STAR RAIDERS ACADEMY
This is your commander speaking
by JOE HAFNER
When NASA trains astronauts for space missions they create a closed environment, called a Space Flight Simulator, which closely resembles the conditions of space. One of the most sophisticated elements of this simulator is the Computer General Imagery equipment, which projects a view of the stars and planets onto the capsule window as if the capsule were actually in space. The visual effects are very real, and the equipment used to create the projections costs several million dollars.
For the cost of a Star Raiders cartridge, we who are earthbound can also experience the thrill of space travel, including intergalactic confrontations, docking maneuvers, and warps through hyperspace. The visual effects here are also very real, especially when you add a dash of imagination.
The game of Star Raiders was conceived and implemented at Atari by Dave Neubauer, who also designed the POKEY chip. At the time of its design, early in 1979, it was one of the largest games written, requiring 8K of ROM storage. When the technical and marketing people at Atari saw Star Raiders in action for the first time, they knew it was a winner, and took great pride in being able to present the game to the public.
Star Raiders is a conceptually sophisticated game, involving timing, strategy, and three-dimensional geometry as well as the usual aiming accuracy and quick reflexes characteristic of most arcade and video games. As such, it is basically a real-time adventure game. For all of its sophistication, however, the game still follows the Atari policy of providing a clear, unambiguous, and responsive control interface between man and machine, which means that it is easy to learn and to play. The ten-page manual supplied with the game clearly indicates the use of the controls and the screen displays. It also describes the four levels of play the scoring mechanism, and some of the strategies useful for getting through a mission. In this article we will examine some of the more intricate game-playing techniques to help you get a better start at becoming a Star Raiders master.
The premise of the game is simple. You are a lone Atarian Starship attempting to save a number of remote starbases from a horde of attacking enemy Zylon ships. The enemy tries to surround and destroy your starbases to obtain raw material for building new Zylon warships, while destroying all forms of humanoid life in the process.
If you are a beginner at the game, play at the Novice Level. This is also a good place for young children to play. At the Novice Level you have time to learn the operation of the major controls, the joystick, the indicators, and the several screen displays. With your shields up your ship cannot be damaged, and the Zylons will always seek you out. In the higher levels of play you may have to actually track down a Zylon in order to engage and destroy it.
The theoretical maximum rating in Novice Level is a Warrior rank, but in actual play a Lieutenant rating is as well as can be expected. If you consistently get an Ace or Lieutenant rating at the Novice Level then it's time to move up to the more interesting levels. By that time you should have a good understanding of the controls, and the attack pattern of the aliens.
The Pilot Level, one step up from Novice, will first introduce you to steering through hyperspace. This can be confusing at first, but needn't be if you understand the concept. On the forward screen you will see the large crosshairs which are put there by your Attack Computer. In the center you will recognize from the Novice Level the smaller cross which is the hyperwarp target marker. In the higher levels of play the hyperwarp target marker tends to drift around.
Actually, you must imagine that your ship is drifting, and the marker is fixed. Your steering corrections on the joystick are really attempts to move the Attack Computer crosshairs, which are drifting, over the hyperwarp target marker, which is fixed relative to space geometry. Therefore, if the marker is above the crosshairs, your ship has drifted low, and you must pull back on the stick to raise the crosshairs. If the marker is left of center, then move the stick left to compensate. Remember you are steering the crosshairs, not the hyperwarp target marker.
Another game feature which you will need to understand in the higher levels of play is the Long Range Scanner. It shows the position of the enemy ships in a sector in relation to the position of your space ship. However, it is not always obvious, because of the three dimensional nature of a sector, where exactly the enemy is situated.
In order to understand the Long-Range Scan you have to understand simple projection geometry. Think of the sector as a clear ball with your ship in the center and the Zylons anywhere else within the ball. Now slide a flat plate of glass right through the center of the ball, so that your ship is sitting on the glass as if it had landed there. Place the ball on the ground, with the glass plate perfectly horizontal, and stand directly above the ball. Now, from the position of your eyes, draw a straight line down through the Zylon position and onto the glass plate. This is shown as a side view in Figure 1. Even though the actual Zylon position is at point A, its apparent position on the Longe Range Scan is point B, which always seems closer than it actually is.
Now consider what happens when you pull back on the stick and cause the glass plate to rotate until it touches the Zylon. The Zylon position is accurately indicated on the Long Range Scan. The Scanner effectively collapses all points inside the clear ball so that they lie directly on the glass plate, but without rotating the plate.
Incidentally, you will notice the same effect, which is technicaily known as vector projection, also occurs for the range indicator, which only indicates accurate range values when the target is directly ahead. This is when the Q and 0 indicators are both zero. You can get a good understanding of these effects by flying around in a sector which has a starbase and observing the Long Range Scan and range indicator as you adjust the position of your ship with the joystick.
In any good spacecraft design there are backup systems available to get you to safety in case your ship is damaged. This is also true in your ship. Only loss of photon torpedos can totally prevent you from engaging and destroying Zylons. Your Long Range Scanner and Attack Computer are complementary. You can use one in place of the other at a reduced efficiency level. Your impulse and hyperwarp engines cannot be damaged, so you can always get to a starbase sector when necessary.
If your impulse engines are destroyed and you need to catch a Zylon who is beyond range, line up the target with either the Attack Computer or the Long Range Scan, and engage hyperwarp. Do not just make steering corrections, but do abort the hyperwarp just before leaving normal space, or if the target is sighted. This should put you in range for a battle.
Even if your Subspace Radio (which recieves Zylon position information for the Galactic Chart) is destroyed, you can use your knowledge of Zylon movement patterns to search out their current positions without going to a starbase for repairs.
Being able to battle Zylons with reduced system efficiency is an important means of increasing your rating. This is because it takes time to get to a starbase sector, dock, and wait for repairs from the shuttle craft. Time is a negative factor in computing your rating, and each docking maneuver decreases your score by a few points. There is usually time for no more than five or six docking maneuvers at the highest level of play, the Commander Level, and still hope for a Star Commander-Class 1 rating, the highest obtainable.
You must get used to operating with damaged or destroyed sytems in order to get maximum ratings. With practice you should be able to steer through hyperspace without your Attack Computer crosshairs, and still be able to hit your target sector most of the time. This skill is essential when you are trying to dock at a starbase to get your destroyed computer repaired; you have very little hope of completing the mission without this skill. Part of the strategy of the game is knowing how much damage you can sustain before docking for repairs becomes the most prudent choice. There are no pat answers for this, and each individual commander must make his own decisions. It's lonely at the top!
Another element of this game is quick thinking under pressure. Consider this scenario: Your photons and your shields are destroyed, as well as your Subspace Radio, so you decide to dock for repairs. Without the Radio, you cannot be sure of the Zylon positions, so you choose a starbase which appears safe from imminent destruction. You manage to dock successfully, and the repair shuttle craft begins to approach your ship. Without warning, the starbase on your screen explodes into a million pieces taking the repair crew with it. The starbase was surrounded after all! The Zylons are fast builders, and instantly build two new warships from the starbase debris, and begin to attack your defenseless ship. You have only a few seconds to make the right decision, touch the appropriate controls, and (possibly) live to tell the tale to other commanders back at Starfleet Headquarters. Survival in situations like this separates the rookies from the veterans.
As your skill improves you may find yourself getting the maximum rating more and more often. So what do you do for more challenge? Try these game variations. Play Novice or Pilot Level missions without shields. Try a Warrior or Commander Level, but allow the Zylons to destroy one or more of your starbases. Play an entire game without using the impulse engines. Or simply give the Zylons a one or two minute head start before you start attacking them.
It's also fun to play a two-player game, where one Atarian runs the joystick and another runs the keyboard controls. This is a good way to play when friends who are not familiar with all the game features want to play. Be sure to decide beforehand who gets to be captain. The heat of battle is no time to debate the issue! When you get really familiar with the game, and you're looking for a new thrill, try hooking up to a large projection TV system. The effect is awesome. With the Star Raiders manual and these few tips you should soon be saving galaxies like a seasoned starship commander.
Joe Hafner is an electronics design engineer and occasional teacher of programming. Having mastered Star Raiders, he offered to share his expertise with us.