Star Raiders, Part 2: Review and Reflections

Following my playthrough of Star Raiders, I have to say, it feels like a complete experience.  This is pretty astonishing for an action game from the '70s, especially after seeing what Exidy did with the same formula in Star Fire. In addition to providing context for the action in the form of a Galactic battlefield, Star Raiders shows the entire life cycle of the starfighter in the battle, including repairs and resource management.

When you're a beginning player, novice mode is an exciting thrill ride.  Going toe-to-toe with the Zylon fighters for the first time, I was only vaguely aware of how they were moving around me, but my shields kept me safe long enough to get off some lucky shots.  Once I became comfortable with the basics, the game provided a whole suite of advanced features, including long-range scanners, manual target selection, target tracking, and forward-and-aft firing modes.  This is not to mention the need for careful energy management and strategic enemy selection, especially on higher difficulty levels.

And managing the damage to your starfighter adds another layer of immersion.  There are six individual subsystems that can be damaged by enemy fire, all of which come with their own challenges.  Desperately limping back to base despite damage to your targeting computer was sometimes just as satisfying as wiping out an entire group Zylon fighters.

Star Raiders does have its problems.  While it does a better job of simulating three-dimensional space than its contemporaries, there is one particularly egregious case of bad 3-D.  Look at the clip below.

Notice how one of the converging blasts from my ship's guns strikes a fighter in the lower left corner (the clip slows down briefly when it happens).  This makes zero sense in three dimensions.  The small size of the enemy fighter on the screen implies that it's a good distance away, but somehow I manage to hit it with one of my photon cannons just as the blast leaves the barrel!  Most likely, what's happening here is that the program is finding an intersection between the projected, two-dimensional positions of the ship and my photon blast.  This would make for a reasonable approximation at the center of the screen, but most definitely not at the edges.

Also, if you play the original Atari 800 version, be prepared for some occasional lag.  Apparently, calculating the trajectories of the particles in an explosion was difficult with the processor used in the Atari 8-bit family (see this interview of Doug Neubauer), so whenever you destroy an enemy, the game briefly slows down to perform the calculations.  While there is a certain satisfaction in watching your enemy blown to bits in slow motion, you can also try this fan modification, which speeds up any in-game calculations that require division, including explosions.

Despite having a few problems, Star Raiders is a unique experience that I would recommend to any gamer.  It uses its limited resources very well, providing contextual simplicity -- a galactic battle, you vs. a fleet -- against functional complexity, in the form of the various starfighter functions I mentioned earlier.  It also has a distinctly different feel from later flight simulators.  The crude graphics and inconsistent speed give it an almost dream-like quality, not unlike the feeling I get from looking at an impressionist painting.  My memories of real experiences are no clearer than what I see on the screen with Star Raiders -- fragments, the key moments that mattered, with everything else lost to time.

I imagine myself as a veteran of this fictional battle, recalling the events.  Numbers roll endlessly across the bottom of the screen and fighters swoop back and forth across your view. Lights flash intermittently as once-critical alerts become secondary concerns, and you don't even have time to wonder if you're going to live to see the next few minutes.  Is the enemy behind you or in front?  A blast that you're sure didn't come from your fingers comes shooting into view and you pull up, hard. The next few seconds are a blur, as you pull the trigger ten, maybe fifteen times, and a spray of particles fills the space around you.  There's always that one brief moment... that moment when you're not sure if the particles came from your ship or theirs...