Best Games - Asteroids
Video game creators have been ripping and rehashing ideas from other games since the start of the medium.
If you combine the 2D physics sim of Space War with the overwhelming odds and impending doom of Space Invaders, you arrive at something like Asteroids. Even the accelerating heartbeat soundtrack and ufo klaxons echo the sound design of Space invaders. So many aspects of Asteroids are cribbed that it seems unlikely it would be noteworthy, but it’s the way the the game refines and reframes those core concepts that sets it apart.
In Asteroids you control one small spaceship, iconically represented by a sharply defined line art triangle positioned at center screen. The rest of the screen is a black void that eventually fills with equally iconic representations of jagged rocks.
The playfield is like a continuous sphere unwrapped and laid flat. Objects travel around it, but never actually leave it, passing from one side of the screen to emerge again on the other. The infinite playfield concept is lifted almost entirely from SpaceWar. This was a smart move, because it means that any asteroid travelling off one side of the screen can easily be anticipated as it emerges from the other.
The asteroids travel in hyper predictable straight lines. This creates the first part of my theory of fun. The human brain's ability to organize chaos is enjoyable. Identifying patterns of movement on a screen filled with icons of rocks all travelling at different speeds in different directions is fun. Using that information to shoot the asteroids breaking them into smaller parts that move in even more directions could have finished the design. That would have been enough to hold a lot of people's attention. It would have been fun, but not challenging, and most importantly for the early arcade business, it wouldn’t have been difficult enough to make enough money fast enough. People are just too good at identifying and predicting patterns.
At intervals a chaotic ufo will appear and fire at you forcing you to shift your attention. If you ignore it, it can and will destroy your ship. If you ignore the asteroids, they can and will overwhelm you, predictable or not. The second you get comfortable destroying the rocks, the ufo appears to draw your focus. When you manage to destroy the ufo, the pattern of rocks has changed so substantially that it has become an entirely new mental problem to deal with. That means the game has become harder, but also more fun.
By mixing ideas from two very different games, the unpredictable actions of another human in SpaceWar, and the regimented predictability of the invaders from Space Invaders, Asteroids strikes an almost perfect balance of fun.
Games created after this will include more random elements, and more shifts between chaotic and predictable action. Asteroids is not only one of the best games, it might be the first video game to zero in on what makes games fun.