If the continual revolution of gaming were instead a Maoist revolution, some of us reactionaries would be put to death. "When I was your age, we played Tomb Raider with real tombs." But it's true. When I was a kid I couldn't wait for technology to advance to the point where Pac-Man ate real food, and the worker droids of M.U.L.E. delivered precious ores to my door if I won. Oddly, rather than harnessing new technologies for a teleologically perfect Pong, developers have for the most part spent their time coming up with entirely new kinds of games. And imperfect classics like the vector graphics-driven Asteroids were buried, first by side scrollers, then by 3D.
With Asteroids, Activision is attempting to satisfy the crotchety old man in all of us by bringing the old game back to the future with the core of its gameplay intact. And Asteroids succeeds in doing just that. This is definitely Asteroids. Lots of big rocks. One tiny ship that reappears on the left when you exit stage right. This is 2D folks, despite the 3D look of the spinning asteroids and miscellaneous debris. And while the rocks do look prettier, and the black background has been replaced with various handsome nebulae and a panorama of space dust (didn't they figure out that stuff was actually ice?), the gameplay itself is faithful to the original and in no way iconoclastic. The basic controls are the same as in the original. It's simple: rotate (left and right), thrust, shields, a 180-degree flip, fire, and hyperspace. Come to think of it, that sounds like a lot for 1979. At any rate, then and now it was (and is) a simple but effective recipe for blistered fingers. Rather than alter the Space Colonel's original recipe, Activision has opted to simply outfit Asteroids with gobs of bells and whistles. That sounds like a mistake, but it's not, and gameplay is only enriched for the power windows and fuel injection. There are more enemy ships, but they're still more cute than threatening. Special asteroids, like the regenerating Crystal Asteroids and the aptly named Indestructible Asteroid, make for an interesting diversion. The environment is made slightly more rocky with the advent of black holes (mild ones that suck you a little ways toward your doom) and stars that occasionally spurt deadly hydrogen gas. By far the coolest addition to the formula is the inclusion of power-ups. Lots of them. Ramming shields, homing missiles, smart bombs, and my favorite, the GunSat, a gun turret that orbits your craft, blasting indiscriminately and blocking incoming objects. There are dozens of different power-ups, and they're all very cool.
Though not much to look at when compared with most of today's games, one can't help but feel like anything flashier would have altered the game's feel or, worse yet, its play mechanics. That said, the ships aren't much to look at, though the simplicity of your primary weapon's tiny green dots of light is nicely understated. The sound of the original is echoed here rather tastefully: Enemy craft still sound oddly like tiny alien police sirens, and asteroids burst asunder with a reasonable and modest crunch. One thing I could never figure out about the original stand-up: For a game about battling giant, potentially world-destroying boulders, why did everything feel so tiny? That cuteness is in full force in the remake and somehow makes some kind of cosmic sense.
It's great that somebody is remaking old games and making them better, rather than just licensing names and tacking them onto non sequitur first-person shooters. Activision has a winner here. Asteroids is 100 percent true to the feel of the original, with terrific new power-ups to spice things up. Though not likely to make anyone quit his day job - how many times could anyone want to clear another screen of debris? - it's fun to give a damn about high scores again.