I hereby stake a claim to the world’s quickest solution to the video game Asteroids. That’s right, I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. I solved the cabinet version of Asteroids at the tender age of Fourteen. I don’t stake a claim to the highest score of Asteroids, because that’s an absurd achievement. Far more important is the discovery of a solution to the game, which allowed for that ridiculous feat of physical endurance otherwise known as a “high score.” I was certainly one of, if not the, earliest human being to hack Asteroids. I discovered a way to exploit an unforeseen loophole in its design, to be able to play in perpetuity on one quarter. Allow me to explain.
With a black and white, low resolution, and highly pixilated screen, Asteroids was one of the earliest cabinet video games that joined pinball, air hockey, and foosball at bowling alleys and arcades across the United States beginning in 1979. I was fourteen-years-old then and along with some junior high school chums, we frequented a bowling alley in Ashland, Oregon. There we would flirt, cause mischief, and play our favorite games. Everyone had a three-letter digital signature used to immortalize our achievements until they were superseded by ourselves or someone else. My signature was MOZ.
Unlike other early video games and those since Asteroids was solvable. What I mean by that is not that one could achieve a high score that ended the game, or exceeded the numerical capacity of the game to record, or that there was an exit to a maze that one could discover, but that given the way the game was constructed it was possible to play on one quarter in perpetuity for as long as one could stand there. To illustrate this I need to describe the game and what my successful strategy was for solving it.
At the beginning of a game one quarter purchases the obligatory three ships or “lives” that are initially allotted to a player. An additional ship can be earned every 10,000 points. To get 10,000 points a player must shoot asteroids that come in sizes from large to medium to small. If you shoot a large one it breaks into two, then those two, if shot, each split again. The smallest asteroid, if shot, disappears. Each size of asteroid has a corresponding point value, the smaller the asteroid the more points. When a screen is cleared a new level is accessed characterized by a greater number of asteroids on the screen that travel at higher speeds. The screen is open-ended on all four sides such that if you fly your craft through one side you will appear coming out the other. It is a two-dimensional field, no depth. The asteroids follow the same logic. In addition to these asteroids flying around in a seemingly random way, a space ship will appear at various intervals and attempt to shoot your ship.
A player’s ship is rendered as a triangle that shoots from the apex and is controlled by five buttons: left and right rotation, thrust, shoot, and a hyperspace button that makes your ship disappear and reappear instantly at a random spot elsewhere. The new spot might be safe or directly in the path of an asteroid.
These then are the essential elements of the game.
I remember the day I solved Asteroids because I played on one quarter from 10 AM until 11 PM (thirteen hours) at one point peeing into a bottle. I had to stop when the bowling alley closed; I could have played longer. I did this in 1980 or 1981. I could play forever and therefore solved the game.
I had three advantages over my classmates:
First, I managed to secure lots of quarters. Not all kids my age had access to enough money to play the game as much as I did. In this sense, I just played the game more than most, and thereby became a better player.
Second, I was built for video games: I had razor-sharp reflexes, Olympic level reaction time, superior pattern recognition skills, and strong hand-eye coordination. My brain was wired tight.
Lastly, I hit upon an approach to successful play that was somewhat counterintuitive and very difficult to master. Move! Instead of being cautious and moving slowly to avoid being hit by asteroids, I would almost immediately begin flying through screens — usually up through the ceiling to emerge from the equivalent spot through the bottom of the floor. I would hold the thrust down and fly at near maximum speed. This maneuver was very difficult to master and took hours of practice, but once perfected something odd happened. Asteroids began to “slow down” much like the frequency of a siren shifts downward as it passes away from you, producing the Doppler Effect. Objects on the screen appear to slow as a thrown football does in mid-air if you are running in the same direction as it is traveling. Finally, patterns began to emerge in the way the asteroids were released at different levels together with how they behaved once struck by a shot from my ship.
There is a similar principle at work in today’s First Person Shooter (FPS) games. All things being equal it is better to be moving among enemies rather than stationary and having them move to you. This is behind what is arguably the most hated insult a player can be on the receiving end of in a FPS game, being called a “camper,” someone who just sits in a spot waiting to kill other players. This approach to play can yield results — for instance, if you are a sniper — but again, all things being equal, “movement is life.”
Aside from these three advantages, there were two structural elements incorporated by developers into the game of Asteroids that made a solution possible. First, there was no cap on the number of ships a player could have in reserve, so if a player was good enough at staying alive through multiple rounds that player could continue to accumulate ships. I would often fill the entire screen with extra ships — thirty, forty, even fifty — which allowed for hours of play.
Second, there was a cap to the complexity of asteroids released at successive levels. At some point the number of asteroids that appeared for a new level did not breach the threshold for my effective play; the complexity was daunting, with asteroids all around and a small spaceship that would quickly appear and attack my ship followed by another in rapid succession, but it didn’t keep increasing. It plateaued. It was difficult, but with enough of the right kind of play, I could handle it.
Was this a flaw in the design of the game? Probably. I think programmers either didn’t anticipate players would be able to function at that level of complexity or they wagered only a very small number would and that that was not a barrier to the game making money. The game did make money, with some 60,000 units sold by the early 1980s, but at some point the company recognized the flaw in their design. The Wikipedia entry for Asteroids notes that arcade owners began complaining to Atari about players (like me) costing them money. Atari released Asteroids Deluxe soon after as a fix. On the other hand, perhaps the very fact kids like me were able to solve asteroids after (but only after) hundreds, perhaps thousands, of quarters also contributed to making the game a hit. Whatever the case, I don’t think any subsequent cabinet video games allowed for players to dominate them such that one could play them for hours on one quarter.
I glean two lessons from playing Asteroids as a kid: First, Big Tech can be beaten. There is always a hack, always a way around their code. Second, beating Big Tech is a pyrrhic victory unless one shares the spoils of that victory. Soon after I was able to accumulate ships I began sharing them with friends so we could all save quarters. I would like to think I was a budding socialist even at the tender age of fourteen.