Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Game 49: Star Raiders

Buy 50 Atari games including the 5200 port of Star Raiders in the Atari Vault DLC on Steam:

We’re introducing a new platform, listed on Mobygames as the “Atari 8-bit,” but it’s more of a family of mostly compatible products than a single platform. These were Atari’s line of home computers, and the models available in 1979 were the Atari 800 and the Atari 400.

First produced in November 1979, Atari was a bit late to the microcomputer party. 1977 saw the release of Radio Shack’s TRS-80, Commodore’s PET, and the Apple II, which we’ve dabbled with already. But as Atari was a gaming company, their line were among the first personal computers designed with games in mind, and featured a faster CPU than the competition, colorful game-oriented graphics hardware, TV-compatible video output, joystick ports, and cartridge slots. Two of Atari’s later consoles were based on this architecture; the Atari 5200 which was nearly identical to the Atari 400 internally, and the Atari XEGS which was fully compatible with the computer software and peripherals.

Our first whale from the system was its original killer app, and takes advantage of the computer’s cutting-edge gaming muscle. The 2600 would later get a much downgraded port and the 5200 a slightly upgraded one.

Star Raiders puts you in the cockpit of a state-of-the-art fighter with a mission to clear Atarian space of hostile Zylon starfighters, with a secondary objective to protect friendly space stations, which the Zylons will systematically target and destroy when they aren’t engaging you. Your ship is far superior to any Zylon’s, with a top speed twice as fast as theirs, damage-mitigating shields, and a hyperspace drive for intercepting Zylon Starfighters or retreating to a friendly space station. But you are severely outnumbered, and haven’t got much time to thin out their ranks before they overwhelm and destroy the space stations, which are your only recourse for repairs and refueling.

Starship 1 is an evident predecessor to this game, but Star Raiders adds a great deal of complexity to the simulation (much of it borrowed from Star Trek), making it a trope codifier for the space sim genre. Elements introduced include:
  • Navigation of 3D space, or at least a more convincing imitation of it
  • Ability to pitch and yaw 360°
  • Multiple engine speeds
  • Multiple cockpit views
  • Enemy ships that can engage from any direction
  • Functional ship subsystems (e.g. shields, engines, radar), which can be disabled by enemy fire
  • Separate joystick and keyboard controls for managing different ship systems

There’s also a fair bit of strangeness as a consequence of the genre not being fully developed yet.

There is no concept of hull damage. When your shields are down or turned off, a single hit will destroy you. When your shields are up, a hit depletes some energy (not a big deal) and has a random chance of disabling a subsystem (often a really big deal). Your unshielded enemies likewise go down in one hit, though the “Basestar” ship must be hit at a fairly close range.

Trying to get enemies aligned to your crosshairs before firing is actually a pretty bad idea. If an enemy near the center of your screen fires at you, it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting hit. Hit detection seems to be based on sprite collision, and because you fire torpedoes from the bottom of the screen to the center, it seems to be much safer and more effective to keep your crosshairs above the enemy and to the side a bit, so that the torpedo sprite hits the enemy sprite, as little sense as that might make in terms of 3D euclidean space.

Energy management is a thing, and you can optimize energy efficiency by turning off your battle computer and shields when you don’t need them, by making multiple short hyperspace hops instead of a single long one, and being frugal with your torpedoes. But in practice this seems pointless, as on any difficulty level except the easiest, I found myself needing repairs often enough (which also refuel you) that I never came close to running out of energy no matter how wastefully I treated my reserves. Players who can survive the Commander Mission might find energy efficiency techniques useful for finishing with a better score, but I didn’t.

Speaking of the Commander Mission, try as I might, I just couldn’t finish it.

I was able to finish the Warrior Mission, the second-hardest difficulty, without too much trouble, as seen in the first video. But the Commander Mission seems hopeless. Enemies dogfight aggressively, making it nearly impossible to completely avoid taking hits, and your ship takes hits like it’s made of cardboard.  With nearly every sector cleared, something important would get damaged, and I’d have to warp back to a base for repairs, giving the Zylons plenty of time to regroup and overwhelm the bases. And I’m supposed to destroy 54 of them? I’d be lucky to bag 20. Each attempt at the Commander Mission would end long before I reached my 54, usually with a hot-dogging Zylon scoring two lucky hits in quick succession, blowing my ship to smithereens faster than I could blink.

Stellar Track

Star Raiders got a downgraded VCS port later on, but before that, there was Stellar Track, a much more literal interpretation of the mainframe Star Trek game that inspired it, and which I covered previously. A reader alerted me of this game's existence.

Like the mainframe game, it's text-based and plays round-by-round, which is unusual for games on the system. It's obviously downgraded to fit the Atari's limited resources and simple controls, but I am impressed by how much left is intact. Granted, controls are a bit awkward. The menu-based control scheme of the mainframe game is translated to the joystick by having left and right cycle through the available options and the button confirming, with no way to back out of a mistakenly chosen command. There's no option to enter courses along decimal numbers, but I never used that option anyway.

I played with both difficulty sliders set to 'A,' which reduces your "phasor" power and makes you more likely to take subsystem damage when getting hit.

I have some gripes specific to this version, which have nothing to do with the system's limitations. Compared to the mainframe version, the time limit tends to be VERY tight, and you're often at the mercy of the RNG. Granted, the mainframe version could sometimes screw you over with an impossible deadline, but it's a lot more common here. A mission with only a few aliens will still spread them across the galaxy and give you precious little time to search the entire grid for them all, and if you take damage to your engines even once, you might as well give up; you can't get anywhere until they are repaired, which takes time that you don't have. It's also a bit obnoxious that your short-range scan isn't a free action; there's no point in trying to dogfight without using it first, so your enemies effectively always get to take potshots at you, increasing the odds that they damage something you really need.

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