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The History of Star Raiders: Taking Command

September 8, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[We come to the final entry in the series of Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time. Here, the authors examine Star Raiders, an innovative Atari game that may not get the credit it deserves. Previously in this 'bonus material' series: Defender, Elite, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Pinball Construction Set, Pong, RogueSpacewar! and Robotron 2084.]

Karl Marx once famously wrote that "mankind... inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation."[1]

Although many of us may disagree with the bulk of Marx's ideology (or are baffled by such long-winded quotes), here we find a kernel of truth -- especially when applied to game development.

No matter how loudly and brazenly a particular idea or innovation is trumpeted as "original," we can almost always find a clear progenitor, or at least an obvious influence. Did Ralph Baer come up with the idea of a console video game system all on his own? Unlikely.

What is likely, however, was that he was the first man who found himself in possession of the material conditions to make the dream a reality. That he had the idea is almost trivial; anyone could have thought of it. What made Baer unique, however, was that he possessed the knowledge and resources to build his famous Brown Box.

Atari's Star Raiders is the kind of game that needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. From the star fields to the explosions, the animations go a long way to enhancing the game's sparse visuals.

As far as game development is concerned, we already know the ultimate goal, the Holy Grail: the holodeck[2] from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I doubt there is anyone reading this who has not fantasized about such a wondrous device; surely we would never leave a program that gave us something "better than life."[3]

Excerpt from the manual (top) for the original Atari 8-bit version of Star Raiders. The 1982 conversion for the Atari 2600 VCS (bottom) required the inclusion of keypad controllers to accommodate all of the game's features. Neubauer was not directly involved in the creation of either the Atari 2600 VCS release or the 1986 conversion for the Atari ST computer, ST Star Raiders, with some saying the games suffered because of it.

We even have an inkling of how this task might be accomplished, or at least some pretty compelling approaches -- nanotechnology, virtual reality, direct stimulation of the brain; the list goes on. The only thing wanting is the "material conditions" -- that is, the technology, to make this dream possible.

We don't have what it takes to build a holodeck, but we all know what it is and what it must do. The only question is when we'll have the technology to build one. One day, in the far future, we'll have the necessary technology to make a holodeck. But, if the history of video games teaches us anything, it's that we've probably already had it for years.

Box back from Mattel's Space Spartans (1982), an Intellivoice-enabled cartridge for the Intellivision. Space Spartans was one of many Star Raiders knock-offs over the years, and the second one created for the Intellivision after Space Battle (1980). Mattel published a third game in this style, Space Attack (1982), for the Atari 2600 VCS through its M Network label.

[1] See Marx's "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" for free at

[2] The Wikipedia article describes it as such: "The holodeck is depicted as an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated by a combination of replicated matter, tractor beams, and shaped force fields onto which holographic images are projected. Sounds and smells are simulated by speakers and fragranced fluid atomizers, respectively. The feel of a large environment is simulated by suspending the participants on force fields which move with their feet, keeping them from reaching the walls of the room (a virtual treadmill)."

[3] See Grant Naylor's Better than Life novel or watch the Red Dwarf episode by the same name (Grant Naylor is the collective name used by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor).

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Matt Barton
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By the way, if you'd like to see some of the PLATO games this article mentions, I have a YouTube video that shows them in action:

James Hofmann
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My early childhood contained a lot of Star Raiders, and other Atari, even though it was five years old by the time I was born. Although, it was mostly my older brother who played since it was a little complex for me. :)

Glenn Storm
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Star Raiders was one of the first video games I played that gave me strong feelings of immersion and persistence. Star Raiders let you do all the things we wanted to do in space at that time, and supported those activities in all seriousness. And it was games like this and Battle Zone that had me thinking about the game world long after I had stopped playing. Can I find a planet and land on it? Can I get to the mountains in the distance and find some enemy base? Even as I enjoyed playing them, I knew these games wouldn't support *that* level of depth, but they sure got me thinking about it and wishing. Good times. [/showing my age]

Kevin Reese
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I want to read more about these "laser torpedoes" hehe :)

Stephen Northcott
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Articles like this make me feel young again! I realise that I am inspired not only by people like Neubauer, Jay Miner etc., but also by the likes of Braben etc. who were just cutting their teeth in the industry when I was coding projects in my bedroom during my O Levels!

We are working on a Space Sim at the moment : ArcNebula.

I think everyone who wants to, or has written a SpaceSim is driven to do it by forces beyond their control!

Great article.

Hillwins Lee
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I missed the Wing Commander series.....yet another series forgotten after EA aquired Origin....

Vince Dickinson
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Star Raiders is of the most "ahead of its time" games ever, and still fun to play in 2009.

David Wessman
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Another great article in a great series - thanks! I loved Star Raiders (and Starglider and Elite.) I have to take issue with one thing, though. The caption for the screenshot for X-Wing is highly misleading in stating that it brought "Wing Commander-style gameplay into George Lucas's famous fictional universe."

X-Wing was created using the same flight combat engine that powered Lucasart's hugely successful air combat classics series: Battlehawks 1942 (1988), Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain (1989), and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (1990), and owes absolutely nothing to Wing Commander. In fact, it is quite the reverse as Chris Roberts openly boasted to Larry Holland that he reverse-engineered the Battlehawks 1942 engine to create Wing Commander! Before it became Wing Commander, Mr. Roberts pitched it to Lucasarts as a Star Wars game. Lucasarts declined for obvious reasons...they already had a partnership with the premier flight combat game development team!

The X-Wing series represented a significant evolution in flight combat simulation with a fully 3D graphics engine, superior AI and mission scripting. Our primary goal was to create an immersive and authentic simulation of starfighter combat as portrayed in the Star Wars films. Whereas Wing Commander's extremely limited AI and much simpler mission scripting provided an engaging arcade shooter-style experience, to play the X-Wing games well required the same skills that a real-life fighter pilot would need: not just fast reactions and excellent hand-eye coordination, but exceptionally high situational awareness and superior energy management skills.

Thanks for reading,

David Wessman - mission designer, writer, lead tester and map icon designer on X-Wing