Thursday, August 22, 2013

Retro Game Review -- River Raid

GameRiver Raid

System: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Ranking: Four Quarters 

System: Atari 5200
Year: 1983
Ranking: Four Quarters

River Raid is one of my all-time favorite Atari games. I'm happy to report that after a little over thirty years, it holds up quite nicely. River Raid is still fun to play after all these years because it works on several different levels.

First, there is the shooting aspect of the game: blow-up anything and everything on the screen. You blow-up lumbering battleships, darting helicopters and volatile fuel depots. You complete a "level" by blasting through a formidable bridge at the end of each river segment. The top-down, top-to-bottom scrolling action provides an exciting, varied view as you shoot your way up the River of No Return.

Shooting games are fun, but what separates River Raid from many of its contemporaries is the added complexity of resource management. As you progress deeper into the suburban jungles, precious jet fuel is used up. Conveniently located fuel depots provide you the opportunity to fill-up, but they are also worth massive amounts of points. A successful River Raider needs to balance the desire to blow up the fuel depot with the necessity of acquiring more fuel for the plane. Luckily, astute pilots can do both: filling-up during the initial approach and then blasting away as departing for further annihilation. 

Third, River Raid has impressive graphics. Activision made it's name on vibrant, colorful graphics, and River Raid does not disappoint  However, while the colors were outstanding, what truly sets River Raid apart from other games of its time is the varied and detailed river maps. Atari 2600 ROMs are, in general, limited to 4K of RAM. That's less memory than this blog entry. Storing all the map permutations on a single ROM would have been impossible. Carol Shaw, the first female video game designer, used a procedural algorithm to draw the morphologically complex river deterministically. Rather than have a single game screen, as seen in Pac-Man or Q*bert, the game board in River Raid is ever changing. This adds significantly to the level of excitement.  

Finally, because there is both a point and embryonic level system, players can choose how they want to play the game. Players can opt to shoot for a high score, or they can try to see how deep they can make it into enemy territory. I generally played for distance because I just had to know what was beyond the next river bend.  

The Atari 5200 version of the game, like many of Activision's ports to this system, is essentially the same as the 2600 version. There are some enhancement to the graphics, but they are mostly superficial. Activision did add hot air balloons, tanks, and additional helicopters to the enemy forces. In fact, the additional tanks and helicopters also have the ability to fire at the player to enhance the challenge. The reason the 5200 version succeeds so well is because it was based so closely on the fantastic 2600 version. 

The one question that has always nagged me about River Raid is why can't the jet just fly over the pastoral, enemy-free fields lining the river? Is the pilot petrified of flying over land? Are the river banks infinitely tall? Has Evil Otto or one of the other evil Atari villains erected a force field around the river? Did Pitfall Harry retire to one of the houses along the rivers and does he forbid fly-overs? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

River Raid -- Atari 2600
River Raid -- Atari 5200

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that the true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.