Doug Neubauer, one of the designers of a new Input/Output system which allowed for dynamic sound channels, created a game demo for the Atari 8-Bit computer, to demonstrate the new device. As Spacewar! before, the demo spawned a full standalone game: Star Raiders.
Doug based the game on the text and primitive graphics based Star Trek games, where players would warp to a sector of space, eliminate enemies there, and warp to a new sector, defending starbases from attack and keeping an eye on your fuel. Star Raiders iterated upon this formula with action game trappings, adding 3D, real-time combat to Star Trek’s strategic map-based view.
Neubauer states that it was the first game to use 3-D algorithms which computed positions on all three axes. He explains why explosions in the game tend to slow it down: it took a lot of processing power then to guess the trajectory of the little particles that floated away from the destroyed target. In addition, he states:
Today, of course, it’s trivial, but back then it was state of the art. The game code is built up of modules: movement, control, collision detection, audio, photon firing, Zylon brain and console monitor. Special modules for galactic charts (and enemy strategy on charts) were included, along with a module for the long-range scanner.
The game’s success would prove to be a driving force behind Atari 8-bit sales, leading to contemporary ports to then-current Atari consoles. Due to the complexity of controls and gameplay, the Atari Touchpad controller was included in the 2600 release, with an overlay for Star Raiders – which would remain the sole game specifically designed for the controller. The Atari 5200’s standard controller includes a keypad, so an overlay was supplied. Though keypads and overlays brought the gameplay closer to the Atari 8-Bit original, the game was simplified in various ways for both console releases.
Gameplay begins by choosing one of four difficulty levels. Higher difficulty results in more frequent, and more dangerous enemies. The objective is to obtain the highest game ranking, “Star Commander Class 1”. The lowest possible ranking is “Galactic Cook Class 5”. Rank is determined via a number of factors including energy used, damage taken, enemies killed, and more.
Star Raiders features a complex series of options for controlling the ship, engaging in combat, and managing energy. The screen is divided into two parts: The majority of the screen is a 3D real-time combat field. Centered is a crosshair which indicates weapon trajectory, and view orientation. Switching from fore to aft view changes the crosshair to a dash to indicate a rear-facing perspective.
A heads-up display on the lower right includes targeting data: proximity, and lock-on assistance.
The lower portion of the screen features a display including:
- V: The ship’s current velocity
- K: Enemy kills
- E: Energy units remaining out of 9999 possible
- T / C: Tracking or Attack computer status
- Θ (theta): Horizontal coordinate with respect to current targeted enemy
- Φ (phi): Vertical coordinate with respect to current targeted enemy
- R: Absolute distance to target (negative is behind ship)
In addition to the on-screen display, a variety of control options are available to the player using keyboard input (Original Atari 8-Bit version), the included touchpad controller (Atari 2600) or the Atari 5200 controller. The Atari 8-Bit version has the most complete set of controls, while the console versions are simplified in various ways.
- Selecting a number between 0 and 9 sets the speed of the ship
- A/F Sets the current view to aft or fore, as indicated by the shape of the crosshair. Controls reverse for aft view
- C/M Toggles the computer between Attack Control (the current status is indicated on the heads-up display) or manual targeting
- G Brings up the Galactic Chart
- H Engages Hyperwarp
- L Engages the Long Range Sector Scan
- S Engages shields
- T Engages Tracking Mode
- P Pauses the game
The Galactic Chart
The Galactic Chart is a strategic map representing all sectors (individual grid cells) in the galaxy, and is where the player assesses threats on star bases, determines the direction and cost of hyperwarp jumps, and can review the Star Date and damage to Star Cruiser 7.
A number of dashes in a sector represents the number of Zylon enemies in that sector, from 1 to 4. A sector with a single dash may have 1 or 2 enemies. Speed is inversely proportional to the number of enemies, so thinning an enemy fleet also increases the speed of that enemy fleet, adding strategic decision making to engagement. The Targets indicator displays the number of targets in the sector that the cursor is currently hovering over.
The star burst symbols represent stationary star bases, where the player repairs and refueles. Should all of them be destroyed, the game is lost, but every one lost results in a major reduction score, thereby reducing the player’s final rank at the conclusion of the game.
If a star base is surrounded, time is counting down before the Zylon fleet will destroy it. Every 50 time units that pass mean Zylons may move, and before too many more, should a base be surrounded, it will be destroyed. Should two bases be surrounded, only one will be the target, although it’s up to the player to figure out which one is the intended target.
A cursor, which looks like a photon bolt at long distance, helps the player plan where the ship is going to move on the Galactic Chart. As the player moves the cursor, the Warp Energy indicator will increase, showing the fuel drain of a given jump, from the sector the player is currently in to the target sector. After a certain amount, the energy drain jumps up dramatically. Whether or not this is planned, should the ship’s course deviate too much away from the ship’s start position, this fuel penalty will occur.
The letters following ‘DC’ represent the different functions which are vulnerable to damage. The letters turn yellow when a system is damaged, and pink when destroyed:
P: Photons. Damage to this system means that one of the two photon torpedo emitters are down.
E: Engines. Engines are a vital system when pursuing evasive targets, and when maneuvering to dock with a star base. Hyperspace engines cannot be damaged and are independent of the vulnerable Engine systems. Damage to the engines means that velocity is substandard, and also varies wildly from second to second, creating a violent stop-start effect past a certain velocity. Low velocities are relatively predictable, but high ones can often make the player overshoot the target during star base docking and pursuit maneuvers.
S: Shields. If the shields are off, any hit by Zylon fire or asteroids instantly obliterate the ship. While on, shields lose energy when struck, and in higher difficulty levels, this hit usually results in damage or destruction of a subsystem. Should shields be damaged, they flash on and off at a random rate. While on, they provide protection like normal shields. While off, they leave the craft vulnerable, but they still cost energy to maintain. Destroyed shields leave the ship completely vulnerable, but still cost to leave them activated.
C: Attack Computer. The attack computer is a power-draining system which includes target tracking, crosshair placement, and guided photon attacks during lock-ons. Damage to this subsystem removes the attack computer from the screen, although it still drains energy until turned off. Destruction of the system results in a frozen range finder, necessitating use of the long range sector scan for target tracking, should the enemy not be aggressive.
L: Long Range Sector Scan. The sector scan helps the player locate all enemies in the sector, even when the game limits combat to two opponents at a time. Although difficult, combat kills can be achieved through this screen. Asteroids also show up on the sector scan. Damage to the sector scan results in a double image. Destruction of the system results in complete loss of functionality.
R: Sub-space Radio. This is the system that keeps track of enemy movement, and informs the player of Zylons’ star base surrounding and destruction. Should the radio be damaged, players will not reliably receive messages that a star base is surrounded or destroyed. In addition, the Galactic Chart is frozen in the last enemy/star base layout the player saw. The cursor still functions, but the only way a player can tell how many targets are in a given sector is with the target indicator at the bottom of the galactic chart screen.
Long Range Sector Scan
The Long Range Sector Scan screen is a subset of the main screen, displaying the contents of the current sector. The player can pilot the craft, aim and fire photon torpedoes (forward only), and accelerate into hyperspace, though less quickly than from the Galactic Chart.
Any asteroids, photon torpedoes, debris, Zylons, star bases, or refuel-and-repair craft in the sector are displayed as dark dashes. They will be in a sphere around the spaceship (represented in the center of the screen, with fore pointing up, and aft pointing down). Due to the similarity of all objects, the player must deduce the identity of an object based on movement pattern.
Star Base Docking and Destruction
Docking with a star base restores a ship’s energy count to a full 9999, and repairs all damage. Every time a player docks, the score drops by a small amount, which in turn affects the final player ranking.
The player must navigate the saucer-like star base within the cross hairs, and the attack computer should has the base in full lock. Proper distance and orientation are necessary to activate the star base docking procedure. When at the proper distance, a message will come up telling the player that the procedure has begun. Moving the ship aborts the sequence. Once docked, the ship is instantly repaired and refueled, and can now leave the sector.
If a player is in a star base sector when it is destroyed, Zylons will instantly be in the sector. A player can destroy a star base with torpedoes.
Hyperwarp moves the player from one sector to another quickly, and costs fuel. Engaging hyperwarp is possible within the Galactic Map, the Long Range Sensor Scan, or on the main combat screen. While in hyperwarp, photon torpedoes no longer function, and at higher velocities, enemy photons will not be able to harm the player, making it a useful tactic to disengage from combat. The faster the ship is moving, the more quickly hyperwarp engages. In the center of the screen a small cross symbol will appear. The closer to the center this cross is, the closer to the center of the reference point on the Galactic Chart the ship will go.
Hyperspace engines will always work given enough fuel. The galactic chart allows the player to change the point of reference that the center of the screen represents.
When leaving hyperspace, the player can fire photons again.
Star Raiders was released during a revival of science fiction which followed the first Star Wars film. It also seemed strongly influenced by the original Star Trek series, which was still present in the public mindset. Faster than light travel was referred to as hyperwarp, warp being a staple term in Star Trek’s faster than light travel, and the weapons both players and Zylons use are photons, referred to sometimes as photon torpedoes, one of the main weapons in the Star Trek franchise. It may also be relevant to note that early games that featured Star Trek were often of similar design, where the player commands a Federation starship, warping from sector to sector to defend star bases from marauding enemies, keeping an eye on the fuel gauge and taking damage to ship subsystems.
Another subtle Star Trek reference seems to have been in the design of the Zylon cruiser. As it draws close, one notices a bump between the two curved arches that point downward from the ship’s middle. This close-up view could be seen to look like the head-on view of the classic Klingon Cruiser design.
References don’t seem to stop at Star Trek, though. Star Wars was referenced by the Zylon fighter, which closely resembled the TIE-fighters used by the Galactic Empire.