Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Now playing...

The arcade version of Asteroids.

On a recent family excursion to Roanoke, which is a little town north of Fort Worth, we went to the legendary Babe’s, which serves the best fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, and biscuits on the planet. More importantly, the restaurant is next door to a little arcade that is home to a dozen or so vending machines and arcade cabinets, including a soft drink machine that serves cokes in actual glass bottles and three genuine coin-op classics: Millipede, Ms. Pac-Man, and Asteroids, the latter of which is one of my favorite arcade games of all time (along with Mr. Do!, Tron, and Phoenix).

Not only is Asteroids a personal favorite, it almost made me fail junior high school (or at least the first period of seventh grade). During the early 1980s, I, like many of my contemporaries, rode my bike (a sweet black and yellow Huffy Pro Thunder) to school, which was about a mile and a half or so from my home. Unfortunately for my academic career, there was a Quickway convenience store near the school, and it contained three popular arcade games: Pac-Man, Phoenix, and Asteroids. Instead of riding straight to school, I would invariably stop at Quickway for a game or two (or three) and eventually mastered Asteroids to the point to where I could theoretically play it forever (which would’ve made me late to life in general, not just school).

As Asteroids fans know, the game, which boasts crisp vector (line drawn) graphics, puts players at the helm of a triangular ship that can shoot and fly in all directions and warp into hyperspace in case of an emergency. The objective is to blast floating space rocks into smaller and smaller pieces until they disappear, and there are large and small flying saucers to shoot as well. Over the weeks of playing Asteroids I developed a strategy that involved keeping a single asteroid onscreen, leaving my ship free to fly up the playfield with relative impunity, taking pot shots at the flying saucers as they appeared one by one.

This method, which I eventually discovered that other players across the country had figured out, is sort of a cheat (one rather intense guy at Classic Gaming Expo 2003 said that it violated the “spirit of the game”), but it gave me my fifteen minutes of fame back in the day as I could play for hours on one quarter, building up to thirty or forty or more ships in a single session (a free ship is awarded with every 10,000 points scored). When I got tired of playing the game, I would sometimes sell (for a buck or two) the rest of my game to astonished (or at least bemused) bystanders, who would invariably lose all of my hard earned ships at an alarming rate.

During the aforementioned trip to Babe’s Chicken, I tried out my old method and only scored a little over 20,000 points, meaning I was more than a little rusty. It’s probably just as well, though, because it’s one thing to be late for school, but another thing entirely to be late to dinner.

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