The History of Star Raiders: Taking Command
September 8, 2009 Page 2 of 3
Doug Neubauer's Star Raiders, a 1979 game for the Atari 8-bit line of personal computers, is a shining example of what happens when a developer is told that something can't be done, does it anyway, and then is promptly forgotten for having done it. Star Raiders is one of those rare games that can truly be said to have been ahead of its time.
It was 1979, and we already had a game that offered high-speed first-person perspective through a fully navigable 3D-like environment in just 8K of RAM (memory) and 8K of ROM (storage).
While most gamers were busy blasting aliens in the almost schematic Space Invaders (book Chapter 16, "Space Invaders (1978): The Japanese Descend"), Star Raiders put them in the cockpit. It established many of the conventions of the "space sim" genre that would rise to prominence most famously with Firebird's Elite (bonus chapter, The History of Elite) and Origin's Wing Commander (1990).
Unlike the vast majority of space-based shoot 'em ups of the era, Star Raiders offered a first-person view straight from the pilot's seat. The mission seemed simple enough -- protect the Atarian Federation's star bases while destroying Zylons. Lest pacifist players opt for diplomacy, the manual instructed players (in all caps) to "DESTROY ALL ZYLON STARSHIPS ON SIGHT, SHOW NO MERCY."
Though it's not clear why the Zylons are so eager to destroy the Atarians, it might well be the result of a trademark infringement suit gone horribly wrong. Besides the obvious references to the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica and the "photon torpedoes" from Star Trek (complete with impressive "sparkling" energy effect), the "Zylon fighter" ships look suspiciously like the Imperial Tie Fighters from Star Wars. It's a cornucopia of unauthorized 1970s sci-fi riffs!
Screenshot from Sega's Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator arcade game from 1982, where the player controls the starship Enterprise, and must defend sectors from invading Klingon ships. Despite countless games inspired by the property up to that point, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator was only the second officially licensed videogame released after the modest Star Trek: Phaser Strike (1979) for the Milton Bradley Microvision handheld.
Screenshot from Atari's Star Wars arcade game from 1983, among the first official Star Wars videogame translations.
Besides the mandate to destroy all Zylons, the player also had to worry about running out of fuel, colliding with meteors, or losing vital ship components after a battle, all in real-time. Thankfully, players could "hyperjump" in a visually impressive manner to friendly starbases to repair and refuel. Critics raved about the dynamic visuals and superb audio.
Of course, the game's high-quality audio shouldn't surprise us; Neubauer himself designed the Atari's POKEY audio chip. The chip was also used in some of Atari's arcade machines and select cartridges for the Atari 7800 console.
Wing Commander (1990) offered Star Raiders-like combat wrapped around a fun sci-fi story. The fantastic audiovisuals and intense action made it the biggest hit for Origin since the Ultima series. PC version shown.
Besides the impressive strides in the ability to perform multiple tasks at once and its audiovisuals, Star Raiders also introduced - in lieu of a final score -- a rank system that would show up in Elite and other future space sims. Players started off as "novices," but could become pilots, warriors, and commanders at higher levels.
Even though Star Raiders was one of the best-known games for Atari's 400 and 800 computers, its author did not make any profit, because Atari didn't grant royalties to its developers. Atari's stingy policy eventually led to Neubauer's departure, though he would return later to do contract work.
Star Wars: X-Wing (1993) brought Wing Commander-style gameplay into George Lucas's famous fictional universe. It was a dream come true for Star Wars fans, with many games like it to follow. PC version shown.
 Neubauer laments that with more memory and storage he could have created an even more impressive game, adding planet landings, a trench scene and more charts. See http://www.atarihq.com/othersec/library/neubauer.html.
 The POKEY chip is also present in the Atari 5200 console, which is functionally similar to an Atari 400 computer. The 5200 received a nearly identical Star Raiders conversion in 1982.
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