Pong may have been a great success and marked Atari's stepping stone into the video gaming industry, but their true super hit, the one that led to their total domination during the early years of mass market electronic gaming, was without a doubt Asteroids.
Similar to Computer Space, the basic concept to Asteroids was to take Space War, and create a thrilling single player experience out of its underlying mechanics (let's remember this is still a few years before the Vectrex port of Space War introduced the CPU controlled rival). Like Cinematronic's Space Wars, Asteroids was relying on vector graphics technology, but instead of fighting a human opponent, the player is now given the task to clear out an asteroid field using his space ship's guns - not without disturbance from the occasional flying saucer. When hit, the asteroids wouldn't just disappear, though. Instead, they burst into small pieces that drift away into different directions, making your task even harder than before. As soon as the screen is cleared, new asteroids would spawn, putting you up against a seemingly Sisyphean challenge. A constant "heartbeat" sound, generated from the machine's hardware, would give players the chills 25 years before the survival horror genre was even invented.
The concept proved as addictive as it was simple, and ever more dense and fast waves of asteroids made sure people would soon part with their next coin. There were a few opportunities to exploit the program's weaknesses, though, and cunning players could go on and on, playing hours with only a single credit.
This problem would get solved about a year later, when Atari released an upgraded version called Asteroids Deluxe. Not only was the game more balanced, but there were even small graphical updates and more diverse gameplay thanks to different types of attacking alien ships, and a deflecting shield to protect your ship instead of the "hyperspace drive". It also featured one of the inlay images that became popular to beef up the visual appeal of those early monochrome games.
Asteroids became Atari's greatest hit ever, with the arcade machine alone having produced 56,565 units, and it remains probably the most well-remembered video game released prior to Super Mario Bros. Of course, Atari - or whoever owned their copyrights at any given time - will spare no efforts to remind us at any time possible. Asteroids was ported, updated, remade or emulated on almost every major gaming system since its initial release, and if we count unofficial emulation and clones, it will be hard to find a single electronic device with a screen in the world where you can't run a game of Asteroids on (with the possible exception of Japanese home computers, see page 8).
While a lot of the more recent releases, like the Atari Anniversary Collection, feature emulated versions of the old arcade games, there have been a lot of different ports over the years. The first one in this long history of conversions made Atari's very own home console, the VCS. This was a quite competent port, given the technical limitations of the hardware. Like with the VCS's Space War, the sharp looking vector graphics made way for huge pixel blocks. Back then, people would play it anyway, since it was the only version for a home console, but nowadays there are many far superior ports available. One interesting peculiarity of this port is the lack of any flying saucers in difficulty level B. Only setting the lever to A activates them.
An early concept of Asteroids called Cosmos was still intended as a Spacewar!-clone, with the Asteroids as mere obstacles between the players. This idea was revived by the Atari 800 version, where up to four players can get up against each other either in the classical turn-taking patrol game, or deathmatch-style in direct battle. The sheer fun that can be had with four opponents simultaneously really leaves one baffled as to why this remains the only official version that supports this.
Asteroids on the Atari 7800, which came out six years later, after several home computer ports, can also still be enjoyable today. (Asteroids for the 5200 was in development as well, but didn't make it beyond prototype status. However, Electra Concepts filled the void with the very blatant clone Meteorites). The asteroids look somewhat like bowling balls, but the colorful graphics and a starfield background more than make up for it.
Asteroids & Missile Command (GB)
Asteroids & Missile Command (Lynx)
The first official version for IBM PCs, and probably the first "arcade perfect" port, was released with the Microsoft Arcade, a pack of classic games for Windows 3.1, in 1993. During the mid-90s, Atari finally got the idea that Asteroids' simple yet captivating gameplay would make for a great handheld game, and thus they bundled their classic together with another unforgettable gem from their portfolio - Missile Command - to release it on Game Boy and their own handheld, the Lynx. Both versions experienced a major graphical overhaul, though the Game Boy module also contained an arcade-faithful mode as well. Audio was also updated, with a jingle played after every wave, while retaining the "heartbeat" ticking. Because of their limited playfield size, both ports are a bit on the easy side, though. In 1997, Midway, then the current owner of former Atari copyrights, released the SNES, PC, PlayStation and Saturn compilation Arcade's Greatest Hits: The Atari Collection, that featured another arcade version port together with five other Atari classics.
Asteroids has been on pretty much on "volume 1" of every new Atari compilation (with Asteroids Deluxe often following on volume 2), usually emulated. Another remixed version, however, is contained in the Retro Atari Classics compilation of 10 games for the Nintendo DS. Next to a recreation of the original, you can select a version featuring stylized, blocky visuals. It looks neat, but the constantly scrolling background is disorienting. Both versions can be played with conventional controls as well as the stylus. With this input method, tapping the screen makes the ship fire its cannon, while holding causes it to thrust in that direction. However, as with most games artificially updated with touch controls, it's much less precise and significantly slower than the traditional way. Later, Asteroids was featured once again on Nintendo's double screen handheld with Atari's Greatest Hits: Volume 1 (regular) and Volume 2 (Deluxe), this time as emulated versions of both the original arcade game and the terrible Atari 2600 port. The low resolution, however, makes the arcade games a bit hard to look at on the DS. (All take place on a single screen, with the game logo or VCS option switches filling the other one.)
Another full remake came for Xbox Live Arcade, Asteroids Original and Deluxe (in a single download), featuring both emulated versions and audiovisually upgraded ports in the vein of the oh-so-popular abstract shooters that pack every consoles download service nowadays. The same versions also got included in the Atari Classics Evolved collection for the PlayStation Portable. Both the arcade and Atari VCS versions of Asteroids are available in the Microsoft game room, as is Asteroids Deluxe. At one point Atari also had an arcade-perfect port for web browsers in its online Arcade, but it has since been replaced by a remake with more colorful graphics. This for some reason allows to charge up the ship's cannon, even though it doesn't do any more damage that way, and adds a combo counter for score multiplicators.
Asteroids (Xbox Live Arcade)
There has been a time when it wasn't very clear anymore who or what Atari actually was, and the properties where juggled among several publishers. It was when Activision produced a new version of Asteroids that easily could be seen as a new game in its own right, and thus will be dealt with separately later in this article, as well as Atari's 1987 raster-based arcade sequel Blasteroids. Another reimagening came in 2010 in the form of Asteroids Online by Joju Games, which expanded the game with a connected universe and MMO elements. Unfortunately, this is now unavailable and thus cannot be properly covered. Asteroids Gunner for iOS devices is a completely different kind of shooter, despite being officially published by Atari.
It is highly unlikely that these remain the last additions to the history of this phenomenal game, and it's a safe bet to assume that Asteroids won't go away anytime soon. In 2009, Universal had even purchased the rights to produce a movie based on the Asteroids license, but unsurprisingly it was still in scriptwriting hell by late 2012.
Oh, and there's also something where Asteroids had the chance to pioneer: Together with Atari's Lunar Lander, it was the very first video game to be registered with the US copyright office, completing the medium's way to full commercialization. It was also the first game that allowed the input of initials for high scores.
Asteroids (Web Browser)
Asteroids (running in MAME)
Asteroids (Atari 7800)
Asteroids Deluxe (Atari ST)
Atari Anniversary Collection (GBA)
Asteroids Deluxe (Arcade)
Retro Atari Classics (NDS)
Asteroids (Atari VCS)