Star Raiders

From Academic Kids

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Star Raiders manual cover
Star Raiders was a popular game for the Atari 8-bit family of computers, released in 1979. It was programmed by Doug Neubauer. It was distinctive for its graphics, which (under most conditions) represented an out-the-cockpit, first-person view from a fictional combat spaceship traveling through a streaming 3D starfield in pursuit of enemy fighters (called "Zylons" in game documentation). While there had already been simple target-shooting games using this perspective, Star Raiders had graphics of considerably higher quality and more complex game play, and inspired both imitators throughout the 1980s and later-generation "space combat simulation" games such as the Wing Commander and X-Wing series. It was arguably also a predecessor of first-person shooters. The game's attract mode screen of a simple streaming starfield was a common sight in computer stores of the early 1980s, used to show off the Atari computers' graphics capabilities.
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A Star Raiders ROM cartridge for the Atari 8-bit computers; early releases had a typo on the label ("Star Raider"), as shown above
Star Raiders was packaged in a ROM cartridge, which was the prevalent distribution medium for Atari 8-bit games of the time. The game used both a joystick for direct control and the computer keyboard for entering commands.

The game was later adapted to other Atari computer and game platforms.

Contents

Game play

Galactic Chart and hyperspace

The game play built on earlier, mostly text-based Star Trek-themed computer games[1] (http://www3.sympatico.ca/maury/games/space/star_trek.html) in which the player's ship maneuvered about a two-dimensional grid fighting a fleet of enemy spaceships. In Star Raiders this part of the game took the form of a "Galactic Chart" display dividing the game's large-scale world into a grid of cells, some of which were occupied by enemy ships or friendly "starbases". Flying about in the 3D view with the ship's normal engines was sufficient for travel within a cell; travel between cells was via "hyperspace", accomplished through an elaborate and noisy "hyperwarp" sequence with graphics loosely reminiscent of the Star Wars and Star Trek films in which the stars seemed to stretch to radial lines. On the higher difficulty levels, hyperwarp had a skill element; the player had to keep a wandering crosshair roughly centered during the sequence in order to land in the right place.

Combat, damage and resources

To the Star Trek formula, the game added real-time 3D space battles. In the main, first-person-perspective display, the player could look out the front or rear of the ship and shoot shimmering fireballs at Zylon ships, which came in three different varieties vaguely reminiscent of ships from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica (whose villains were called Cylons). A small targeting display in the lower right corner indicated when weapons were locked on the enemy. There was also a "long-range scan" screen showing the surrounding region in a third-person plan view.

Enemies would fire back, and would cause damage if the player's ship was hit. The ship could also be damaged by collision with occasional meteoroids. Instead of the multiple lives that were and are a common video-game convention, the Star Raiders ship had only one life, but would be completely destroyed only if hit while its energy shields were lowered or out of order; otherwise it would sustain varying types of damage, which caused shields, engines, weapons or information displays to work intermittently, partially or not at all. The player had to manage finite energy reserves as well as damage to the ship; it could be repaired and restocked by rendezvous with a starbase. The enemy would also destroy a starbase if allowed to surround its Galactic Chart grid cell for too long, so the starbases had to be defended. All this lent Star Raiders a degree of complexity and a sense of player immersion that was rare in action games of the era.

Scoring

Also unusually for the era, the player could actually win the game, which was accomplished by destroying all enemy ships in the galaxy. There was no running score display; only upon winning, dying or quitting the game would the player receive a "rating", which was a quasi-military rank accompanied by a numerical class (particularly bad play earned a rank of "Garbage Scow Captain" or "Galactic Cook"). The rating depended on a formula involving enemy destroyed, energy and time used, and starbases destroyed.

Technical details

Star Raiders used many techniques that would become common features of Atari 8-bit game programming in the 1980s. The starfield was drawn in a graphics mode that (at full screen coverage) provided 160x96 bitmapped pixels with a palette of four colors. The use of color indirection meant that color changes associated with the presence of absence of energy shields, emergency alarms, and the screen flash representing destruction of the ship could be accomplished by simply changing the palette values. Enemy ships, shots, and so forth used Atari's variant of hardware sprites, known as player-missile graphics. The Atari 8-bit family allowed different graphics modes and color palettes to be used in different horizontal bands on the screen, by using a simple display list and a type of horizontal blank interrupt. While other games made more extensive use of these techniques, Star Raiders used them in a relatively simple fashion to combine text displays and graphics; the cockpit display used a custom character set to display futuristic-looking characters and symbols reminiscent of MICR.

Star Raiders predated the common use of digitized sound samples in game programming; the sounds of engines, shots, explosions, alarms, etc. were synthesized directly using the Atari POKEY chip's capabilities (author Neubauer had been involved in the design of POKEY).

Sequels, adaptations and tie-ins

Atari also produced a somewhat less successful sequel titled Star Raiders 2 (originally intended as a licensed tie-in for the movie The Last Starfighter), and versions of Star Raiders for the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and the Atari ST series of computers. Of these, the best-known is probably the Atari 2600 version (1982), which shipped with a special touchpad controller to take the place of the computer keyboard; it suffered somewhat from the 2600's relatively limited capabilities.

Neubauer's later game Solaris had some elements in common with Star Raiders, and in 1983 Atari returned to 3D first-person space combat in a far more graphically elaborate form with its licensed Star Wars arcade game.

Several of Atari's competitors produced Star Raiders-like games in the early 1980s, usually for platforms on which Star Raiders did not run (and for the 2600 before Atari ported Star Raiders there). Activision's Starmaster (1982) and Imagic's Star Voyager were among the most popular, and are generally better-respected than the 2600 version of Star Raiders.

In 1983 DC Comics published a graphic novel inspired by the game. It was written by Elliot S! Maggin and illustrated by José Luis García Lopez.

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