Greatest Games: River Raid

Greatest Games is a new feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again.

The original River Raid game box art also reflected the game's visuals nicely..

The original River Raid game box art also reflected the game’s visuals nicely..

Released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, Carol Shaw’s River Raid provided gamers with a vertical shooter that seemed to provide an unlimited challenge we all attempted to make our way down the endless “River of No Return”.

The game plays like this; you’re tasked with flying your plane up the river as far as you can whilst avoiding obstacles including ships, helicopters and the river banks which are all deadly. In addition to that, your fuel tank in running down and you need to ensure that it is kept topped up otherwise you will crash when it is empty.

The river itself is broken down into segments divided by bridges blocking the way through that need to be destroyed; these are effectively marking out “levels” within the game. This provides a useful hint to keep in mind in that if you destroy the bridge before dying, you will continue from that point and not the last.

Of the versions I’ve played (2600, Atari 8bit, Commodore 64) I’d say that the Atari 8bit version, which Shaw developed later, is the best of the bunch thanks to its cleaner graphics and better movement speed. Maybe also because it’s the version I’ve played the majority of my time on, it just feels “the most right” to me. The home computer versions also benefited from additional tweaks to the river design and new enemies to add further challenge.

Why do I think it is so great? I have a few reasons from the top of my head but feel free to discuss your own thoughts in the comments section at the end.

#1 Mechanics are right on the mark

River Raid on the Atari 2600 proves that a deeply playable game can succeed on any platform.

River Raid on the Atari 2600 proves that a deeply playable game can succeed on any platform.

A game that requires you to dodge and weave through obstacles requires it to not only give players the tools to do the job but also environments that challenge their use. The controls in River Raid (left/right to bank, up/down for speed, and fire) provide feedback to the player that makes sense such as the gradual acceleration and deceleration of scrolling movement. Those able to better anticipate their plane’s movements will be more successful.

The difficulty ramps up at a good pace too as the river becomes more complex. There’ll be tighter sections to fly through and areas you’ll need to swing through quickly to successfully knock out the next bridge. Enemies in the home computer versions also add further challenge as gunships and tanks attempt to shoot you; though having enemies firing back is different to the 2600 version, it helps to keep players on their toes.

#2 It’s skill that will define success

After seeing a couple of awesome players at PAX Australia run through the game, even seeing a 100K+ score which I never imagined was possible, it was plain to all there that to go well requires both skill and patience. And even for those most skilled players there are still enough curveballs in the game to keep them honest.

As for my own skill level… it looks like that still needs some work. Getting past bridge 20 was always how I judged what was a “good game”.

#3 Just enough random factors to keep you guessing

Though the levels and enemy placement are constant thanks to a clever procedural generator, behaviour of enemies is not always consistent. Sometimes they will move and sometimes not meaning you have to anticipate both options. That little tweak means the game isn’t always going to play out the same way for everyone and memorization is only going to get you so far.

#4 It was my first “family video game”

The Atari 8bit version of River Raid brings me a lot of happy memories.

The Atari 8bit version of River Raid brings me a lot of happy memories.

When my parents first started down the track of having a computer in the house (Atari 800XL) we started off with games like Pac-Man and Qix initially but we tended to let each other play alone and have their time. With River Raid, everyone would hang around waiting for a turn and see if they could get one bridge further.

It’s also one of my Dad’s favourite games – even after thirty years I think I could still convince him to have a go. And considering the last time he touched a console it was playing Rallisport Challenge on Xbox that’s an achievement.

We may be a lot rustier since the early days of playing River Raid but like all the good addictive games that’s not going to stop us coming back to it again.

#5 I’m not the only one that thinks it’s great

IGN even considered the game one of the greats – at the time of this 2008 article the writer had River Raid second only to Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun. Seems like pretty good company to keep, especially considering that list also included Space Invaders and R-Type.

Even now, more than thirty years since its release, you can show a screenshot or video of the game and almost everyone who was a gamer of the era would recognise it. Its graphics may be outdated now but the core of the game is still as challenging as ever which makes it an easy “go to” game for any retro gamer trying to introduce new players to platforms of the era.

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