In the interim between the North American console market crash of 1983, and its eventual return to greatness in 1985 something had happened. While many software houses disappeared, others survived. One such case was Activision. Activision began to see a proverbial life boat in home computers. They continued to support the Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, and Colecovision. But while many other companies struggled with what to do next, they were one company who began making computer versions of their games. At one point, they even changed their name to Mediagenic for a short time, and tried branching out into other kinds of software. This didn’t work. But the migration to computer gaming did.
PROS: Great presentation. Great game play.
CONS: Accidentally wasting missiles.
DON’T: Accidentally destroy the 1-Ups.
One such pre NES era Activision game is Beamrider. Released in 1983, and coded by David Rolfe, it’s a space ship shoot ’em up with a third person view. What makes this game stand out however are the Tron inspired lines your ship, the enemies, and objects move along. Every one of the 99 waves sees your ships flying along a giant grid. you can move left or right, and you can fire with the fire button.
Interestingly, you only stop moving upon each vertical line. This is where a lot of the high play comes in later. Like you, the enemies can move along horizontal lines. Unlike you, they aren’t limited to those lines. They’ll flow, in, and out of the background. Often going up, and down the lines in their attack patterns. Early on, you’ll face some pretty simplistic enemy fighters. Your lasso shaped lasers will take them out in a single hit, and the only real obstacles are the indestructible green shields that float around on the lines.
But after a few waves you’ll find yourself avoiding meteors, shields, enemy ships, and more. Each wave the enemy attack patterns become more, and more complicated. On top of this, you’ll have to avoid the aforementioned enemy shields, meteors, and other obstacles. You should also know you can only fire one laser at a time. There are no rapid fire features or power ups to save you. If you can get far into Beamrider you’ll find it gets faster, and throws in more, and more. But despite this fact, once you really begin to learn to analyze patterns you’ll find things become easier to deal with. By no means does the game become a breeze. But you’ll go further, and further before things seem insurmountable. Even when they do, remember every wave only consists of 15 standard enemies. It’s avoiding all of the extra stuff while trying to destroy them that presents that addictive high score challenge.
At the end of each wave (Which the game calls Sectors) is a massive boss that scrolls off in the distance. If you can destroy it using your torpedoes, you’ll get a massive point bonus. You can shoot these by pushing up on the controller. But note you’ll only have three torpedoes per life. So use them wisely. Something that will no doubt keep you around is the way the game deals out 1-Ups. Instead of calling them 1-Ups or Extra Lives the game refers to them as Rejuvenators. These appear on the play field, and have an interesting mechanic. If you crash into them, you’ll gain another life. If you shoot them, they become space debris, and crashing into them will kill you. It’s something so small, yet changes up the game because it’s another thing you have to keep watch for. It also ties into the game’s storyline.
Yes. Beamrider has a storyline. In the distant future, a massive device known as the Restrictor Shield isolates the Earth. As the Beamrider, you have to clear the shield which is composed of 99 sectors. Each of which is guarded by a Sector Sentinel. As you get further, and further the deluge deepens. David Rolfe’s Beamrider initially released on the Intellivision, and the Atari 2600 (with some minor concessions I’ll get to). Activision contracted Action Graphics to convert the game to the Atari 5200, Atari 400/800/XE computer line, Colecovision, Commodore 64, and MSX computer platforms. Activision contracted Software Creations to port the game to the ZX Spectrum.
Graphically, Beamrider is a game that was visually impressive back when it was new, and it still doesn’t look too shabby today. Most of the versions are able to render an auto scrolling grid effect, and the Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit computers, MSX, and Commodore 64 versions all have a really cool blast door effect. When you begin a new wave, you’ll see a top, and bottom door, with a gap in the middle. That gap actually displays the animated grid you’ll be playing on! The doors open, and you’re off. It blew everyone away in 1983, and it’s still impressive today. Some have compared the look to Nintendo’s Radar Scope, or Konami’s Juno First. While these games do have grids, (Juno First being made up of dots rather than lines) they don’t auto scroll the way David Rolfe’s shooter does. The game play is also quite different here, making things feel rather unique.
Another really cool feature with these versions happens when you lose a ship. Upon your death, you will see the grid fade off into the distance, leaving behind a starry background while your flaming scrap heap of a ship floats through the depths of space. Then it’s back to the blast doors unless you’re out of lives. Then you’re stuck with a Game Over. The Atari 2600 version makes a couple of cutbacks, likely due to the memory limitations of the console. Two of the enemy ship types have been omitted from the game, and the blast door effect is also missing. The animated grid effect is here, although the vertical lines are composed of dots rather than lines. You also won’t be getting the grid elimination effect upon your demise. Again, this is likely due to either limitations of memory, or the 2600’s TIA chip. Despite these edits however, it is one of the most responsive versions of Beamrider. It manages to keep performance up to pace with the more visually appealing ports, and retains nearly everything else.
The ZX Spectrum port retains the blast door effect, but the grid effect is made entirely of dots rather than lines. It also doesn’t have the grid fade effect when you die. Although when you’re out of lives it does change to a deep space background. It doesn’t look as nice as the other versions, but it retains the general game play. If you can somehow make it through all of the sectors in any of the versions it won’t matter as the score will max out at 999,999 points. Be that as it may, there are but a proverbial handful of people who can or have done this. So if you can do it, congratulations. And even if you can’t, find solace in the fact that if you can crack 40,000 points or more by Sector 14 you could have won a coveted Activision patch back in the day. (Throughout their early days, the publisher rewarded skilled play with iron on patches based on their games.) Still, this is a shmup I would say just about anybody can enjoy. About the only issue you’ll run into is how easy it is to accidentally fire a torpedo you’ve been saving for the Boss.
If you don’t happen to own one of the retro platforms Beamrider first appeared on, but you find yourself interested in playing it, it did appear in a couple of compilations. Activision Anthology (PS2, GBA), Activision Anthology Remix (PSP, PC) featured the 2600 version of the game, while the Activision Commodore 64 15 Pack (Windows 95) features the Commodore 64 version. If you can manage to find Intellivision Rocks, (PC) you’ll find the original Intellivision version is included.
So often in the world of retro games, early titles get overlooked for a variety of reasons. Beamrider should not be one of those games. If you collect for one of the consoles or computers it originally appeared on, keep an eye out for it. It isn’t one of the cheaper titles for those platforms, but it is certainly worth having in your collection. For those who aren’t ready to dive into investing into one of those platforms, but are interested in checking it out, one of the aforementioned compilations is worth looking into. Beamrider is one of the highlights of home gaming in the first half of the 1980’s. Whether you’re an enthusiast of the genre who owns everything from Aleste to Giga Wing, or a fan looking to play something different, Beamrider is one shmup that stands the test of time.
Final Score: 9 out of 10