Atari Federation, Zylons and Tie Fighters...oh my!

User Rating: 9.5 | Star Raiders A800
Let's cast our minds back in the 70s. What comes into your mind? Vietnam? The film The Exorcist? Bell bottom pants? Cool sideburns? What about the idea of punctuated equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould? Hmmm? Well, what about in 1979 a corporation by the name of Atari released a game which (IMO) changed the revolution of gaming to dizzy heights that even today the gameplay is nothing short of a phenomenon. This game is called Star Raiders.

So what the heck is this game I hear you scream in terror.

Star Raiders is a flight simulation game viewed as you are in a cockpit with the mindset to destroy the Zylon Empire. Your secondary goal is to achieve the highest rank offered in the Atari Federation - Star Commander One!

Even though the learning curve is quite high (yes, even old games can be quite sophisticated) the designers for Star Raiders used a cleverly progression system that is based on the level of difficulty. There are four levels being Novice (easiest), Pilot, Warrior and Commander (hardest). Novice level (the lowest) has fewer enemies, no damage report and no steering for hyper warping whilst the higher levels do. Also the highest level (Commander) enemy attacks are extremely accurate hence evasion skill is highly sorted and they tend not to attack you unless provoked (i.e. when your range to the enemy is less than 100).

Traveling consists of hyper warping to one sector to another. Each sector can be empty (no icons), enemies or mother ships. Mother ships serves an important role for your starship as once docked, a shuttle will appear and refuels your ship as well as repairs any damages made to your ship (again Novice levels have no damage reports - similar to 'god mode' save the fuel). However it's not that simple as the Zylon Empire has its own goals besides destroying you (which of course ends the game); they will try and surround your mother ships (hence an alerted message 'starbase surrounded' unless your sub-spaced radio is destroyed) and after one centor (one minute) your mother ship is destroyed and replaced by another two Zylon fighters if you fail to intervene. The good news is that you have more than one mother ship (Novice and Pilot has four, Warrior five whilst Commander has six). You may think that 'hey, it's cool - what's another two Zylon ships and one starbase destroyed. There are more...'. Well the sad news is that you loose points for destroyed starbases (remember the secondary goal is to achieve that Star Commander One status but that's impossible under Novice and Pilot missions) and considering starbases are scattered, economically hyper warping to a close starbase equals less fuel which means more points at the end.

On top of all that, you have six systems to monitor for effective combat. The systems are photons (your main firepower - try and aim the target directly in the middle and watch two photons fire at the same time for 90% kill rate), engines, shields, computer, long-range scan and sub-space radio. Of course if your engines and long-range scan are obliviated you can still fight however here's comes the tactical mind...what happens if say your computer is damaged or destroyed? You can still fight and receive communications...however trying to locate the mothership for repairs will prove a very difficult task indeed.

As you can see that the gameplay and value are extremely high. It's not as simply aim and fire (well the Novice level is and to a limited extend Pilot) however the Warrior and Commander requires a tactical mind as well as hand-eye coordination.

When the game ends, it does a calculation of how well you have performed (i.e. fuel, enemies killed, time taken, starbases destroyed and the mission level) then broadcasts you a rank. The final score is like awaiting for the results of a big exam! The rank ranges from Rookie Class 5 (class 1 being the highest) to that al-mighty Star Commander Class 1. If you get the rank of Garbage Scow Captain or Galactic Cook that means you failed to achieve at least 48 points. Another words, you suck big time. However the manual gives you a detailed breakdown of how this performs so you know what to aim for. This definitely beats any high score features. I prefer to be called a 'Lieutenant Class 3' than say 'Score: 200'.

Graphically the game is superior for its time. Other games released during this period are text adventures or Pong. I think the only other game that's pretty much on par is Star Fire.

The sounds in this game are also a cut-above the rest. Again have you heard the sounds from Pong? No comparison. From red-alert signals to photons firing to explosions to damage reports the sounds are very unique and easily identifiable. However there is no musical score what-so-ever (now I'm being picky).

Believe it or not there are some downsides to this game. The AI even though the game is made in 1979 acts extremely well (as in they can attack from behind the ship and believe me that's a challenge as all your movements are in reverse - that means up is down and left is right - confused?) they only surround your starbase one at a time and not spreading their forces to surround say two or three (see this as an tactical advantage especially in Commander level missions and fuel consumption). Also the controls are a little awkward to those who don't play 'inverted mouse' option in modern FPS (I'm an inverted mouse player though). What makes it more frustrating to those people is that if the enemy attacks you from behind (aft view) all the movement controls are reversed (similar to non-inverted mouse option in FPS) and left is right (as in inverted x-axis). I look at this as an additional challenge however I can see that can be off-putting for some people.

The game engine, even though is far superior at the time of release, will slow down when an explosion occurs. When I mean slow down it almost goes in a grinding halt.

And lastly the shields. When the shields are up (which is probably 99% of the time unless you are a 'hero') the whole screen turns orange (I think - I'm colourblind and yes this even effects me). Well it isn't the colour of the star field that's for sure! At first it's a little annoying for your eyes however like everything else you get used to this idea (only just).

Overall, consider the release date of 1979, Star Raiders is definitely a pioneer to the FPS era (yes before Doom and Wolfenstein 3D - check our Gamespot screenshots if you don't believe me) and the combination of tactical/action style play definitely will be part of the all-time greats. To my recollection, this game is five years ahead of its time. Is there a game today can match this?

FYI - It's possible to achieve the rank of Star Commander One. Try and complete the Commander mission under 12 centors. Sounds easy?