Space Combat with: Star Raiders (1979, Atari 400/800)

Note: I’ve already written a lot about Star Raiders previously as I firmly believe it is one of the greatest games ever made. As a result there may be some duplication in what I’ve already said. I wanted to try something a little different from my usual posts and this was a good way to start and see what I could make of it. Thanks for reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

Over the years many computer and gaming systems have had “the killer app” – the one title that makes the system a must own while also defining a generation of games to come. We’ve seen that on Nintendo platforms with Wii Sports on the Wii (of course) and most recently The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Switch. For the Atari 400/800 series of computers it was Star Raiders.

From the early beginnings of video gaming players have been battling against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. With sci-fi gaining mainstream popularity at a similar time thanks to films and television being able to translate that experience would have been appealing. There were early games that leveraged the tactical combat of Star Trek but when Star Wars was released that quickly changed as fans got to see space battles that were far more dynamic than anything that came before it. That such an early game as Star Raiders was able to leverage both so successfully is astonishing.

Developed by Doug Neubauer and released in 1979, Star Raiders was one of the very first person space combat games and quite unlike anything released by Atari at the time. Players were tasked with clearing a galactic map of all invading Zylon forces which required them to hyperspace jump from location to location and clear them out. At the beginning of each game the arrangement and locations of the Zylons was randomized so no one game would feel alike. Additionally everything in the game was running in real time – Zylons would be travelling across the map trying to destroy your star bases so you needed to work fast and save them to avoid game over.

Time is constantly against you not only with the always moving Zylons but with your own ship with its rapidly dwindling power supply. Everything on your ship from shields to weapons and the hyperdrive all consume power so being able to manage your ship systems might help you eke out a couple more minutes of extra combat time. Star bases offer players the ability to repair and recharge but a penalty will be applied to your final score. Anyone able to beat them all without stopping deserves a fair amount of recognition.

Your ship is a complicated little machine too. Not only are there the weapons, shields and hyperdrive you can also manage the ship’s computer (switching off conserves more power). There is also a long range scan that allows for basic navigation in 3D space which may not appear useful at first but for players needing to return to a star base after having their ship damaged (systems can be taken offline) it could be a ship saver. Those items that you can switch off have a discernible visual impact with UI and color changes reflecting the difference while text flashes above to inform you of what’s happened.

A typical gameplay loop from the moment you start the game to the last Zylon destroyed is:

  1. Check your systems – do you turn off shields and computer to preserve power?
  2. Check the galactic map – find the closest or most threatening enemies. You need to protect the star bases.
  3. Hyperspace to the chosen location. On higher difficulties this will require some guidance else you deviate from your chosen course.
  4. On arrival if there is an alert (enemies close!), switch on your systems right away. One hit with shields down means a quick death.
  5. Wreak havoc on the enemy. Be fast, be agile and shoot straight.
  6. With the enemy gone return to step 1.

When you get to the combat itself it’s hectic with ships circling around and photon bolts flying everywhere. Weapons hit hard and loudly with your ship’s display taking the brunt of it. The game really slows down when a lot of shots are on screen and ships start exploding into a shower of pixels which may have been a minor mistake on the developer’s part but in the thick of battle it almost felt like a moment where both you and the game are allowed to exhale and breathe again.

Though a scoring system is applied during the course of a game players would not see that for themselves. Instead they’re given a rank that takes into account factors such as difficult level, ships destroyed and energy used. The best of the best might just get to be a “Star Commander” but initially you may have to get used to being a “Garbage Scow Captain” until you get your space legs. As you can see in the video playing through at the lowest difficulty (Novice) can get you through in around ten minutes – even on higher difficulties you could be looking at most twenty minutes per session which makes it an easy game to play in small doses.

On a technical level it’s remarkable to think all this was crammed into an 8K cartridge and that it only needed the same amount of memory to run. This allowed it to run on any Atari 8bit computer that existed from the time they first launched in 1979. Star Raiders ability to execute on the core gameplay loops and provide players with constant challenges allowed it to live longer than many similar games of the era.

Early copies of the game cartridge (left) had misspelled the title. Newer copies (right) resolved the issue.

My own introduction to the game was around 1983-85 so the game was almost five years old at that stage and it still won me over. Over the years I’ve accumulated a few copies including both spellings on the cartridge (see above) which was a surprising bonus for my collection. Even by the end of life for Atari’s 8bit computer line it was still one of the defining titles to own which is a pretty good achievement for any game.

The game video was captured on PC through the use of the excellent Altirra Atari emulator and using a cartridge image from the Internet Archive’s Atari 8bit TOSEC Collection.


8 replies »

  1. Star Raiders is an absolute masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite games. I was so happy that the Atari 5200 version (basically the 8-bit version with slightly more fiddly controls) was in the fantastic Atari Flashback Classics compilation for Switch (and vol. 3 for PS4/Xbone). The 2600 version has been ported a few times and isn’t bad in its own right, but the superior 8-bit/5200 version had been confined to original hardware or emulation for far too long. No longer, thankfully!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Star Raiders is still my absolute all-time favorite. It was the first cartridge I bought for my 5200 console and it ruled my life for a while. Later I got a second hand cartridge for the Atari 800 computer. The computer version seemed to be much harder. I was never near as good on the computer version. On the 5200, I could score Star Commander 1st Class consistantly. Playing on Altirra, I’m trying to get back to that level, but now we’re all 40 years older. So far my recent best was Commander 2nd.
    There are some differences between the 5200 version and the 800 version and most have been explained but there are a couple of things I never saw in print, built in cheats, sort of, for the 5200 version. Both are in the Sector Scan. At the end of a jump into an enemy sector, go to the Scan. If the enemy ships are just sitting there and ignoring you, spin around vertically so that the enemy crosses the X-axis of your ship. They will become aware of you and come to you so that you won’t have to use energy chasing after them. If you really want to cheat, lob a couple of Photons out there and swing the Scan so that an enemy ship passes into one. Chances are he’ll take a hit even if he’s actually far away. (This takes the fun out of the game, but sometimes you get frustrated.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chuck,

      Great hearing there’s plenty of fans of this classic! I’ve played a bit of the 5200 version thanks to the Atari50 collection which gives the game some long overdue love and attention.

      I really appreciated some of the game’s quirks when it got difficult. One of mine was to use the rear guns which seemed to me to be more accurate (?) but I did have to slow down and usually received a lot of damage too. I know it was probably code compensating for hardware limitations but it gave the game character and made it unique and I still love it for that. ๐Ÿ™‚


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