Atari has been associated with many popular video games over the decades however there is one that is spoken little of today whose influence in multiple genres shouldn’t be forgotten as it may be one of the most important games they ever produced.
Star Raiders is a real-time 3D space combat simulator developed by Doug Neubauer for the Atari 8bit systems in 1979. Though it was not the first game of its type to use a first person perspective cockpit view, its incredible speed and depth belied the fact it was all crammed into an 8K cartridge.
Inspired by the film Star Wars and the text based Star Trek games of the time, the game tasked you with travelling through the galaxy in pursuit of the invading Zylons. This required the player to hyperspace into sectors on the game’s galactic map and engage the Zylon fighters directly. The enemy arrangement on the map was randomized each time you started which went a long way to keeping the game fresh.
The real-time aspect of the game means you are forced to be constantly in pursuit of the Zylons; often you can hyperspace into a sector only to find the squadron you were chasing there has already moved on. This meant that any delay (such as ship repairs) could hamper your progress significantly. Even viewing the galactic map gave you no respite; if you were trying to escape a battle you needed to be quick because the Zylon fighters were still shooting at you.
The game’s focus is of course the combat and it still stands out brilliantly considering the technology it is running on is a now ancient 1.79 Mhz 6502 processor. The sense of movement is convincing and enemies move with speed and conviction. Even now it is still fast and relentless with battles often being decided within seconds as ships and shots streak past you. The moment that last ship in a squadron is destroyed you actually appreciate the moment of graphical slowdown that comes after the ship explodes, raining debris in front of you.
Thankfully your ship is a pretty tough little package with shields and both forward and aft weapons. Those shields can only protect you for so long though; once they were depleted, you were vulnerable… one hit and you’re dead kind of vulnerable.
Energy was also a rare commodity and you would often be forced to manage systems like your shields and computer to conserve as much as possible between engagements because it would be game over when it hits zero. Thankfully there are also friendly space stations that you can visit for repairs and refuelling though they will impact your final ranking.
Yes, instead of a score being presented to players on game over, a ranking is assigned that is dependent on factors including the number of ships destroyed and the amount of energy used. Getting to “Star Commander” takes some skill but if you somehow achieve the joke rank “Garbage Scow Captain” you might have to reassess either the difficulty level or impressions of your own ability.
Admittedly the ship designs weren’t original but then I also suppose with the limited amount of pixels available it was probably easier to make ships look like TIE Fighters, Klingon Battlecruisers and Cylon Basestars and take advantage of that recognition of what spaceships look like. Usually they were zooming around so quickly you wouldn’t spend much time thinking about it.
A full session of the game can take between 10-30 minutes from start to finish so unlike many games of the time there is a level of commitment required than would take some getting used to but players would be rewarded with a thrilling and challenging experience from start to finish. This was what sucked me in to the game – you felt you were achieving something in your own little Star Wars style battles.
The game would be ported to both the Atari 2600 and 5200 with the former having an additional touchpad controller included to manage all of the game’s systems. However it didn’t quite match the simplicity or performance advantages of having a proper computer keyboard in front of you. A version for the Atari ST brought with it some great looking 16bit graphics but surprisingly feels much slower paced than the original and during hectic battles could sometimes make you feel like the computer itself is having trouble keeping up with you.
A sequel (Star Raiders II) was developed without Neubauer but was a rebranded version of a prototype game built by Atari for the movie The Last Starfighter. Though visually impressive at the time it was released on 8bit systems, the game’s depth was still short of the original and it didn’t stray too far from the prototype that it was based on. Neubauer however would make his own spiritual sequel in the form of Solaris which is considered not only one of the most technically impressive games to ever be released on the 2600 but perhaps one of the only games of the era that could be considered a superior title.
A modern remake also appeared on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC but after so many years since the original it just didn’t feel like it had the same spark or replay value of the original or even the ST version. It’s a shame that the basic concept of the game hasn’t been built on more as I believe it still holds up well in comparison to modern titles.
If it weren’t for Star Raiders showing what was possible, there wouldn’t be subsequent games such as Elite and that game is an undisputed classic in itself. And when the PC became the home of simulation gaming you would see the genre stand out once again in the form of cinematic space combat games like the trendsetting Wing Commander which was later followed by X-Wing and its superior sequel TIE Fighter. All of these have you taking on the galaxy to save the day but it all began in 1979 with players fighting Zylons and trying to avoid becoming Garbage Scow Captains…
UPDATE: A unreleased sequel to Star Raiders that was developed at the same time as The Last Starfighter version has been revealed. And it looks amazing!
Greatest Games is a 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. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.