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Cosmic Debris
By Gary Greenberg

Those Amazing Asteroid Addicts

Before there were PlayStations and Game Boys, there was Asteroids, the intergalactic video game craze that swept the nation in the late 1970s. In a look back at the forefather of Sim City, Halo, World of Warcraft and the rest, here’s a classic column from my sports reporting days in sunny southern California.
Circa 1979

    I ran into BMW the other day.

    No, it wasn’t a car accident, but rather an old friend who goes by those initials.

    “What’s up, dude?” I asked.

    “I turned over the Asteroids machine twice today,” he replied with a smile broad as the Milky Way.

    “That’s great,” I said, trying to look impressed. “What else is going on?”

    After relating his day’s exploits pulverizing space boulders and alien ships in the Asteroids universe, BMW admitted that he’d been doing some other things as well, like he recently made a surfboard for NBA all-star Bill Walton, and his wife was going to have their first baby.

    Since BMW is a pretty renowned surfer, surfboard shaper and world traveler, I was perplexed by his utter enthrallment with a stupid video game. So I asked to join him the next time he hit the intergalactic void.

    BMW stopped by my place the following day, said he was heading off to play some Asteroids at the Encinitas 7-Eleven. His twin brother CLE was with him, having just arrived from a surfing expedition in Hawaii. While CLE called his wife to tell her he’d once again survived the Banzai Pipeline (not to mention airplane food), BMW told me more about Asteroids.

    “I go to about six or seven different machines a day,” he explained. “Each one is a little different. The problem is that sometimes you have to wait a while if the guy playing is any good. The biggest compliment someone can pay me is to pick up their quarter [reserving the next game] because I’m taking too long.”

    BMW’s primary goal is to get his initials on the Top 10 list of every machine he plays. Those aren’t his real initials, but just something he thought of while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after one of his first stellar efforts.

    “Most beginners use their real initials,” he said. “But your destined name comes to you spiritually, like a mantra. Everyone has a special one that was meant to be theirs.”


    As it turned out, brother CLE had something more urgent than Asteroids to attend to, namely a busted water pipe in his house. So we dropped him off at home and cruised over to the local 7-Eleven where BMW slipped his quarter into the Asteroids machine and quickly began racking up points. With each 10,000, he won an extra spaceship, the feat marked by some ethereal computer-generated chimes that must be music to any player’s ear.

    As the game went on, the difficulty level seemed to rise. BMW couldn’t keep up and eventually lost ship after ship until the last one was finally blown to bits. At that point, he cast the 7-Eleven clerk a glare and told me the guy had turned up the speed of the machine because he was making it “sing” too much.

    Still, BMW managed to notch 80,000 and some-odd points to double the machine’s previous high score. He then proudly entered his “initials” for display.

    With BMW now topping the list on the Encinitas 7-Eleven Asteroids machine, we headed over to XTC’s place to rouse him from a classic hangover. BMW brought his buddy a pint of medicinal OJ and awakened him by jingling some quarters by his ear, whispering that they were destined for the Asteroids machine at the Belly-Up Tavern in Solana Beach.

    XTC moved slowly but determinedly. He sat up in bed and scanned the cluttered landscape of his one-room apartment through squinty, bloodshot eyes. Newspapers and magazines carpeted the musty carpet, hundreds of hardcover books were stacked from floor to ceiling, and a veritable army of empty returnable Pepsi bottles filled the kitchenette counter as well as tables, windowsills and virtually every other flat surface area that wasn’t already occupied by reading material.

    XTC, I soon learned, is an aspiring – perhaps expiring – playwright who’s been surfing in as many exotic locales as the guys from The Endless Summer. He talked about riding a 15-foot wave on a six-foot board in Fiji. I asked how playing Asteroids compared to that.

    “It’s the same thing,” he replied. “Asteroids is just as exciting.”

    XTC downed the orange juice and promised to meet us at the Belly-Up in an hour. In the meantime, we went looking for SIN, one of the most colorful and fanatical players in town. We couldn’t find him, but at BMW’s surfboard shaping shop, we found SIN’s board stretched between saw-horses. Still a work in progress, it was adorned with an airbrushed rendition of an Asteroids machine control panel complete with SIN’s own hands at the controls.

        BMW and CLE’s mother, MOM, happened to stop by the shop. She told me that she had also become a devout Asteroids player. Her favorite part, she revealed, is the noise the machine makes when she blows up the space rocks and alien ships. MOM asked if I could use my journalistic influence to get the powers that be to put a machine in Von’s supermarket, so she could play a game or two before shopping for dinner.

    After I promised to do what I could, we left MOM and headed over to the Belly-Up Tavern, where I’d get to see the action I’d been waiting for. SIN and XTC were already there, and CLE soon joined the force of space cadets. And as they took turns showing me their stuff, I began to understand that style is everything to these guys, counting even more than points.

    XTC is a master at “kissing” rocks and ships, waiting until the last second to blast ‘em to smithereens. It’s dangerous maneuvering in the midst of an asteroid belt, but XTC pulls it off with deadly efficiency.

    BMW, CLE and SIN demonstrated various other techniques including lurking, floaters, sideways Sams (named after the teen champ of the Leucadia 7-Eleven), Michael Jacksons and death defying double hyperspaces.

    “Some people classify Asteroids as a sport,” said BMW. “But it’s really an art.”

    Since the machine turns over at 100,000 points, the best score you can get is 99,990. Not only do you have to be good enough to compile all those points, but you also have to have the impeccable timing to get your last ship blown up at precisely the right moment.

    If you should succeed in achieving the perfect score, your initials are guaranteed to remain at No. 1 on the Top 10 list for posterity, or at least until someone unplugs the machine, which erases the Top 10 memory bank.

    And so I left the galactic warriors huddled around the Belly-Up’s Asteroids machine, impressed with their abilities but still amazed that a cheesy video game could so enrapture guys who’d ridden the big waves all over the world.

    There’s only one answer to this enigma, I figure, and that is there must really be space invaders out there. But for some reason, they don’t want to attack us outright. So they devised this electronic device to send subliminal signals deep into our unconscious. Then, when the time is ripe, and everyone is glued to their own Asteroids machine, they’ll give one command and we’ll all suddenly think that our fellow humans are little alien spaceships and blow each other up.

    So Earthlings, heed this warning and BEWARE of electronic stimuli!

If you want to try the classic Asteroids game, catch a ride on the alien spaceship below. Just be sure to watch out for space rocks!

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