Game of the Week (8/26/18) – Star Raiders

The opinions of “Star Raiders”, Atari’s first person space simulation shooter that made its debut on the Atari 8-bit line of computers way back in 1979, tend to fall into one of two categories. One common opinion is that “Star Raiders” is arguably the most influential video game of all time and certainly one of the most innovative and fun. Another common opinion is that “Star Raiders” is much too complex and it’s simply not engaging enough to warrant the amount of time it would take to learn and master the controls and gameplay. From the perspective of someone who did not grow up playing “Star Raiders” but still loves early, “graphically challenged” retro games from the late 70s and early 80s, I can say that both opinions are valid.

I’ve found from sifting through podcasts, YouTube reviews, blogs and other online resources, many “Star Raiders” advocates are gamers that either played it on its original system, the Atari 400/800 computer, or first came across the title via the Atari 2600 or 5200 consoles. In the early 80s, these gamers were wowed by the amount of complexity and innovation that went into such a game. “Star Raiders” has so many input options, that gameplay requires the use of a keypad/keyboard. Of course the Atari computers and 5200 controllers all have that ability natively. Since the 2600 didn’t offer a keypad natively, that version of the game was shipped with a touchpad controller, making it a premium title. Beyond the deep gameplay, which was something gamers had never really experienced before, “Star Raiders” also offered a first person perspective during battle scenes, which was yet another reason to be in awe.

“Star Raiders” is one of those game that if you can find a copy of the manual or at least the overlays used with the 5200 keypad, pick them up. Most 5200 games can convey a background story, rules, scoring and still offer a page to write in high scores, all in just a handful of pages. To provide some perspective, the 5200 manual is 34 pages long and 10 of the 12 keys have 2 different functions!

In simple terms, your job as a member of the Star Raiders fleet is to protect the galaxy from the Zylons, a race that intends malfeasance and destruction. You must use the galactic chart to find and wipe out the Zylons before they destroy your space station. “Star Raiders” offers the ability to switch views from forwards as well as behind your ship. Additionally, you can turn on shields, initiate hyperspace, and send your ship off on missions using a variety of speeds to either slowly and carefully maneuver or speed up to get to where you’re going, quickly. Hyperspace does a good job of getting you where you need to go, but it is less predictable, can put you in danger, and also uses up a lot of energy. High reward, high risk. As mentioned, you must keep an eye out for your energy levels throughout the game as you will need to refuel at a Starbase .

There are different types of Zylon enemies to wipe out, and you must learn how to attack, or not attack in some cases, in order to survive. Ultimately, your success will depend on the skill level you choose & completion of the mission, providing you with a rank based on your score. Anyone new to “Star Raiders” should start at novice level, however. The game is much too complicated on the higher difficulty levels to comprehend what’s going on long enough to survive more than a few minutes unless you’re a “Star Raiders” savant. “Star Raiders” is absolutely one of those games that rewards practice, patience and perseverance. It is also one of those games that really utilized strategy more so than reflexes and memorization. It’s a true innovation and is worthy of being high on the list of 80s gaming influences.

Now if I was to briefly take the side of the game’s detractors, the easiest ball that “Star Raiders” lobs at me knock it is the graphics. “Star Raiders” is bare bones in appearance. You’re out in space, surrounded by stars and enemies, so the look is black and dull. I suppose it’s better than trying to make the sky red or purple just to add color. But as a result, the enemies often look like stars and the stars often look like enemies and its even hard to discern one enemy type from another at first. There’s not much in the way of sound effects and the ones that exist are pretty unimpressive. From what I can tell, this version of the game looks very similar to the Atari computer version, which makes sense as the 5200 utilized the same hardware.

Clearly, many players dislike the game for the same reasons that others love it. It requires quite a bit of time to understand and figure out how to use the controller/keypad, navigate through the 20 button options, figure out how to use the radar screen, hyperspace, docking, shields, maneuver your ship in the battle scenes, getting to the starbase to refuel, which enemies you need to attack NOW and which enemies you can wait on, etc. etc. “Star Raiders” isn’t a game you just pick up and play for 10-15 min before slipping in your Pac-Man cart. It requires dedication to learning, studying and mastering the gameplay and controls. Kind of sounds like work…..

Rating: B (based on potential only, the grade could be higher if/when I truly master it)

Currently in my collection: game, manual, overlay

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