Despite our penchant for 3D games, team Muse has fond memories of classic gaming, and most importantly, well balanced gameplay. On that note, I’m kicking off the Games We Loved section with an arcade style masterpiece that lived in relative obscurity, yet still managed its way into the youth and subconscious memory of a few of us at Muse – Asterax.
As you might have surmised, Asterax is an adaptation of the Atari classic, Asteroids. At first glance, it seems evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The basic gameplay consists of blasting large chunks of rock into smaller chunks of rock – and eventually space dust. Once you’ve destroyed the rock, the level ends. There are no victory conditions, rather, your goal is simply to stay alive as long as possible – and collect as many points as you can. Your life is shortened by three types of alien spacecraft, and any collisions with the pesky bits of space rock. Simple enough.
What made this game addictive was customizable gameplay – and a game (by that I’m referring to choices and a risk-payoff structure). You get a taste of this as soon as you start the game. You are given a choice of three ships – the humble defensive crab, the average moth, or the suicidally quick mantis.
Early game combat was very well balanced. When you destroyed asteroids with your blaster, there was a random chance to either release health power-ups, or green money gems. Unfortunately, both of the power-ups could also be destroyed by your blaster – making shooting a risky endeavor. Catching the power-ups required flying through the asteroids. And with minimal friction in space, once your ship was in motion, it tended to stay in motion.
Once you’d collected enough cash, you can start buying some upgrades: faster engines, extra lives, a blaster that doesn’t destroy the power-ups (safe shots), auto-stop engines, a robot that collects the money for you, seeker weapons to kill aliens, better shields, and even insurance for all the upgrades you just purchased. The price structure was very well balanced, making each purchase an agonizing decision between which function you simply could no longer live without – but also accommodating a variety of players, and their own individual weaknesses.
Each level increased in difficulty via the number of asteroids and aliens. The key to surviving the middle of the game was upgrading in an intelligent manner, as well as understanding your own weaknesses and compensating for them. Unfortunately, the late game suffered from there only being a single viable upgrade pattern, which effectively resulted in the player being invincible – reaching that point meant you had effectively beaten the game.
The replay value on this game was unusually high – mostly due to the early game balance efforts. Successfully beating the game on the hardest difficulty setting meant making some very difficult decisions early on – for example forgoing better weapons for shields, or alien killing missiles – or worst of all, not buying the ‘safe shots’ for a few extra turns.
Multiplayer on the same computer was possible, made interesting by the ability to send each other money between turns – or not – leaving it up to the users whether the game would be co-op or a resource starved competitive deathmatch. It was these subtle decisions that made Asterax not only the best Asteroids clone, but a great game.