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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 Page 1 of 3 Next

[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. This latest article features J. Fleming's historical look back at the landmark 3D space combat simulation Star Raiders, following histories of Spacewar, of Zork, and of Civilization.]

Doug Neubauer’s Star Raiders was a game that made a vivid first impression. Released in 1979 for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, the game was a surprisingly complex space combat simulation. However, what left players entranced was its smooth, three-dimensional graphics. Star Raiders achieved a level of realism that few people had seen in a video game before.

Experienced primarily from a first person, 3D cockpit view, with larger 2D map overviews for longer travel distances, the deep space environment of Star Raiders featured motes of space dust and asteroids drifting outside the cabin. As the ship’s velocity increased they would slide past, giving a convincing sense of speed and direction.

A message on sub-space radio warned of advancing Zylons and a quick check on an overhead galactic map showed the enemy fleet spread across the quadrants, moving inevitably towards defenseless star bases.

Dropping into hyperspace, the star field stretched into radial streaks as the player rushed to intercept. Emerging from warp, the Zylons would swoop down in long strafing runs, hammering the player with plasma shots and then accelerating away into the darkness. Shields up and throttle forward on their ship’s Twin-Ion engines, the player would give chase, closing the distance and lining the enemy up in the targeting reticule.

When the player’s photon torpedoes found their mark, the Zylon ship would disintegrate in a blast of super-heated fragments, an expanding cloud of glittering particles that quickly went cold in the hard vacuum. The immediacy of Star Raiders’ presentation was palpably real and seemed to hint at a larger universe that extended well beyond the confines of the TV screen.


1977 was the year computers got personal. Apple released its affordable Apple II system to immediate success while Commodore brought out its PET microcomputer and Tandy produced the TRS-80. By the end of the year Atari had released the 2600 console and the video game industry was booming.

Just out of college, Doug Neubauer started his career at the venerable National Semiconductor. “We worked on some early video games and National's try at a home computer/cartridge video game machine,” he remembered. “National cancelled the project because its component cost couldn't compete with Atari or the 6502/6800 based home computers of the time. After that, there was a migration of folks from National over to Atari,” Neubauer said.

Atari’s home console business was taking off and the company was eager to join the growing personal computer market. Almost as soon as the 2600 home console was released, engineers at Atari’s Grass Valley facility were looking at ways of improving the 2600’s design and work began on a project that would become the Atari 400 and 800 family of 8-bit computers. “Atari had an opening for a chip designer for their new home computer system. Luckily I got the job, so off I went to Atari. While at Atari I worked on the POKEY Chip for the Atari 800 and did Star Raiders,” Neubauer said.

“The POKEY [which stood for POtentiometer and KEYboard] chip was kind of the glue chip for the Atari 800. It had the keyboard interface, paddle controller interface, serial port and audio. As I remember the original spec was the audio should be ‘double’ the Atari 2600. I also added in the 17-bit noise/random number generator and simple low-pass filters (and also high-pass filters, which unfortunately didn't work).

The 17-bit noise generator gave a better rocket engine/explosion sound than the shorter 9-bit noise generator available in the 2600,” he said. The chip’s four independent audio channels also allowed developers to begin incorporating more complex polyphonic music into their games, ushering in the chip tune era.

The Atari 400 and 800 computers went on the market in 1979. The 400 was outfitted with a single cartridge slot, a membrane keyboard, and 8 kilobytes of RAM, while the more expensive 800 had two cartridge slots, a full typewriter keyboard, and 16 kilobytes of RAM. Along with BASIC programming and other productivity software, the Atari 8-bit computers also featured a library of games available on cartridges.

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