People have been posting technical videos about Atari Asteroids on YouTube lately.
Here are (1) an arcade Asteroids Y-vector test point hooked up to an oscilloscope, (2) a short clip of an Asteroids machine with a vector glitch, and (3) a page-turn review of an Atari Asteroids operations manual and schematic.
Here’s the goal: having an Asteroids arcade machine at home, with authentic electronics and true vector display, but which isn’t the size of a refrigerator. Jürgen Müller in Hamburg, Germany, has built just that.
His half-scale Asteroids cabinet uses an original Asteroids game PCB and 9″ vector monitor from a broken Vectrex, housed in a custom-built cabinet. He also built a custom XY driver circuit to bring the Vectrex display up to the drawing speed required by Asteroids.
The project is well-documented on Müller’s website: http://www.e-basteln.de/asteroids/asteroids_intro.html
Much of arcade Asteroids’s allure is the glowing, minimalist vector screen. Instead of a standard TV monitor, which scans from top to bottom over and over again, the vector display draws straight lines from one point to the next where needed, like an oscilloscope. It can only be a simple polygon outline of one color, but it also means that the image is sharp and bright (Asteroids’s photon torpedoes leave a brilliant trace along the slowly-decaying phosphor of the screen), and simple to program (the video and sound data in the arcade version of Asteroids is just 2 KB of ROM code, and the game program is another 6 KB). It’s why we have the Asteroids locator on this site: to this day, no home version or variation of Asteroids really does the same thing.
Enter the Vectrex. In 1982, Western Technologies/Smith Engineering developed a home video game device with an actual vector display — the only one of its kind, ever. The Vectrex was released by General Consumer Electric (GCE), then bought by Milton Bradley, at the end of 1982. Its big selling point was that unlike the Atari 2600, it was a stand-alone system that didn’t tie up the television. Timing was bad, though with a glut of home video game systems hitting the market at the same time, leading to the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. One year after it hit the shelves, production for the Vectrex was discontinued, and in another year, the commercial life of the Vectrex was over.
The Vectrex came with one game built in: Mine Storm, which is like Asteroids, but with mines. The official story is this:
Tread lightly! The transport lanes of intergalactic space have been seeded with mines from an alien vessel. Use your mine destroying blaster to blow up the mines before they annihilate you! You may survive the floating mines, but beware of the fireball, magnetic, and treacherous fireball- magnetic mines… 13 fields, each one more difficult, await you!
A few years ago, Indie 3D filmmaker and DIY stereoscopic expert Eric Kurland invited me to his Secret Underground Lair in Echo Park, LA, which is filled with all sorts of 3D goodies, including a pristene Vectrex. Yes, not only does the Vectrex have a true vector screen — several of the games are in 3D! Its giant (optional) headset operates much like a lot of home 3D glasses today, alternately blocking the left and right eyes very rapidly, in sync with the display showing the left then right image. Among these games is a 3D version of Mine Storm.
It was pretty cool.
The game action wasn’t actually in 3D, but some of the mines looked closer to you than other ones.
Being such a unique and awesome device, the Vectrex has a following to this day. The Vectrex Museum website is a great resource for all things Vectrex, and is a site after our own heart. Be sure to check out their intro video, which includes an introduction from the excellent video How to Beat Home Video Games (1982), as well as clips of modern users like chiptune musician little-scale.
AtariAsteroids.net will be posting more about Vectrex down the road, in our continuing coverage of Things That Are Awesome Like Asteroids. Stay tuned.
Here’s a look at an Asteroids cousin in the arcade: Sega/Gremlin’s Eliminator, released in 1981. The 4-person cocktail game has the distinction of being the only 4-player vector game ever created. It was also released as a 2-player upright and cocktail game.
A summary on M.A.R.S. (Mark’s Arcade Retro Site) says:
In Eliminator, your object is to 1) Destroy any threats (opposing players or drones) by forcing them into a large floating asteroid (known as the Eliminator Base) using your energy bolts, which “push” ships, and 2) Fire an energy bolt down a narrow opening in the Eliminator Base, thus destroying it. Of course, you will have to survive an onslaught by your opponents, drones, and the Eliminator itself (a deadly ship that comes out of the Eliminator Base, lauches fireballs and destroys opponents on contact).
This bar/arcade is a block from the Metropolitan Ave G Train in Williamsburg, with a serious emphasis on both bar and arcade. It’s a large space lined with classic games in excellent condition, plus a healthy selection of craft beers on tap. A Barcade High Scores board hangs above the games, and they host special beer and game events (like Wiimbleton) from time to time. There are tables in the back, and drink-rests between the games. It’s a good atmosphere, although sometimes too crowded to pull a quarter from your pocket.
The Asteroids machine is in great shape with a brilliant display, although the buttons are heavier than average and require strong wrists and fingers. Also, the high score table doesn’t reset when the power’s off, so you’d need to break 469,160 to enter your name.
At the time of writing, John McAllister (ELF) tops the house Asteroids chart with 2,222,240 points, set one month before he broke the 28 year-old world record in April, 2010, with a score of 41,838,740.
This is a fun place, with a roller coaster on the beach outside, an excellent two-story pirate mini-golf course inside, and a respectable collection of older (not antique) pinball machines.
There are two Asteroids consoles and one Asteroids Deluxe. The Casino Arcade building has a small room with a dozen or so very early arcade games, including several other vector games (Tempest, Battlezone, Star Wars). This is where Asteroids Deluxe lives. This console has a weak monitor, and the image breaks up at the edges.
One 1979 Asteroids game is near the vintage game room, right by the shooting gallery. This one is in OK shape, except that the hyperspace button only works half the time. The contact probably needs to be cleaned.
The other Asteroids console is in a arcade room next door in Neptune’s Kingdom (mini-golf). This one is surrounded by more modern games, and the whole place is a bit loud for serious asteroid destruction. I don’t remember much about the machine itself because I was so distracted.
371 N Western Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90004 (map)
LA’s Barcade is a great dive bar with 80’s toys lining the walls. There are three rooms: the bar, the DJ room, and the back room with pinball and Asteroids. Sometimes the place is empty. Sometimes it’s packed. They have movie night (80’s classics) on Tuesday if you show up early. It’s a small but solid collection of classic games, and one of my favorite places in LA. It’s also the best Asteroids machine I’ve played to date. It has great button response and a brilliant display.
The only signage is a neon Pac-Man ghost, a block north of Beverly on Western, across from that giant modern KFC.
[Sept 21, 2009 update: Barcade has moved next door, and is now called The Blipsy”]