You don't hear much about this game. Pity, because it's better than Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe combined (not that such a combination would amount to a sum much greater than its parts, of course - they're basically Asteroids and Asteroids With Pointy Things and an Annoying Background).
Atari offered this stand-up to gamers in 1982 as a true sequel to the revolutionary game with the hostile rocks, adding bountiful colors to the razor-sharp vector playfield but somehow not impairing the merciless cold of outer space that made the player feel so isolated in the predecessor. It's a beautiful rainbow of a game -- but it's a devious, wicked beauty, like Tempest's.
Thankfully, you have a certain amount of shield power allotted for every new ship. Carried over from Asteroids Deluxe, this manner of survival is wholly superior to the dubious hyperspace device in the first game (technical term: Disappear and Die Anyway). Probably most inviting to players at the time of the game's appearance is the two-ship option. After hitting the start button, you're given the opportunity to play two of your ships simultaneously throughout the game; they're bound together by a thin bridge until one gets shot, at which time you're back to the lone ship for the time being. This variation gives you twice the firepower, but obviously makes deft movement more awkward - especially since only one ship has the ability to thrust. If two players want to contend with the colorful enemy shapes at the same time, they're still bound together by the bridge connecting their ships, which makes for some comical struggles to gain control as they swing around each other, looking as if their crafts are playing tug-of-war on a frozen pond. If one ship gets hit twice - the first shot disabling it, the second destroying it - a "fuse" makes its way toward the unfortunate survivor, sparkling along the connecting bridge from the burning hull of the obliterated partner. There's no way to escape, so sit back and enjoy the fireworks. It's no good yelling, "YAAHHH!!!! GET AWAY FROM ME!!" or taking a deep breath and blowing frantically at the screen. This candle's not goin' out, cowboy.
The big rocks from Asteroids have been replaced with tumbling, abstract sci-fi objects drawn in three dimensions, making them entirely more appealing to blast into dust. Little, pulsing fuzz-balls are substituted for the old UFOs; they hang around longer (sometimes even into a subsequent wave), their flight patterns are much less regular and intentionally elusive, and they often team up with counterparts in order to haul a nearly impenetrable line of fire across the screen like a mobile game of volleyball. Take one of these double-meanies out as they approach, or get out of the way!
An extremely annoying new obstacle is the killer mine. During the first wave, the game lobs just one out at you, but they multiply as the game goes on. It's easy to be caught off-guard by a mine drifting toward you, since you've been concentrating on everything else; several shots are required to destroy one, making evasion the only remedy if one gets too close. Once it's been eliminated, a new one immediately replaces it. The magazine subscription cards of the video world, these ceaseless mines amount to the one complication in Space Duel that I definitely could've lived without. You just can't get properly angry at something so inanimate, and yet they're more responsible for lost lives than anything else in the game.
Bonus stages transpire between waves: Stars and other bright objects enter from the borders and head right for your ship. If you thrust just a few inches out of the way, it's not unreasonably difficult to turn and blast them all back to where they came from (probably the Qix playfield). If you die before they all do, they disappear, the wave ends and you appear at the outset of the next one. All you can do is shout, "You chickens! Come back and try that again!" The stars show up in the normal levels from the first post-bonus round onward, just to give you something else to look out for.
Space Duel is worth the undertaking if you're in the mood to blow the hell out of a bunch of things you can't identify. Once you're attuned to the game's groove and phases, it becomes surprisingly addictive. As far as I'm concerned, it leaves Asteroids in the rock-dust.
This review of Space Duel originally appeared in 2002 on the Atari Times website.