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Video Games' First Space Opera: Exploring Atari's Star Raiders

Continuing Gamasutra's official histories of the games voted into the Digital Game Canon, we explore Doug Neubauer's Atari title Star Raiders, a "surprisingly complex space combat simulation" from 1979, and an obscure but vital precursor of the Wing Commander-esque digital space opera.

[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. This latest article features J. Fleming's historical look back at the landmark 3D space combat simulation Star Raiders, following histories of Spacewar, of Zork, and of Civilization.]

Doug Neubauer’s Star Raiders was a game that made a vivid first impression. Released in 1979 for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, the game was a surprisingly complex space combat simulation. However, what left players entranced was its smooth, three-dimensional graphics. Star Raiders achieved a level of realism that few people had seen in a video game before.

srcover.jpg Experienced primarily from a first person, 3D cockpit view, with larger 2D map overviews for longer travel distances, the deep space environment of Star Raiders featured motes of space dust and asteroids drifting outside the cabin. As the ship’s velocity increased they would slide past, giving a convincing sense of speed and direction.

A message on sub-space radio warned of advancing Zylons and a quick check on an overhead galactic map showed the enemy fleet spread across the quadrants, moving inevitably towards defenseless star bases.

Dropping into hyperspace, the star field stretched into radial streaks as the player rushed to intercept. Emerging from warp, the Zylons would swoop down in long strafing runs, hammering the player with plasma shots and then accelerating away into the darkness. Shields up and throttle forward on their ship’s Twin-Ion engines, the player would give chase, closing the distance and lining the enemy up in the targeting reticule.

When the player’s photon torpedoes found their mark, the Zylon ship would disintegrate in a blast of super-heated fragments, an expanding cloud of glittering particles that quickly went cold in the hard vacuum. The immediacy of Star Raiders’ presentation was palpably real and seemed to hint at a larger universe that extended well beyond the confines of the TV screen.

POKEY

1977 was the year computers got personal. Apple released its affordable Apple II system to immediate success while Commodore brought out its PET microcomputer and Tandy produced the TRS-80. By the end of the year Atari had released the 2600 console and the video game industry was booming.

Just out of college, Doug Neubauer started his career at the venerable National Semiconductor. “We worked on some early video games and National's try at a home computer/cartridge video game machine,” he remembered. “National cancelled the project because its component cost couldn't compete with Atari or the 6502/6800 based home computers of the time. After that, there was a migration of folks from National over to Atari,” Neubauer said.

Atari’s home console business was taking off and the company was eager to join the growing personal computer market. Almost as soon as the 2600 home console was released, engineers at Atari’s Grass Valley facility were looking at ways of improving the 2600’s design and work began on a project that would become the Atari 400 and 800 family of 8-bit computers. “Atari had an opening for a chip designer for their new home computer system. Luckily I got the job, so off I went to Atari. While at Atari I worked on the POKEY Chip for the Atari 800 and did Star Raiders,” Neubauer said.

underattack.gif “The POKEY [which stood for POtentiometer and KEYboard] chip was kind of the glue chip for the Atari 800. It had the keyboard interface, paddle controller interface, serial port and audio. As I remember the original spec was the audio should be ‘double’ the Atari 2600. I also added in the 17-bit noise/random number generator and simple low-pass filters (and also high-pass filters, which unfortunately didn't work).

The 17-bit noise generator gave a better rocket engine/explosion sound than the shorter 9-bit noise generator available in the 2600,” he said. The chip’s four independent audio channels also allowed developers to begin incorporating more complex polyphonic music into their games, ushering in the chip tune era.

The Atari 400 and 800 computers went on the market in 1979. The 400 was outfitted with a single cartridge slot, a membrane keyboard, and 8 kilobytes of RAM, while the more expensive 800 had two cartridge slots, a full typewriter keyboard, and 16 kilobytes of RAM. Along with BASIC programming and other productivity software, the Atari 8-bit computers also featured a library of games available on cartridges.


Star Raiders

Published in 1979, Star Raiders was a launch title for Atari’s new 8-bit computers, demonstrating their superior graphics and sound. “I just did it on the side after the POKEY chip was done, but before the Atari 800 was completed,” Neubauer remembered. “The game was created on the wire-wrap development systems. Basically I just did it for fun.”

As for how the wider elements of Star Raiders play out in terms of gameplay, the Wikipedia page for the game explains: "In Star Raiders, [the exploration] part of the game took the form of a "Galactic Chart" display dividing the game's large-scale world into a grid of sectors, some of which were occupied by enemy ships or friendly "starbases". Flying about in the 3D view with the ship's normal engines was sufficient for travel within a sector; travel between sectors was via "hyperspace", accomplished through an elaborate and noisy "hyperwarp" sequence."

When designing Star Raiders, Neubauer was inspired by the hacker-created Star Trek text game that was played on university mainframes in the early seventies. “I remembered the old Star Trek games had star bases and charts, which I incorporated into the game,” he said. “Also, the movie Star Wars and the TV show Battlestar Galactica had recently come out, which influenced some of the visuals.”

“Looking back it's interesting to see how primitive the technology was,” he recalled. “An 8-bit 1.8mhz 6502, with 8k ROM and 8k RAM. The RAM seemed like a lot compared to the 128 bytes in the 2600. At the time, the technology didn't seem limiting and in fact, seemed a quantum leap from the 2600,” he said. “Although looking back, the limitation of not having enough ROM to handle full bitmap capability or a powerful enough processor impacted the graphics.”

Even so, Neubauer had something in mind that was well beyond the single screen video games of the past. He wanted to simulate a real environment in three dimensions. “The 3-D algorithms had to be developed and no one at Atari had done this before so I had to figure them out on my own. I remember stupidly floundering for a couple weeks or so, before I finally sat down and worked out the geometry on paper,” he said. “Finally the visuals started looking right! Also, I had to invent (or re-invent) cordic rotation, since trying to calculate sine/cosine on a 2600 or using huge lookup tables, would have been a computational disaster. And of course trying to fit everything into 8k bytes.”

starraidersgamegalacticchart.gif Although Star Raiders did not feature any music, it is well remembered for its strident sound effects, which made good use of the POKEY chip’s noise generating capabilities. “I tried to get the photon torpedo sound from Star Trek working, but it would have taken too many bytes to ‘PCM’ it into ROM,” he recalled.

“Also, I wanted to fly into the space station and dock. But the resolution wasn't good enough and the visuals looked too ‘2600’ like. So I tossed that idea.” Instead, when the player’s damaged ship approached a star base, a small supply ship would come out to perform repairs and replenish energy.

Another notable part of the game was its open-endedness and ahead-of-its-time dynamic scoring system. Star Raiders' Wikipedia entry notes: "In contrast to many games of the era, the player could actually win the game by destroying all enemy ships in the galaxy. However, there was no running score display; only upon winning, dying or quitting the game would the player receive a "rating", which was a quasi-military rank accompanied by a numerical class (particularly bad play earned a rank of "Garbage Scow Captain" or "Galactic Cook"). The rating depended on a formula involving the game play level, energy and time used, starbases destroyed, the number of enemies destroyed, and whether the player succeeded in destroying all enemies, was destroyed, or aborted (quit) the mission."

With its combination of visceral action and subtle strategy Star Raiders was an immediate hit. In 1982 Atari ported Star Raiders to its new 5200 console as well as creating a version for the aging 2600 which came packaged with a numeric keypad controller.

In 1985 Atari created a Star Raiders-like game that was meant to utilize “The Last Starfighter” movie license. After the deal fell through, Atari simply renamed it Star Raiders II although Neubauer was not involved in the game’s development. A year later, a new version of Star Raiders appeared on the Atari ST computer with substantially upgraded visuals.


20th Century Fox

Despite the success of Star Raiders, Neubauer did not receive any profits from the game’s sales and he soon joined the exodus of talent leaving Atari. “At the time Atari wasn't offering royalties and the new start-ups were,” he remembered. “Many of the original Atari crew had left and Atari was starting to get that ‘big company’ atmosphere,” Neubauer said.

Working as an independent contractor, Neubauer developed several movie tie-in games for 20th Century Fox’s new game division including Alien and Mega Force in 1982 and M*A*S*H in 1983. “The appeal of 20th Century Fox was the chance to work on their movie licenses like Star Wars,” Neubauer said.

Unfortunately, disappointment soon set in. “The first shock was that just because a company makes a movie doesn't mean they have the rights to make a video game of the movie,” he remembered.

“Case in point, Star Wars. They didn't have the rights to it. Oops!”

“In the end the whole thing didn't work very well,” Neubauer recalled. “There was a rush to crank out video games in a few weeks to cash in on the craze. And then in '83 the whole industry collapsed. Fox closed down in '84, I think. Also, in '84 the Tramiel's bought Atari from Warner and shortly thereafter shut down the video game department.”

b_mash_front.jpg

Solaris

Neubauer left the video game industry after the Crash but a few years later Atari commissioned him to develop a game for the 2600 console. “In '86 I got a call from Atari. They were getting back into video games and were interested in a space game I was working on,” he said.

Coming extremely late in the 2600’s extended lifecycle; Neubauer’s new game would be one of the most visually impressive games for the system, perhaps even surpassing Star Raiders. “Solaris was my space game for the 2600. It ran on 16k of ROM and 256 bytes of RAM,” he said. “The perspective was a 3-D view but not a cockpit view (you could see your ship). It's Star Raiders-like, but more of an action game than Star Raiders. Also, you have planets you can land on, and a trench to fly through.”

“My cousin Randy Emberlin helped me with the graphics,” Neubauer said. “Randy's a professional comic book artist who has inked Spiderman, Star Wars, etc. I especially remember him helping me on the planet crater graphics. Originally they were solid ovals, looking like ‘cartoon craters’ as Randy called them. We re-worked the graphics until we got them looking right.”

Neubauer would go on to create several other games for the Atari 2600 including Super Football and Radar Lock. “I also tried doing another space game, this time for the Nintendo NES,” he said. “But the days of one programmer doing a complete game were over, and by the time I got the game done the NES was obsolete and the game was never published.”

“Eventually Atari had a turnover in their game department and I went on to work at another startup and so had no time to work on games. Also, when working full time on games they had a tendency to turn into ‘product’ rather than games,” Neubauer recalled. “Looking back it seems the best games I did were the ones I did for fun rather than money. Probably a lesson there.”

[Some images borrowed from Wikipedia's Star Raiders entry.]

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