M-Network, a Mattel company, released a lot of 2600 games which were often considered to be dumbed-down versions of Intellivision cartridges. Astroblast is simply Astrosmash ported from the Intellivision to the 2600, but an odd thing happened in the conversion process -- Astroblast is a lot more fun than it's counterpart on the Mattel console. I played Astrosmash on an Intellivision years ago, and two things struck me instantly. First of all, the graphics are (of course) better than what the 2600 could produce. Second, the control was awful. That blasted little disc controller on the Intellivision was always bad, and it was particularly dreadful on Astrosmash because quick, responsive control is critical in the game.
Fortunately, control just isn't an issue on Astroblast. One can choose to use either a joystick or paddles, but the game really shines when paddles are used as they provide amazingly smooth and accurate control. Astroblast starts out fast and the pace picks up in a hurry, so you'll be glad you have those accurate paddle controllers once your score cranks up past the 5,000 mark or so and the game becomes quite difficult.
Astroblast was obviously derived from Asteroids, but there are a couple of elements which really distinguish the title. First of all, the player isn't trapped in the middle of an asteroid field - he controls a "laser base" which looks like a squashed bug, and it's trapped on the horizontal plane at the bottom of the screen. Asteroids streak toward the player, and he either has to blast them or get the heck out of the way. Asteroids come in two sizes - small and large. Large asteroids split into two smaller ones when hit, and the new pair of rocks will move quickly and at an angle and really pose a danger to the ship. The player can choose to simply avoid asteroids and not shoot them, but points are subtracted for every rock not destroyed.
To make matters worse, "spinners" will appear from time to time, and the player will lose a base if he fails to blast the spinner. Also, "pulsars" -- guided missiles - will appear and streak toward the player's base. Those things are wicked fast, and really become bothersome in later levels of the game. In much later levels, UFO's will appear and harass the player with bombs.
Out of all the 2600 games in my collection, Astroblast is one of the most challenging. How challenging? You start the game with 10 bases, but will undoubtedly wish you had more because you burn through them in a hurry. New bases are awarded in increments of 1,000 points, but it's a real chore to accumulate that many points as the score continuously drops as rocks streak by and it's hard to get into a rhythm because bases get destroyed frequently. Fortunately, the game is very addictive, so you'll probably find yourself cursing it quite often and starting up new games even more often. This thing is pure arcade bliss and the action is intense enough that it's hard to get bored with this title.
If you want to get an idea of how difficult this game is, just check out what the difficulty switches do. The right one sets the game level, but you'll want to start at the easiest setting unless you've completely lost your mind and you think getting wiped out in seconds at the higher difficulty level will be fun. One of the selects auto fire, which will save you from holding the paddle (or joystick) button down throughout the entire game. You really should choose the auto fire function as there's never any reason you'll want to stop firing. Luckily, the laser bases pack a lot of firepower, and it's a simple matter to spray shots all over the screen.
The graphics in this four-kilobyte cartridge aren't exactly groundbreaking, but they are more than adequate. Everything is well-drawn, and background colors change as the difficulty increases. That's a nice touch as you'll want to know when the difficulty increases because each level brings new challenges in the form of faster asteroids, more spinners and the addition of those pesky UFOs. There's a bit of screen flicker here, but it's not even noticeable after awhile. All in all, the items on the screen are large and instantly-recognizable. Even when the action gets frantic, it's still easy to tell the difference between asteroids, spinners and other things the game throws at you. Overall, the title looks very clean as far as graphics are concerned.
The sound isn't outstanding, either, but it works well. You hear mostly the sounds of your laser base firing and objects getting blown to bits, but there are some very useful audio cues, too. For example, it's very important to know when a spinner is on the screen, but you might miss it if you're blasting asteroids and trying to avoid getting hit. A high-pitched audio tone lets you know when a spinner appears - very convenient.
Like I said, this isn't a considered to be a classic 2600 title, and that's too bad. This 1982 release is just the type of thing you want to pull out and play on the Atari - it's a fast-paced, challenging arcade shooter which can suck an hour or two out of your life before you know it. And, it's fairly common, so picking up a copy of this from eBay or some other source shouldn't be a problem.