Activision Asteroids

Hardware One

The Review Proper
First of all, an apology.  This review has taken far too long to write.  The main lesson I've learnt is that one should not embark on a total revamp of one's computer system just after getting a game for review!  More about the problems encountered upgrading my PC here.

"Activision heard you, and it revamped the classic Asteroids by sprucing up the graphics tremendously, adding a throbbing, sound track and effects, and adding a storyline to go with the revised graphics."

Now, down to the review.  If you're old enough to know the Bee Gees and Abba (the first time round, before the 70/80s revival), then you already know Asteroids.  It was a simple, compelling, bloody addictive game where you (a) suspend all disbelief about the premise of the game, (b) shove piles of coins into coin-chomping arcade machines so that you can zap more space stones.

If you're really nostalgia stricken, you can always check out one of those arcade game emulators (although, I must say, the use of ROM images may actually be unlawful!).  But if, since Asteroids (Classic) Days, have been fed on a successive diet of Doom, Quake, Tomb Raider, Mechwarrior etc. then the old style graphics ain't gonna cut no mustard with you.

You'll need more.

Activision heard you, and it revamped the classic Asteroids by sprucing up the graphics tremendously, adding a throbbing, sound track and effects, and adding a storyline to go with the revised graphics.

However, gameplay is much the same. If you thought physics in Star Trek was not quite up to scratch, its gone totally Alice in Asteroids. As in Alice in Wonderland. But I guess the same criticism can be levelled at every version of Asteroids. Consider this:--

  • Why do laser-cannon shots and torpedoes etc warp around the screen?
  • For that matter, whatever would make your ship warp around the left edge of the screen to the right??
  • And those crystal asteroids that regrow after being blasted? Haven't they heard of the Law of Conservation of Mass?

Yes! Crystal asteroids that grow back. You better blast them into smithereens (quick!) so that they are so infinitesimally small that they simply cannot grow back (duh, if they can grow, they will grow from any size (however small) won't they? Remember - you have to suspend your disbelief!)

"If you're old enough to know the Bee Gees and Abba (the first time round, before the 70/80s revival), then you already know Asteroids.  It was a simple, compelling, bloody addictive game..."

Apart from the dastardly crystalroids, other innovations include the choice of ships (four, with different shield/maneuverability characteristics).

Installation was a no brainer. There's a nice intro video, but its quite meaningless. Skippable and not all that earth-shattering (although it does have some audio oomph).

Gameplay is straightforward. Rotate / Activate Shield / Activate Weapon #1 and #2. Propulsion. That's about it. There are the usual power-ups which are de rigeur for this sort of game, and a semblance of a story line to explain why you are being sent to blast asteroids (isn't there an Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Large-Dumb-Space-Rocks?). The story is really superfluous. There's only one thing to the game. Blast'em.

The graphics are attractive, but can grate a little -- its easy to tire of the backgrounds, and the number of scenarios ain't that many in the first place. The sound is pretty darn good though. Turning up the speakers, my wife complained (from the next room) that it seemed as if the neighbours were pounding on the wall. (So the subwoofer on the Creative/Cambridge Soundworks FourPointSurrounds ain't all that bad after all!)

Like other reviewers, I had originally heard about Activision's product when it was announced as Asteroids 3D. I had visions of a first-person game, where a rear-view mirror (?) would allow the player to know when an asteroid was trying to sneak up from behind him. Alas, the 3D was a misnomer, and Activision had the good sense to drop it for the final product.

Nonetheless the game is pretty engaging, and rather addictive. It's not the most intelligent of games (strategy? what strategy? just shoot lah!) and there's no enemy AI to talk about. But something about it just works. And I've spent many hours just rescuing the world from asteroid after asteroid.

(a) If you have any anchor to the glorious seventies and early eighties, and you have money to spare, you should go grab a copy of Asteroids, if not for anything, for the good old times.

(b) If computer games must make you think till you get a headache before you "enjoy" them, then this game ain't for you.

If you're somewhere between (a) and (b) then you may want to consider some of the shareware and freeware adaptations of Asteroids out there. One in particular, Close Approach, sounded really intriguing on their web site. However, my Norton Anti Virus detected viruses in the executables, and I though that was reason enough to not try that shareware! Another attempt to get Close Approach, from did not meet with the same virus warning, and I may try it and supplement this review real soon (may be the virus heuristics at work, misrecognizing the executables as viruses). Others to try include Swarm, Bugs 98 (which I happily paid US$9.95 for at

Numerically, on scales of One to Ten, I would give Asteroids:--

Installation 9/10
Gameplay 7/10
Graphics 7.5/10
Sound 7.5/10
Replayability 8/10


Test Platform
Asteroids was tested on a Dell XPS D266 with 64MB SDRAM, a Creative SB Live! soundcard, and STB Velocity 128 + Canopus Pure 3D. After my upgrade woes settled down, it was also tested on an Abit BH6 with a Celeron 300A overclocked to 466MHz, and pumping out video on an Asus V3400 TNT/TV with the same SB Live! soundcard, and 64MB of RAM.

Minimum Machine Specifications:--

  • Windows 9x
  • Pentium 90MHz (suggested 133MHz)
  • 16MB RAM (suggested 32 MB RAM)
  • 70MB uncompressed hard-disk space
  • Quad-Speed CD-ROM
  • Sound card, Mouse (all Windows compatible)
  • Videocard with at least 2MB of RAM
  • 3D accelerator -- optional on request.

Game controllers which I used included the Creative Cobra USB, the MS Sidewinder Pro 3D, and the good old keyboard. I think the keyboard might actually suffice for this game. The Joystick does not work well. The Cobra Gamepad was OK. ($20 on offer at one of the Videopro branches in Sim Lim Square!).


[ All Screenshots from the Activision Website ]

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Upgrade Woes
OK, this should not, strictly speaking, be part of the Asteroids review, but it happened, and it happened when I started working on this review. I started with a Dell XPS Dimension 266 MHz Pentium-II. It worked fine, but the itch to build a machine from scratch bit me real hard about 12 months after getting the Dell. So... when I first received Asteroids for review, I installed and tested it on the Dell, with a STB Velocity 128 + Canopus Pure3D Voodoo Accelerator. It worked great, and I had a few whirls with Asteroids. Then it happened.

I went out and bought an Abit BH6 + Celeron 300A, with the intention of replacing just the motherboard on the Dell, recycling the Dell's motherboard elsewhere. To cut a long story short, I have now found out (the hard way) that (a) a Dell ATX form-factor motherboard will not fit into any other ATX casing; (b) a Dell casing will not take any other ATX motherboard. The reasons are that (a) a Dell mobo requires a special power connector in addition to the normal ATX connectors. No such connector, mobo does not go; (b) the Dell casing has a special connector for the power switch, reset button, power and hard-disk LED. The special connector does not exist on other ATX motherboards. No one in the known universe knows how to translate the normal connectors on generic motherboards into Dell casing specific connectors.

So... I ended up having to get a new casing... and after some mess-up there too, had to bring back one casing to Sim Lim Square to exchange for another. I ended up with a Asus/Elan Vital M5 casing, although a friend had suggested the T10 very strongly. This is because the T10 was not in stock anywhere. Being an Elan Vital design casing as well, the M5 had much of the same nifty features as the T5/T10 series. So everything looked set to rock and roll.

I booted up the BH6/300A, SoftMenu II switched it to 4.5x100MHz and was pleasantly surprised that it POST-ed and booted Windows. Everything seemed fine. Then... blue-screen. Registry and then Windows corruption. Ouch. And it happened when I decided to try to run... Norton Speed Disk. Double ouch. The solution? The CPU needed more juice. Upped the voltage to 2.1 v (actual voltage delivered, according to the motherboard's detectors, was 2.13 v or so). Of course, had to reinstall Windows 98 entirely, because the corruption of Windows files was so wide-spread that it hit too many files to recover intelligently. (Lesson: Until you're sure the system is stable, do not run intensive disk-write software like speed-disk which has a zillion opportunities to muck up hard-disk data!)

But then, the SB Live! decided to act up. Whenever a sound was supposed to be played, I got a series of nasty beeps and squerks (hey, there's no other way to describe them). I tried reinstalling the drivers, removing and reseating the SB Live!, and did everything but sacrifice a virgin vixen under a full moon. Creative helpdesk was clueless ("er... you know the FourPointSurround speakers go into power save mode and if there is a subsequent sound, it may pop a little..."). I found the solution to this problem somewhere in the Abit documentation. The first PCI slot (from the left) does not allocate IRQs properly and the SB Live! cannot therefore be installed in that slot. Moving the SB Live! to the second PCI slot solved the sound problem.

Having done all that, and reinstalling all the various applications that resided on that machine, I started preparing to install Asteroids, and my other 3D games. And started to notice a bizzare problem. It took darn long to load any D3D game... Bizzare beyond belief. I could disappear for 5 minutes, and come back in time for the loading to complete. Never experienced before against my STB+Pure3D. A couple of posts on Usenet and on Canopus help forums did not help.

So... I decided it was time to do a video upgrade too... and got myself a Asustek 3400 TNT/TV. I figured I could save myself at least two PCI slots since I would be able to retire the Pure3D, and a video capture card. There were installation boo-hoos as well, which led to another round of reinstallation of Windows 98 and applications. (This time though, I've made a CD-ROM with the base installation stored).

Further problems were found when I started to run 3D games. They just wouldn't go at all. Immediate hang when the game starts. I suspected the SB Live and spent a couple of days trying to sort things out from that angle. Then, after reading about the SDRAM slot position quirk with TNT boards and the BH6, I tried that. To no avail. Eventually, I discovered that 2.2v was the magic number for the CPU voltage.

But there were more hardware woes. My Dell-266 which was redeployed as my 2nd machine, refused to accept any of the 64MB SDRAMS I could get my hands on. This included a period of leaving the Celeron RAM-less whilst I tried deploying the SDRAM in the Dell. The Dell problem was eventually solved with the latest BIOS upgrade (A09) which enabled the Dell's LX motherboard to accept and recognize SDRAM which used SPD to announce its memory specs (as opposed to the older PPD). Surprisingly and uncharacteristically, Dell help desk and web-support was clueless about this situation, even though several other Dell owners were experiencing identical problems.

All in all, and in a nutshell... INFURIATING!

After more than 2 weeks of troubleshooting, I eventually had back a system that ran Asteroids properly.

Hence, the eventual appearance of this review. But its a lot briefer than it would otherwise be... if I didn't have to spend so much darn time solving the hardware woes. The hardware lessons I've learned are:--

(a) Dell machines aren't generic - their mobos don't work in other casings; their casings don't take other mobos.

(b) Voltage is incredibly important for BH6/300A o'clocking efforts. Without enough juice, even if things appear to work, they may not.

(c) Not all PCI slots are equal. The first PCI slot (counting from the left) in an Abit BH6 ain't much good if the card to be used requires an IRQ. Its OK for cards not requiring an IRQ, like Voodoos or Voodoo 2s.

(d) Dell machines may require BIOS flash-upgrades before they recognise current SDRAM modules.