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Video Games' First Space Opera: Exploring Atari's Star Raiders
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Video Games' First Space Opera: Exploring Atari's Star Raiders

September 20, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Star Raiders

Published in 1979, Star Raiders was a launch title for Atari’s new 8-bit computers, demonstrating their superior graphics and sound. “I just did it on the side after the POKEY chip was done, but before the Atari 800 was completed,” Neubauer remembered. “The game was created on the wire-wrap development systems. Basically I just did it for fun.”

As for how the wider elements of Star Raiders play out in terms of gameplay, the Wikipedia page for the game explains: "In Star Raiders, [the exploration] part of the game took the form of a "Galactic Chart" display dividing the game's large-scale world into a grid of sectors, 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 sector; travel between sectors was via "hyperspace", accomplished through an elaborate and noisy "hyperwarp" sequence."

When designing Star Raiders, Neubauer was inspired by the hacker-created Star Trek text game that was played on university mainframes in the early seventies. “I remembered the old Star Trek games had star bases and charts, which I incorporated into the game,” he said. “Also, the movie Star Wars and the TV show Battlestar Galactica had recently come out, which influenced some of the visuals.”

“Looking back it's interesting to see how primitive the technology was,” he recalled. “An 8-bit 1.8mhz 6502, with 8k ROM and 8k RAM. The RAM seemed like a lot compared to the 128 bytes in the 2600. At the time, the technology didn't seem limiting and in fact, seemed a quantum leap from the 2600,” he said. “Although looking back, the limitation of not having enough ROM to handle full bitmap capability or a powerful enough processor impacted the graphics.”

Even so, Neubauer had something in mind that was well beyond the single screen video games of the past. He wanted to simulate a real environment in three dimensions. “The 3-D algorithms had to be developed and no one at Atari had done this before so I had to figure them out on my own. I remember stupidly floundering for a couple weeks or so, before I finally sat down and worked out the geometry on paper,” he said. “Finally the visuals started looking right! Also, I had to invent (or re-invent) cordic rotation, since trying to calculate sine/cosine on a 2600 or using huge lookup tables, would have been a computational disaster. And of course trying to fit everything into 8k bytes.”

Although Star Raiders did not feature any music, it is well remembered for its strident sound effects, which made good use of the POKEY chip’s noise generating capabilities. “I tried to get the photon torpedo sound from Star Trek working, but it would have taken too many bytes to ‘PCM’ it into ROM,” he recalled.

“Also, I wanted to fly into the space station and dock. But the resolution wasn't good enough and the visuals looked too ‘2600’ like. So I tossed that idea.” Instead, when the player’s damaged ship approached a star base, a small supply ship would come out to perform repairs and replenish energy.

Another notable part of the game was its open-endedness and ahead-of-its-time dynamic scoring system. Star Raiders' Wikipedia entry notes: "In contrast to many games of the era, the player could actually win the game by destroying all enemy ships in the galaxy. However, 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 the game play level, energy and time used, starbases destroyed, the number of enemies destroyed, and whether the player succeeded in destroying all enemies, was destroyed, or aborted (quit) the mission."

With its combination of visceral action and subtle strategy Star Raiders was an immediate hit. In 1982 Atari ported Star Raiders to its new 5200 console as well as creating a version for the aging 2600 which came packaged with a numeric keypad controller.

In 1985 Atari created a Star Raiders-like game that was meant to utilize “The Last Starfighter” movie license. After the deal fell through, Atari simply renamed it Star Raiders II although Neubauer was not involved in the game’s development. A year later, a new version of Star Raiders appeared on the Atari ST computer with substantially upgraded visuals.

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