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Feature: '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
[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, released in 1979 for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, left its mark in memory for "a level of realism that few people had seen in a video game before," as Fleming explains: "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." Published in 1979, Star Raiders was a launch title for Atari’s new 8-bit computers, demonstrating their superior graphics and sound; Neubauer, just out of college, worked on Atari's POKEY [which stood for POtentiometer and KEYboard] chip and, prior to the completion of the Atari 800, decided to make Star Raiders as a side project, "just... for fun." Neubauer recalls some of his impressions of the time: "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.” You can now read the full feature, which is full of detail from Neubauer on Star Raiders inspirations, experiences and creation process (no reg. required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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