A game ain't nothing these days without secrets. Only it's gotten to the point of In-N-Out Burger, where the "secret" menu is so well known it's listed on chain's website ("in reality, we don’t have any secrets at all," the site notes).
But it turns out the first arcade game packed with secrets – a game common enough to question if it merited a MAME review – may still be clad in a few remaining tatters of clothing in today's reveal-all world. While that brought an instinctive twinge of frustration when I was playing it just for fun and struck out Googling for help, the feeling quickly gave way to a warped pleasure that gamers might still be stuck figuring some things out on their own.
If hearing (yes, hearing) phrases like "fighter pilots needed in sector wars" and "fuel status marginal" revive memories, you may know I'm referring to Astro Blaster, Sega's 1981 "me-too" vertical shooter during the great Space Invaders/Galaxians clone explosion. But it was better than most due to the large variety of aliens and their attack wave patterns (which helped inspire the Activision hit Megamania), plus extra touches like navigating meteor showers and docking with a mother ship to refuel.
Ah, fuel. There's the memory that's probably most unpleasant for those familiar with the game.
Astro Blaster's main criticism then and now is it's far too difficult, even though Sega released two updated ROMs that made the game easier each time. Yeah, the aliens can be numerous and devious, but modern gamers used to vertical shooters where hundreds of enemies and bullets (along with power-ups and hapless things to rescue) can probably deal with that. But the fuel thing is the ultimate killer in all senses.
You're piloting a ship (actually three of them, most likely) with left-right buttons, a fire button and a warp button. The game is divided into sectors consisting of several waves. You begin a sector with a full tank of fuel, but it burns up dismayingly fast. If you run out it's not just the end of your ship – it's game over, man. And, no, crashing your ship deliberately doesn't give you a replacement with a full tank.
Each of Astro Blaster's seven rounds (plus a "secret" one those skilled in hacking MAME ROMs can access) features several waves of aliens, followed by a meteor shower and then docking. You'll almost certainly be critically low on fuel if you reach the meteor shower, but you get a tiny bit extra for each one you shoot. Docking refuels your ship, but if you crash the game ends immediately.
In other words, this is an arcade operator's dream machine – if (s)he can entice customers to play it – since it eats quarters at practically a slot machine pace. Interestingly, however, Sega's promotional fliers avoid the "maximize your revenue" jargon that was quickly becoming one of the main sales pitches back then. Instead, the main brochure depicts one of the least-likely settings for an arcade game: a wild party where decidedly un-gaming revelers are mingling boozily around someone playing the machine (a subsequent flier shows a couple old cleaning ladies having a blast, presumably after one of those wild parties is over).
Anyhow, getting through rounds means you need to be quick and precise with shots, except – in another of the game's headaches – not too quick. Ships in most games back then could only fire one shot at a time, but the designers the craft in Astro Blaster made the laser capable of firing any number of shots at once. Unfortunately, like a version 1.0 software release, the leap forward in virtual weaponry is a bit glitchy. The laser is prone to overheating rather quickly, especially if you rapid-fire more than a few shots, and you'll have to wait for it to cool down if you pass the limit. Practically speaking, you can get by with a slight delay between single shots and fire off a rapid burst in an emergency or to finish a wave.
The player gets one other asset although, like the rapid fire, it can be dangerous in the hands of the novice. Hitting the warp button will slow enemies and their shots to a crawl for ten seconds (which the voice helpfully counts down). You're still moving and firing at regular speed, which also means you're burning fuel at the regular rate. This can be a game-saver or game-ender depending on the circumstances, the most important of which is if all of the enemies in a particular wave are on-screen. If so, you can pick them all off and speed your progression through that round of waves. If not, you'll be stuck with few targets and an agonizing (and possibly fatal) wait for more to appear.
The number of waves in a round and types of enemies you'll face depends on the ROM version. Revision 1 is the hardest, with the first round consisting of five waves of aliens before reaching the meteors. Revision 2 features four waves and Revision 3 three waves. The trade off is Revisions 2 and especially 3 add more waves of enemies in later rounds (Revisions 1 and 2 feature eight waves of aliens in round four, while Revision 3 has nine, for instance). The types of enemies also vary notably by revision, although breaking that down by behavior/difficulty is beyond the scope of even my excessive verbiage.
To give you an idea of the game's difficulty, a key tip is if you enter the meteor stage with almost no fuel, the best strategy is probably to crash your ship and hit warp as soon as the next appears since the fireballs move too fast for most people to hit many of them. When committing suicide is one of the best ways to extend gameplay, it's a good sign you're not getting maximum value for your quarter.
Yet, somehow I had a fondness for Astro Blaster and so did/do a lot of others (it's a lot easier now since a long string of "one more game" vows doesn't cost anything). The only two reasons I can offer are: 1) the variety of enemies makes it a more interesting vertical shooter than most and 2) the enticement of discovering/achieving all those secrets mentioned at the beginning of this column.
There are 25 secret achievements, if what's suggested on the screen is to be believed, all awarding varying levels of points. Some examples are: 600 points for not letting your laser temperature get critical during a round ("Secret Bonus Number 22"), 1,000 points for shooting all enemies during a wave without missing ("Number 03"), and 500-1,500 points for not moving during docking (Number "04"; you get 1,000 points for being perfectly centered and 1,500 for a "paint scraper" docking if you brush the docking clamp - hugely risky since colliding with it ends the game).
Now here's the caveat: Only 15 of those bonuses are known and an examination of the game's source code by a guy who knows his stuff indicates there aren't any more (his findings are at http://donhodges.com/Astro_Blaster_Secret_Bonus_01.htm). His theory is the programmers meant to include more bonuses, but never got around to it.
Similarly, he discovered the code contains an extra round beyond the seven that are playable in the arcade version. Playing it requires entering a MAME hack (":astrob:00000000:C97C:00000008:FFFFFFFF:Play Sector 8"), with the details also available at his site.
Somewhat surprisingly, Astro Blaster was never ported to home machines back then despite its influence on a number of subsequent shooters. The only home version now is as an unlockable bonus on the Sega Genesis Collection for PSP disc (no, there was never a Genesis port; it's an emulation of the arcade version). Perhaps more useful and enjoyable for gamers intrigued by Astro Blaster's concept but put off by the difficulty is a hacked MAME ROM that slows down fuel consumption and laser heating considerably.