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The Day I Melted An Asteroids Machine

Old Man Rignall spins one of his ludicrous yarns from the olden days of gaming.

Article by Jaz Rignall, .

During the spring of 1980, Atari's classic black and white vector graphic coin-op Asteroids became my biggest arcade obsession. In a period where most games' space ships were resolutely anchored to the bottom of the screen, Asteroids' fully rotational, free-moving craft was quite the revelation. Players had to improvise and think on their feet. Unlike the gameplay of many early Golden Age machines, Asteroids' action was unpredictable and chaotic — and when the action really heated up, nothing came close to its sheer on-screen mayhem. At least, not until Robotron 2084 came along.

The game did have a fairly high initial difficulty — mostly stemming from learning the intricacies of the ship's inertia, honing muscle memory, and, trickiest of all, learning to instantly and intuitively translate multiple rock trajectories into a series of prioritized targets and escape routes. Once you'd got that down, you and the game flowed into a seamless orgy of rock-breaking fun. The problem, though, was that the action was very intense and totally relentless — and therefore very tiring. The game would simply wear you down, no matter how good you were.

But, like almost all games, Asteroids had an Achilles heel, a design oversight that let canny gamers extend a quarter's worth of play from minutes into hours and hours — and eventually even days. It came down to this: if you took too long to clear a level, a small UFO would regularly appear from either the left or the right hand side of the screen and attempt to destroy you with some dangerously accurate shots, or simply pick off the remaining asteroids to bring an end to the level and put you back into a high-threat screen filled with yet more asteroids.

However, as long as you could avoid being shot by the UFO's fast missiles, and blew it to pieces before it could eliminate the last few remaining floating rocks left on the screen, you could stay in this far less physically demanding environment indefinitely, and in the process net yourself a neat 1000 bonus points per UFO. Better still, the average difficulty setting of the game rewarded players with an extra life for every 10,000 points scored, meaning you could earn yourself a lot of extra lives, which would carry you through the next screen once the UFO (or you) had inevitably or accidently picked off that last rock.

My method of exploitation involved continually flying up the screen, nailing UFOs almost the second they emerged. Once I got really good at doing this, I could go on almost indefinitely, racking up many, many extra lives. Something that the programmers had clearly not taken into consideration when they designed the machine. Asteroids featured a vector graphic display that was perfectly capable of drawing what at the time was a quite enormous amount of things on screen, even when the game was at its most hectic. But it did have its limitations, which I discovered on the day in question. I'd decided the previous night that I was going to try for a record score: it was a Friday, and my local arcade stayed open late, thanks to its associated night club next door. That'd give me a full 18 hours to knock up a score that I was hoping would take me well north of 10,000,000 — far higher than anyone I knew had achieved at the time.

So that day, I went to school as usual, registered myself present, and then swiftly disappeared though a door marked "fire exit" that afforded me almost full line of site coverage to a gap in the school fence and freedom. By 9:15 am I was at my favorite arcade, slipping a coin into my Asteroids machine of choice — the newer one with the minty buttons. I was the only one there, and I eased into my marathon, accompanied by period electronica being played over the arcade's PA by the cute, blue-haired girl in the cashier's booth that I had a crush on. By 10:30 am, my game was rolling, and I was on form. Slowly, but surely, my UFO-hunting tactics enabled me to rack up so many extra lives, they began to form a huge line that, as the morning turned to afternoon began to go right off the edge of the screen. As I relentlessly continued to add to that total, the machine began to chug.

The first indication that something was not quite right was the display beginning to break up, with random vector graphic lines of lightning cracking across the screen. This interference began to get progressively worse as I soldiered onwards, as did a rather nasty smell. A horrible, plastic-melting, stick-in-your-nose stench that became progressively stronger and stronger.

Then it happened. After a particularly protracted period of UFO-hunting, the final asteroid was destroyed and I started a new round. By now, it was mid-afternoon, and I was playing at the game's top level, with the maximum amount of asteroids on the screen. As I blasted them into increasingly smaller asteroids, the machine took a complete dump. The screen devolved into random ragged lines, and then went dark, and almost immediately, an acrid haze of blue-black smoke gently wafted from the vents in the back of the cabinet, quickly dispersing the small crowd that had been watching me.

I called over the arcade's mechanic, Patrick, who knew me well since I spent most of my time there, and together we pulled the machine out of the line of other coin-ops. He opened the back, and discovered that the main circuit board had completely overheated: the area around several of the chips was completely scorched, and many of the wires' plastic protective sleeves had either bubbled or melted.

Initially we both thought the machine had simply malfunctioned, but a few days later the same thing almost happened again on another machine during another Asteroids marathon, only this time I called Patrick over as the screen began to stutter, and he turned the machine off before any damage was done. At that point he put two and two together and realized what was going on. Perhaps it's the machine trying to draw all the extra lives — even the ones off the screen — or perhaps it's just some kind of number-crunching that's frying the poor old coin-op's chips, but either way, too many lives meant too many calculations for the machine, and its 8-bit brain would start to melt.

Since then, I've talked to a few other Asteroid highscorers who've experienced similar issues to the ones I did. Most have experienced vector graphic glitches when many extra lives have been earned, some have had the machine simply reset on them mid-game, and a couple cited the overheating smell. Some have racked up loads of lives with no issue. But nobody I know has actually had a full melt-down — which I think was ultimately due to the fact that it was a very hot day, and the machine was pushed right against the arcade's wall, so it had zero ventilation. I'm just glad it didn't burn the arcade down. I'd have had to go back to school.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for metal_maniac #1 metal_maniac 3 years ago
    Damn, never knew that was possible. But then again, Norway didn't have many arcades back in the 80's, so stuff like this rarely, if ever, happened here. Man, was I ever envious of you guys in Zzap, reading about you visiting all the cool arcades and playing awesome games I could only dream of ever playing. That is, until MAME came along.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #2 Lord-Bob-Bree A year ago
    Well, I think you can consider yourself to have definitively defeated Asteroids.
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  • Avatar for Patrick-C #3 Patrick-C A year ago
    Man, thanks for sharing this, Jaz. It's a pretty awesome story.

    It's weird, there's vanishingly fewer of those functioning vector graphics displays out there in the wild, so even the thought of losing one by all rights ought to be sort of disturbing and tragic. But the idea that you could physically destroy an Asteroids unit by simple virtue of knowing how to exploit the game (and because you're just that awesome at Asteroids) is ... nothing but cool. I'd be so proud of myself if I'd managed to do that.Edited December 2015 by Patrick-C
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #4 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    This would've made a great 80s rock video.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #5 Kadrom A year ago
    Loved this. More Old Man Rignall stories, please! The golden age of arcades is great fun to hear about.
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  • Avatar for brodiejohn13 #6 brodiejohn13 A year ago
    Brilliant!Edited December 2015 by brodiejohn13
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  • Avatar for Timotribal #7 Timotribal A year ago
    I got to play on an Asteriods cabinet a few weeks back at Arcade Club in the UK. Still a great game! Im a bit younger than you Jaz but clearly remember Blasteroids being released, would love to play that again too.
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  • Avatar for airbagfin51 #8 airbagfin51 A year ago
    Loved this, thanks for sharing. That the machine would presumably 'melt because it had to draw too many extra lives' is both hilarious and stuff of legend :)Edited December 2015 by airbagfin51
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  • Avatar for scarritt #9 scarritt A year ago
    There's an Asteroids machine at a local barcade here in Columbus, and I wonder if it would fall prey to the same malfunction if someone tried fit a high score. I'm definitely not good enough at the game to attempt it.
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  • Avatar for Hlydvr65 #10 Hlydvr65 5 months ago
    Hi Old Man,
    I went for the record on Asteroids five times over the summer of 1981 at a long lost Arcade in Scottsdale Arizona called PB Wizard. As opposed to Twin Galaxies, which I had never heard of, the arcade owners went through Atari which laid out the record attempt guidelines. My third attempt ended after 16 hours when, just as you described, all aspects of game play slowed down after accumulating over the 55 extra ships that could line up at the top of the screen. At about 70 ships, shooting one large asteroid would cause it to disappear instead of breaking into two medium sized rocks. Shortly thereafter, the machine shut down and came back up flashing game over.

    Having learned my lesson, I would blow up 10 to 15 ships on purpose when reaching 70 extra ships. My fourth attempt ended at 35 hours. Keep in mind that the record was all about length of play on a token, not total score. My understanding was that a youth in Texas hit 50 hours on the same weekend I reached 35 hours. Disappointed, I regrouped and tried again starting on Friday, July 31, 1981.

    A reporter from the Scottsdale progress came out and interviewed me on that Friday.I still have the article and picture that were featured on the front page of the paper (there is a great story about the copy I have). 55 hours and three minutes later, I had scored 26,539,470 points, beating the existing record by less than an hour, it turned out.

    For my efforts, I received a t-shirt, a letter from Atari acknowledging the old and new record (both lost to the sands of time), and an official high score certificate which I also still have to this day. Now that I am aware of the defunct Twin Galaxies, I would stack my high score certificate from Atari against anything they had as proof of the record. I will not go into the sordid details of why Twin Galaxies old record and new record math never added up, but I will say that I give you much respect for your honest efforts.

    I never liked the flying top to bottom or side to side method. Instead, I danced back and forth between the edges of the screen and could kill saucers from a wide assortment of angles. As for the asteroids, I like to say that I could do things with that machine that the machine did not know it could do. Talk is cheap so if ever interested, I would be happy to share the high score certificate and newspaper article with you and your readers. I have accomplished many great things since that weekend in 1981, but my fifteen minutes of fame will always be intertwined with the greatest arcade game ever made, and I don't say that just because I was the greatest player on earth when Asteroids was the most popular game on the planet. Actually, I do.
    Commander Mark BransonEdited August 2016 by Hlydvr65
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