I remember playing Asteroids on an Atari 2600, my family’s first gaming system. (Well, if you don’t count the Colecovision.) I remember both of my parents played Asteroids, but my dad especially. You were a triangular ship, or at least as close to a triangle as the Atari was capable of reproducing on the screen, and all you got was a joystick and one button. Forward to thrust, left and right to rotate, button to fire, and down to activate your special ability (hyperspace, shield, or flip).
What I particularly remember was learning my dad’s strategy: stay put in the center of the screen, shooting down the asteroids from there, and — if at all possible — avoid moving from that spot. Once you turned on your thrusters, you’d be drifting off toward the edges of the screen, where new asteroids spawned, and it was pretty unlikely that you’d ever be able to stop completely until you died. It became my habit, too. Ever since then, that’s been my own modus operandi in most Asteroids-like games (and probably also explains my tendency to camp out with a sniper rifle in first-person shooters rather than charging into the fray with a melee weapon).
Atari has updated their classic space shoot-’em-up for iOS devices: Asteroids Gunner puts you back in the pilot’s seat in a top-down, screen-wrapping arcade game. The premise is still pretty much the same: shoot rocks (and the occasional alien), don’t die. Of course, there’s a lot of other bells and whistles, too: you collect gold-colored crystal shards that are released when you destroy rocks, and you can also get power-ups that give you temporary weapon boosts, shields, and the like.
My stay-put-and-shoot strategy doesn’t work so well anymore, since that doesn’t really let me collect any of the things I need to pick up, so I’ve had to abandon that. Also, the controls are different now: it’s a dual-thumbstick setup, with your left thumb controlling the direction of the ship and your right thumb aiming the gun. In addition, you can have up to two bonus slots above your right thumb that can store weapons, shields, or other bonuses.
The game works on the freemium model: the basic app is free to download, and comes with your basic Scout ship and 50 levels in the Alpha zone. As you play and collect crystals, you can spend them to upgrade weapon slots, power up your ship, and buy repairs. However, there are some things that require Space Bucks, which must be purchased in-app. For instance the two beefier ships, the Bomber and the Miner, can only be purchased with Space Bucks. Unlocking the Beta and Gamma zones also requires bucks, and there are very useful Omega Technologies which are much easier to buy with Space Bucks than with crystals.
You can purchase Space Bucks with crystals, but it’s not a great exchange rate, and you’ll be grinding away a long time if you want to go the entirely free route. Still, even the free-to-play part of the game is fun and will provide a good amount of gaming, particularly if you go after all the achievements. Oh, and it’ll cost you $.99 to turn off the ads, which appear from time to time at the bottom of the screen.
I got a sneak peek at the game before its release, but there were still some bugs that made it crash on my iPad. Since then they’ve updated it and it seems to be working fine now. It’s pretty incredible to look at the difference in graphics between the original game and this one. The controls are fluid, though sometimes it can be a little disorienting when you’re flying — the background moves slightly, but since it’s so far away, it moves much more slowly than the asteroids up close. It can be difficult to tell how fast you’re flying if the screen is mostly free of asteroids, until you suddenly crash into one.
The game definitely is set up so that you’ll want to spend some more money – at least to unlock additional levels, and perhaps a ship. The Bomber ship is probably my favorite, with its better gun and decent speed. The Miner is a massive hulk of a ship, very slow and with a short ranged weapon, but lots of shielding, and it’s not quite as fun to play. The later levels include different types of asteroids to shoot at, too: a fiery rock that flings a few fireballs out when it explodes, and an ice rock that breaks up into a ring of tiny crystals.
Overall, Asteroids Gunner probably won’t blow you away with either its graphics or its gameplay, but it’s a solid space shooter and the nostalgia factor is pretty high. Sure, there are probably other Asteroids clones out there, but this is Atari we’re talking about. After you’re done playing the original version on your Atari Arcade, grab this one and take it for a spin. The universal app works on iPhones or iPads.
Wired: The top-down, rock-smashing classic gameplay with modern controls and graphics. Free!
Tired: Expect to pay for the extras, or spend a lot of time grinding for crystals.