Released in 1982, River Raid was one of Activision’s earliest hits. Long before being known for controversial business practices, and publishing another Call Of Duty annually they were a fledgling upstart. One that took the unbridled creativity of ex Atari programmers, and gave them credit for producing games. Many of the early Activision names went on to have big successes on the Atari 2600. David Crane, Garry Kitchen, were two of the big names. But River Raid was made by Carol Shaw.
PROS: Tight controls. Game play innovations. One of the 2600’s marvels.
CONS: The complete lack of a soundtrack.
RED ALERT: The panic ensues at higher stages.
She had done other games while working for Atari, like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe which added an awful lot of depth to a simple game. But River Raid was, and still is one of the technical marvels in the Atari 2600 library. It was also one of the earliest games that would publicly acknowledge a woman for creating it. Not only does the River Raid manual include a short bio about her (the way all of the early Activision game manuals credited their games’ respective designers), future ports made her name the marquee.
As for the game itself, it may seem like any other simple arcade style shoot ’em up of the era. But River Raid, does a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time. For starters, when you fire up the game for the first time, you’ll see visual details that many other 2600 games simply did not have at that time. Most of the 2600 shmups up to that point took place on a black background, on a static screen. River Raid also bucked that trend, by being one of the earliest shooting games on the 2600 to scroll vertically. Many other titles would also show up around that time to do vertical scrolling like Data Age’s Journey Escape, or Parker Bros.’ Spider-Man. Players who weren’t around for those early years of console games, may not realize just how big a deal this was.
That one feature would set it apart from many other games released on the market from 1977 to 1982. But a lot of vertically scrolling games made for the VCS in 1982 onward would now have to meet or beat this standard. Graphically, River Raid is also one of the most visually impressive games on the Atari 2600. The game makes excellent use of color to determine where there is water, where there is land, and even has some pretty cool enemy vehicle designs.
The object of the game of course, is to try to score as many points as possible without touching any land. Or crashing into vehicles or bridges for that matter. You’re flying along a river of no return. As such, you’re basically flying just above the choppy waters trying to shoot down targets. You’ll be blowing up tanker ships, helicopters, and higher altitude fighter planes. The river is broken up into sections. At the end of each of these sections is a bridge that needs to be destroyed in order to advance to the next section.
All of this might sound pretty easy until you also notice there’s a fuel gauge on the screen. River Raid also utilizes a fuel system. If your plane runs out of gas, at any time you’ll fall into the river, and explode. How do you keep your aircraft fuelled, and airborne? By flying over fuel tanks. But the little touches that add complexity aren’t over yet. You see, you can also accelerate, and decelerate your plane. pushing up on the joystick will speed up your plane, while pulling back will slow it down. What complicates matters is the fact that the faster you fly, the faster you run out of gas, and it becomes harder to maneuver small areas.
Moreover, the sections of river become more, and more complex the further you go. The game speeds up, and you’ll see branching paths in the river at the last possible second. Then you’ll have to start making split second choices. Do you take the path with more enemies, and try to go for points? Or do you take the path with a lot of twists, and turns? The latter might not have enemies, but it does have a lot of fuel. On the other hand, the paths are narrow. So getting through without crashing into a riverfront house is going to prove difficult. And of course the game’s scoring system gives you some respectable points for blowing up fuel containers. But if you do that, you won’t be able to get all of the fuel out of them. Unless you become a top-tier player who knows exactly when to blow up the container while refueling. One thing that is nice, is that the game sets off a warning when you’re almost out of fuel. You also get extra lives for doing well. Every 10,000 points will give you an extra plane, though you will max out at nine of them.
Of course, River Raid did so well on the Atari 2600 Activision would port it to most of the popular platforms of the era. There were versions for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers, as well as the Atari 5200. There were also ports for IBM PC compatibles, the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 computers too. Activision even put out versions for the Intellivision, and ColecoVision. Nearly all of these versions look much better than the 2600 original, but the 2600 version is arguably a little bit more responsive than some of the others. A few of the ports do add a few arrows to the quiver like tanks that shoot at you from the bridges, and faster attack helicopters. Still, no matter which version of the game you pick up, you’re going to have a great time. River Raid stands the test of time because of the core game design. Every aspect of the game offers you some element of risk versus reward. It also does this with some airtight controls. If you’re collecting for a platform it appeared on, you really ought to pick it up. Especially if that platform is the Atari 2600. The 2600 original is a pioneer on many fronts, and it’s still a blast today. Classic game enthusiasts are still trying to speed run their way to the kill screen of exclamation. Whether you grew up playing shmups in the era of Space Invaders or the era of Ikaruga, chances are you’ll be able to appreciate River Raid, and what it did for the decades of shmups that followed.
Final Score: 9 out of 10