Pete Davison: Thoughts on Star Raiders

Posted on May 12, 2011 by

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1979’s Star Raiders and its 1986 sequel are, to me, two of the most memorable games I’ve ever played. The original Star Raiders was notable for being a pretty convincing simulation of what it might like to be to fly a spaceship and defend a galaxy that absolutely, 100% wasn’t ripped off from Battlestar Galactica, oh no, from the “Zylons”. Sure, it had crude graphics and sound, but its interesting blend of spaceflight, combat and light strategic elements made it a compelling example of early gaming that is actually still perfectly playable today, unlike many other retro “classics”. It also taught me what “red alert” meant long before I ever saw my first Star Trek episode.

Its sequel upped the ante with better graphics, a wider variety of foes to battle against and more things to do than just fly around and shoot Zylons in space — you got to orbit planets, take on motherships, bomb bases and all sorts of things.

Now, some 25 years after the last Star Raiders game made an appearance, we have a brand new one for both Xbox 360 and Windows (and, if Sony ever gets PSN up and running again, PS3.)

I will preface this by saying that if you are thinking about playing this game on a console, just don’t, all right? If you never played Wing Commander III on PlayStation 1, you’ve never known the horror of having too many controls and not enough buttons on your joypad. Hint to developers: if you need to include a “shift” button in your joypad-based control scheme, you may wish to rethink it somewhat.

Try it on a PC with a proper Giger alien-penis joystick and some not-inconsiderable control redefining, though? Now that’s more like it. What we have here is a relatively simplistic space game that, unlike many recent examples, remembers that space is three-dimensional, and that it is, in fact, possible to “loop the loop” in space, along with go up and down, turn left and right and roll around your axis.

A good start. Add a transforming ship to that mix and you have some interesting possibilities. Your all-new Star Raiders ship (called, inexplicably, “Jasper”) can transform between “Attack” (constant forward movement, high top speed, poor turning, guns and missiles), “Assault” (mech-like move-and-strafe, lower top speed, excellent turning, guns and heavy laser beam) and “Turret” (rapid aiming, snail’s pace movement, super-powerful heavy weapons) modes. When I first started playing, I wondered why you’d ever want to switch out of “Attack” mode, until I realised that I was spending an awfully long time chasing down Zylon fighters that were more manoeuvrable than me. So I switched to “Assault” mode and found that I could kill them rather more easily. And “Turret” mode came in handy for dealing with capital ships.

The first few missions were a bit samey, despite claiming to be “recon” and “combat” missions — they all seemed to involve “destroy [x] number of Zylon fighters”, possibly against a time limit. But then the fourth “story” mission came along, which tasks you with finding a piece of a secret weapon that will help you deal with a Zylon secret weapon. Said piece of secret weapon is stashed somewhere in an asteroid. And this asteroid is pretty big. So big that when you’re flying over its surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were conducting a planetside mission. Not only that, but part of the mission involves going inside the asteroid, at which point switching to Assault mode effectively turns the game into Descent, which is awesome. I’ll ignore, for now, the fact that the game crashed on me at this point just as I was about to finish that mission.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Star Raiders when I first started playing it. Then I looked at the clock and realised I’d been playing for nearly two hours. So something must be right somewhere. It’s clearly not the original game in any shape or form — the “galactic map” interface in the game is a glorified mission select screen rather than the strategic overview of the original — but what it does offer is a good, fun, if simplistic space combat game with some nice ideas and a horrendously poor control scheme on console.

At £6.99, though, you can probably afford to take a chance on it, though, right?

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Posted in: Pete Davison