids changes completely. In fact, it ceases to exist.
A flaw in Asteroids? I'm afraid so, and this is a great philosophical issue, one that separates the men from the boys as far as the game is concerned. As most people who are familiar with Asteroids know, there are essentially two kinds of players: those who play the game and those who lurk. Lurking is a weakling's strategy, a method mediocre players use to inflate their scores (it's also extremely boring to watch). It's like fishing with dynamite.
Happily, the people at Atari dislike lurkers almost as much as I do. "What we've done," Lipkin told me, chuckling
|evilly, "is put together a new program in which...
" But I'd rather not give it away. Suffice it to say that this new feature is
available to operatorain the form of a computer chip that can be inserted into the
printed-circuit boards of existing Asteroids machines. This chip is proving to be a
popular little item, too, since operators don't make as much money when games last
twenty-two hours as they do when they last ninety minutes.
And the engineers had yet another trick up their sleeves: Asteroids Deluxe. Lyie Rains had promised to introduce me to it. Lurkers, your days are numbered.
Thus, at the culmination of my Asteroids quest, the gods deigned to grant me a vision of the future: I would be among the very first people in the world to lay eyes on Asteroids Deluxe. And there was a sense of mischief about my expedition, because the arcade where the prototype was being tested was part of a chain owned by Bally Manufacturing Corporation, the American manufacturer of Space Invaders and Atari's largest competitor.
Even though it was a school dayabout fifth period, I calculatedthe arcade was filled with seventh graders. Rains and I waded manfully into their midst and eventually won a place on the Deluxe machine, a striking piece of equipment with a vastly more colorful exterior than the original game has. We began to play. The monitor was slung low in the cabinet, out of the player's line of sight, and the images on it were projected upward onto a half-silvered mirror, which the player looked into. The mirror made the rocks and vehicles seem to hang in the air. Visible through the mirror was a gaudy painted background of tumbling asteroids and elaborate spaceships and orange stars. The visual effect was stunning, but also unsettling. Successful Asteroids play requires a Zenlike diffusion of concentration, in which the player sees everything but looks at nothing in particular. I found it difficult to achieve this state on the new machine. There were too many distractions. Rains said that the problem had come up before and that the engineers were working on it.
Aside from its strictly visual gimmickry, the Deluxe prototype had a number of new features intended to make the game more challenging. There was a brand-new alien spaceship, for example, which Rains referred to as "the snowflake"; when I shot it, it broke into a half-dozen guided mis-
|siles that chased me around the screen with a doggedness that
increased as my score did. The Hyper Space button was gone. In its place was a button
labeled Shields; when I pressed it a circular force field formed around my ship,
protecting me from rocks and bullets but fading and eventually disintegrating with use.
The rocks rotated unnervingly. The machine, Rains said, would record scores of up to
Asteroids Deluxe was proving very popular. Marketing data from the initial field test indicated that the game was being played virtually every minute the arcade was open. I wasn't so impressed, though. The prototype struck me as unnecessarily frilly, something like the Thunderbird after Ford decided to turn it into a full-sized car. An important part of
the game's appeal is the uncluttered elegance of its original concept. Chess wouldn't be more interesting if you played it on a discotheque dance floor, and Asteroids isn't more interesting when you play it on a one-way mirror. And besides, in four games I didn't score over 10,000.
I'm glad to be back in Playland again, playing good old first-generation Asteroids. It's four o'clock now, so John Fisher and the rest of the lunchtime crowd are gone. They're moping in their offices, stomachs rumbling, waiting for the workday to end so that they can come back here and unload a few more dollars. I'll probably be here to greet them when they return. I've got most of fifteen dollars' worth of quarters stashed in various pocketsenough to last me until well after dark. Not that I have any business spending more hours here today than I've already spent. I should be home now, thinking of interesting things to say to my wife or making something for dinner. Maybe I could turn all these quarters into some kind of rib-sticking casserole. I feel tired and a little groggy, and yet I can't honestly say that I want to play any less now than I did at noon, when I began. Still, a man has responsibilities. I finish a decent game, type in my initials, and decide to call it quits.
And then I reach into my pocket and plug in another quarter.
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