Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Game: Star Raiders

You'll notice we haven't had a Monday Game in quite a while. Frankly, that's because it's difficult to find enough Flash games that are 1) science fiction-related, 2) good, and 3) available for embedding.

So, for a while at least, I'm going to take a different tack, and show you some classic science fiction-related video games.

This week, we start at the top, with my all-time favorite, the killer app that not only convinced me that I wanted an Atari 800 home computer, it convinced my father to buy me one: Star Raiders.

(I just looked up "killer app" on Wikipedia to make sure I was spelling it right [I wasn't], and would you believe, in the entry "Killer Application," "An example of a killer application is Star Raiders, released in 1979 on cartridge for the Atari 8-bit computer." Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so.)

I can't tell you how many hours I spent in the early '80s playing Star Raiders, but it was somewhere between "a hell of a lot" and "way the hell too many." And I've continued to drag out the Atari 800 now and again ever since to play it.

It's truly an amazing thing. I don't know how they managed to program it in 1979 for an 8-bit computer. I don't think there was a space combat game nearly as good until at least 1982's Star Trek Strategic Operations Simulator and 1983's Star Wars, and those were arcade games.

It's a variation on the classic computer text game Star Trek from 1971, with the vast improvement that you fight in real time in 3-D space. Also, the enemy Zylons can surround, then destroy, your starbases.

Instead of a score, you receive a ranking at the end of the game, from "Rookie, Class 5" (or, if you really suck, "Garbage Scow Captain, Class 5") up through "Star Commander, Class 1." Oh, how I wanted to be a Star Commander, Class 1. During the time I played it regularly, I think I topped out somewhere in Commander, the rank below Star Commander.

But sometime around 2002, not having played the game in a couple of years, I finally did it. I guess my reflexes finally got good enough. I got the top score two or three times, and even recorded it once. However, it was a lousy recording, because I was only able to attach the Atari 800 to the video recorder with a wonky and static-plagued RF box. However, I recently bought a cable with S-Video and RCA audio outputs, so I was able to drive myself around the freakin' bend, trying to replicate my feat.

And last week, I finally managed it. And here it is.

Part One

0:03: Here's where you can really see the Star Trek influence. Unsurprisingly, the groups of four dots are groups of four Zylon ships, and the groups of three dots are groups of three Zylon ships. Not unsurprisingly, the thing that looks like a little spaceship is a group of two Zylon ships. (It also represents one ship, if that's all that's left in a sector, but all groups start out with at least two.) Groups of two (or one) move twice as often as groups of three, which move twice as often as groups of four. So you want to clear out the groups of two as quickly as possible, to make it more difficult for the Zylons to surround a starbase.

0:29: Unlike in Star Trek, the sector is bigger than you can see, and sometimes the Zylons are out of range of your scanners. In that case, you have to hyperwarp within the sector, and hope for the best. (Incidentally, I'm changing between these views with the keyboard, and doing the fighting with a standard Atari one-button joystick.)

0:54: For some reason, they disincentivized warping all over the place. The "warp energy" goes up smoothly with distance until you hit 260. Then it suddenly jumps to 500. That's why I make this trip in two hops: it's cheaper in energy. (The amount of energy you use is one of the factors in the final score. Besides which, you have only so much energy, and then you must go to a starbase to refuel.)

2:15: The real frustrating thing about Aft View is that the controls are reversed. Which is kind of silly; it's not like this is a rear-view mirror. But never mind.

2:47: That's sublight engines, not hyperwarp engines. Some people use them during battle, but I only ever use them to approach starbases.

3:33: Here, I wait for the Star Date to roll over to 02.00, because I know the groups of two (which move every .50) and three (which move every 1.00) are about to move. (Groups of four move every 2.00, but don't start until Star Date 03.00.)

4:00: Fortunately, the game doesn't exclude already-damaged items from the list of things to be randomly damaged or destroyed. In this case, "Engines Damaged" came up again. And it's not even additional damage; it's the same as before.

4:20: "Photons Damaged" means they now only shoot from one side, instead of alternating sides.

4:48: You've probably noticed the steering drifts while I'm building up to hyperwarp, and I have to fight it to keep on target. Here, I don't quite make it, and end up spending 500 of energy instead of the 260 I was aiming for.

Part Two:

2:19: "Sub-Space Radio Destroyed" means the Galactic Chart won't update. Also, if I were a slow enough player that Zylons could surround a starbase, I wouldn't get warning of that. Also, my Long Range Scan is damaged, hence the mirror imaging.

2:47: Because I've destroyed all the groups of two, I know none of the groups of three are going anywhere until at least 06.00, nor any groups of four until 07.00, so I can let the radio problem keep.

5:42: Yes, my photons are damaged, my engines are damaged, my targeting computer is destroyed, my long range scan is damaged, and my sub-space radio is destroyed. The only thing that works all right is my shields. Plus, my energy is getting low. Time to visit a starbase.

5:56: I dropped shields to save energy. (The starbase can somehow repair you even when your shields are up.) I got extremely lucky here, with the starbase visible from my forward view. Otherwise, I'd have had to check Long Range Scan, hope it was close enough for my damaged engines to reach in a reasonable time (and if not, hyperwarp within the sector), line it up with my ship, see if it's the real starbase or the mirror image by whether it moves toward or away from me when I start the engines, and hope it's lined up in the vertical axis (which I can't check in Long Range, and can't see the figures for with my computer destroyed) as well as vertical so I don't fly right over or under it without ever seeing it. Believe me, I could really have screwed the pooch timewise, here.

Part Three:

0:58: Unless I missed one earlier, this is the first Zylon baseship I've encountered this game. They have shields—which really is just to say that they have to be fairly close before your hits destroy them. And they flash in a neat way. That I faced so few was probably a contributing factor in my top rank. Having them pound away at you in Aft View is especially annoying/dangerous.

5:45: Oops. That's the problem with having Long Range/Sector Scan destroyed—if the range (R:) isn't changing, you can't check it to see if an enemy is right on top of you.

So, having not only reached Star Commander, Class 1, but having preserved it in fairly good resolution for posterity, what am I going to do now? I don't know, maybe throw Star Raiders away and never play it again? I've reached an age where my skills at things like this aren't going to improve with time. But at least I can say now that once, I was the best. Moo-ha-ha-ha-ha!

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