Sunday, May 3, 2020

Game 183: River Raid

I'm a bit stumped. I can't think of much to say about River Raid at all. Designed at Activision by Atari graduate Carol Shaw, whose previous features on this blog include Polo and 3-D Tic Tac Toe, this is a vertical shmup well before its time - this sort of smooth scrolling shouldn't be possible on the Atari VCS, and somehow, here it is.

But this game is easy to the point where I found it got boring really fast. Your targets do nothing at all except move back and forth horizontally. On my first try ever, I scored 10,000 points without losing a life before quitting out of fading interest, and this was on the harder of two settings. The easier mode, I later read about in the manual, gives you guided missiles which stay horizontally aligned with your jet. Said manual offers no narrative reason why we're flying over a river at a low altitude shooting missiles at everything, but states that scoring 15,000 points is a special achievement worthy of a badge. So I played again for a bit longer, and scored over 15,000 points. The following video is my third-ever session, where I scored over 15,000 points on my first life, and quit soon after.

Apparently you can score up to a million points. This probably takes at least two hours, but I doubt it's hugely difficult as you can gain an extra life every 10,000 points. I just can't imagine staying interested anywhere near that long.

GAB rating: Average. It plays fine, looks nice, and the smooth vertical scrolling is amazing. I appreciate some of the touches like the variety of sound effects, and the way your jet visibly banks as you steer it left and right.  It's just that the gameplay is repetitive and unchallenging.

This is one game I think would have been improved with more modes. The lack of challenge really stems from the fact that with a conservative play style, the enemies pose very little threat to you, and there's more than enough fuel. You can play forever, and eventually reach whatever score you will, limited only by your patience and attention span. But what would happen if River Raid encouraged a more aggressive playstyle? I envision game modes that begin further down the river so that you skip the beginning of the difficulty curve, but have an absolute endpoint, to force you to pursue your targets more eagerly.


  1. This was a load of fun on my family's Atari 800XL computer back in the 80's. As you said, it's not much of a challenge, but it's probably on par with the games that were gobbling quarters back then.

  2. On my 2600 system, this was more challenging, perhaps because of crazy input lag and a rigid joystick. Don’t know if my system is representative of what they were like back in the day, but that could help explain its popularity.

    1. It's my non-expert understanding that the VCS has crazy low input lag. NES games have a 1-frame delay on real hardware, and SNES games have a 3-frame or higher delay, but Atari games can process input on a per-scanline basis. I've seen in hypothesized, but not proven, that Todd Rogers' "impossible" Dragster record works because of this. Of course, if you're using a flat panel with high input lag (mine measures 33.8ms and would be ranked "great" by, then that all goes out the window. I'm pretty sure de-interlacing adds some serious lag on any screen, which isn't an issue if you emulate.

      I don't have a real Atari joystick - I'm sure the game would be more difficult with one.

    2. Interesting, maybe I’ll do some experiments to isolate the cause. The lag is so large I have to consciously compensate for it when maneuvering to shoot enemies.

    3. If your 2600 was hooked up to a flat screen TV, that is the reason. The lag is the TV converting and upscaling the 240p picture from the 2600. Get a CRT for your Atari and you'll have no lag

    4. Do external hardware upscalers work well for the VCS? I've seen them do pretty amazing things for the third and fourth gen consoles. Because they have a pretty solid sense of what the source video is going to do, they can do the upscaling and deinterlacing in a more optimized way than the "we have to handle everything from an NTSC VHS to a PAL Playstation" approach the TV's upscaler takes, and they can throw more processing power at it as well.

  3. Played this one for hours on my VCS back in the day!

    Probably more challenging for 9-10 year olds...

  4. Late to the party, but longtime River Raid player here. You stopped playing a little too soon... this game starts easy but slowly gets more difficult the further you go. The dark green terrain becomes more and more claustrophobic, with narrow passageways, tight turns and ships/copters tucked in difficult to kill spots. The jets that start flying over the river are timed to hit you on their second pass, adding entropy to your ship and copter dodging.

    However, the biggest challenge becomes fuel. There is certainly more than enough at the beginning, but the further you go the more scarce it becomes, to the point you'll be recklessly flying full throttle around enemies, desperately looking for a fuel dump (and cursing yourself when you accidentally shoot it). Your plane uses fuel at a constant rate regardless of speed, so flying fast is often required to find fuel to live

    I'd say, try for 99,999 points, see how that goes. 999,999 is the top, but I think the difficulty maxes before 100K so shoot for that.


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