When you look at video games today, it’s hard to imagine that a game built around shooting space rocks would have taken the world by storm.  And yet, Asteroids, released by Atari in 1979, did just that.

Asteroids was the creation of Atari employees Lyle Rains and Ed Logg.  Rains, an executive at Atari, thought the combination of the space-based physics and combat of Computer Space, one of the very first arcade games on the market in 1971, and the need to complete all of a certain task, like destroying all the alien ships in 1978’s Space Invaders, would make for an addicting video game.  Logg, a developer who had previously worked on Super Breakout, was chosen to take on the project.

Logg took an existing game that had never been completed, called Planet Grab, which featured a giant, indestructible asteroid that beta test players kept trying to shoot at anyway, and tweaked the code to allow the asteroid to break up after being hit.  Logg made it so that the big rock broke into smaller rocks that had to be destroyed by the player.  All the while, flying saucers would glide across the screen and fire at your ship, meaning you had to avoid enemy fire while also dodging ever more rocks in space.  And just like that, Asteroids was born.

Asteroids was designed as vector graphics, meaning an electron beam draws the lines on the surface of the CRT screen, rather than being displayed as part of a grid of glowing pixels.  This allowed the images to be clear and sharp, as well as precise, something that Logg felt would be necessary for players to line up their shots at the ever-smaller pieces of rock.  The technique was first used for Atari’s game, Lunar Lander released earlier that same year. 

The game was released in November 1979 and instantly became a massive hit.  In all, Atari shipped over 56,000 coin-operated arcade machines, bringing in over $150 million in sales, equal to about $500 million today.  Arcade operators found that the game was so popular, they had to install larger coin boxes to handle the number of quarters that addicted players were pumping in.  It’s estimated that owners of Asteroids machines raked in over $500 million in sales, or about $1.8 billion in today’s money.

In 1982, Kid Stuff Records released a series of read-along record books and LP audio dramas based on some of Atari’s hottest games.  Unlike many of today’s games, these early video games didn’t necessarily have stories per se, so Kid Stuff was free to invent their own plotlines using the various gameplay mechanics as inspiration. 

The read-along record books included adaptations of 1976’s Breakout, 1979’s Asteroids, Missile Command and Star Raiders from 1980, and 1982’s classic Yars’ Revenge

The LP adventures, which were completely different, longer stories from their read-along record book counterparts, included Asteroids, Missile Command, and Yars’ Revenge.  

The Atari LPs are highly-sought after by collectors today.  I think part of the appeal is the huge Atari game box artwork on the covers, as well as the early synth music tracks that Kid Stuff often employed.  These albums typically go for anywhere between $30 and $60 on eBay, but I’ve seen them listed elsewhere for closer to $100. Man, I’d love to get my hands on these…

Today’s album is the read-along record book version of Asteroids, featuring the adventures of Captain John Strohmeyer of the Outer Quadrant Recon Patrol, who is investigating the disappearance of a robot-controlled United Federation Mining ship.  Yes, eventually space rocks and spaceships come into play.  The record is filled with silly, sci-fi nonsense words like photon torpedoes, magnetic bubble memories, and neuron-ray blasters, which makes for a fun few minutes of entertainment.  

If you’d like to check out The Story of Asteroids, I’ve featured the album on my podcast, When You Hear This Sound! Hit the link to head over to spacemonkeyx.net and give it a listen!

One Comment

  1. Must shoot rock. Why nothing happen to rock? Shoot rock more!
    (I didn’t know that about the origins of Asteroids, that’s pretty hilarious that people just wanted to keep shooting the rock)

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