By Gary Greenberg
Those Amazing Asteroid
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.
I ran into BMW the other day.
No, it wasn’t a car accident,
but rather an old friend who goes by those initials.
dude?” I asked.
“I turned over the Asteroids
today,” he replied with a smile broad as the Milky Way.
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
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
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
Banzai Pipeline (not to mention airplane food), BMW told me more about
“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
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
thought of while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after one
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
BMW’s surfboard shaping shop, we found SIN’s board
saw-horses. Still a work in progress, it was adorned with an airbrushed
rendition of an Asteroids machine control panel complete with
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
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
“Some people classify
Asteroids as a
sport,” said BMW. “But it’s really an
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
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
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
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!
Next: A Man for
Space Art Gallery