Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Game 240: Beamrider

I don't spend a lot of time looking at underserved consoles on Data Driven Gamer. It's in the nature of the project; whale status is based on a rough barometer of a game's enduring popularity, and when a game is made exclusively for an also-ran system, that immediately limits how popular it could ever be to begin with. When a game was made multiplatform and not originally a coin-op conversion, third-party developers would most often use the most popular console as their master platform, which in this era was decisively the Atari 2600, having outsold all of the competition combined by more than 4:1. The most prolific third-party developer of the era, Activision, targeted the 2600 almost exclusively in their early years, sometimes porting their more successful titles to other, more advanced platforms in an upgraded form, but in nearly all cases the 2600 version was their first edition, and therefore the one that interests me.

Beamrider, though published by Activision, is an exception, being developed by independent David Rolfe rather than any of their employees. Rolfe's initial design was for Mattel's Intellivision, a system that he had been instrumental to with his early contributions.


Being released in 1979, just two years after the Atari VCS's debut and well before that console hit its stride, the Intellivision is clearly a graphical powerhouse in comparison, and even compares favorably in some ways to Atari's computer line that would form the basis of the next-generation 5200 and XEGS consoles. Colorful backgrounds like in Frog Bog just weren't done on the VCS, and sprites with multiple frames of animation were pretty rare.

But many have noted the Intellivision's shortcomings and how they likely contributed to its failure to make a dent in the VCS's dominance. The higher price tag, the more complex gameplay sensibilities, the bizarre controller with its telephone number pushbuttons and 16-direction "control disc" that must have been awkward to use and ensured children couldn't simply plug in and play their games without having to read instructions first, and Mattel's inability to effectively market the system.

Rolfe's rap sheet on Mobygames shows an interesting earliest credit - a vague role of "help" with Walter Bright's Empire in 1977! The year after, he is credited as the co-developer of Atari's Home Run, and this is also the year that he wrote Intellivision's Baseball, though it wasn't released until 1980. These two games, incidentally, were used in Mattel's most infamous ad, featuring that well-known Generation X icon George Plimpton. I did say Mattel's marketing strategy needed some work.

Scan by Flashbak

Baseball was, you could say, the system's killer app. Rolfe developed it in tandem with designing the Intellivision's firmware. The two projects informed each other, and in turn informed all other Intellivision games internally developed at Mattel, as the finalized system firmware dictated what abilities and functions were readily available to all other games made for the system.

Other projects of his include the Intellivision's pack-in title Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, two arcade games for Exidy, a port of Frog Bog to the Atari VCS, and finally, Beamrider.


Beamrider looks an awful lot like Nintendo's old Radar Scope, but doesn't play that much like it. Your ship, rather than freely moving side-to-side, "jumps" across an array of five beams, and must switch frequently to target enemies and evade their fire. Each wave's goal is to shoot down 15 saucers, who zip around the screen in increasingly complex patterns and fire projectiles down the beams, but every two levels introduce a new enemy type, many of them invulnerable to your laser fire. Level 2, for instance, introduces asteroids which dumbly hurtle down the beams and can only be destroyed with your finite supply of torpedoes, and level 10 introduces blue ships that if not shot before landing, will stick around on the bottom of the screen for a few second, depriving you of maneuvering space.

Each sector concludes with a boss fight of sorts - a sentinel ship moves across the top of the screen, and can only be hit with a torpedo. You only get three per sector, and you'll want to save as many as you can for the sentinel. At first this is just a matter of timing, but before long, these sentinels become accompanied by lots of backup. Then, you have to be smart about where to fire the torpedoes and when. Learning to manipulate the various enemies so that, in moving to attack you, they open up a clear shot to the boss, is a must, but sometimes you'll still have to torpedo one or two of them to get them out of the way. You don't have to kill the sentinel to pass the sector, but this is the only way to score big points. Interestingly, the more lives you have, the bigger the payout.

Speaking of which, Beamrider is pretty generous with lives, almost as generous as it is eager to take them away from you, but it doesn't just hand them to you. Bonus lives come hurtling down the beams as yellow ships to collect, and you've got to not only maneuver to the right beams to pick them up without getting blasted into space dust by all the chaos going on, but also not let your trigger finger twitch and blow the life away, turning it into deadly radioactive dust.

I made it to sector 17 on my best playthrough, coming up just short of 40,000 points.

GAB rating: Good. I didn't love Beamrider at first. On first glance it just seemed simplistic, repetitive, and twitchy. But the more I played it and the further I got, the more I started to appreciate its deceptive depth. Doing well means recognizing and anticipating enemy patterns, thinking in split-seconds, even planning multiple moves ahead of time. There is a lot of randomness in the chaos that Beamrider throws at you, and dumb luck often makes the difference between facing an easy situation and an impossible one - I often found myself shouting "bullshit" at the screen when a bunch of bogeys fired an undodgeable battery at me nanoseconds after I moved into a corner in order to hit a target of opportunity - but the generosity of bonus lives balances things out. It's kind of like a Williams game in that regard. My only criticisms here are that movement controls can sometimes be unresponsive (especially when trying to move by tapping a direction immediately after blowing up a target), and that once you know what you're doing, the game doesn't get difficult, or interesting, until about eight sectors in, which takes too long for an arcade action game.


  1. Home games didn't have to kill the player right away. It was nice to have some easy levels before the game began cranking up the difficulty. Lots of nerdy kids just enjoyed succeeding at something after a long day of being kicked and bullied.

  2. Growing up in the 80's, Intellivisions were the gaming systems for the "rich" kids...

  3. Most of my notes about Rolfe's involvement with the Intellivision came from this interview:

    There's something puzzling me here. They say that Rolfe wrote "Personal instructions" for Frogs & Flies. Where, exactly? They aren't in the manual as far as I can tell, and somehow I doubt Atari would have allowed them.

  4. The Intellivision was just one of many consoles that proved technical capabilities aren't what wins console wars (see also Game Gear and Lynx vs Game Boy)


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