Zylon killer becomes killer app
Doug Neubauer, one of the designers of a new Input/Output system which allowed for dynamic sound channels, created a game to demonstrate the capability of this new device. As Spacewar! before it, it was made with showing off technical capabilities in mind, but gained a life of its own. The game eventually developed from this demo was called Star Raiders.
Doug based the game on the text and primitive graphics based Star Trek games, where players would warp to a sector of space, eliminate enemies there, and warp to a new sector, defending your starbases from attack and keeping an eye on your fuel. Star Raiders took this formula and made it an action game, adding the need for good reflexes and quick thinking to help one win against the alien aggressors.
The basics of Star Trek were still there: different types of enemy ships, a finite amount of fuel, different sectors that must be explored through faster-than-light travel, and starbases that are the source of fuel, which, if destroyed, lead to the game being lost even if the player's ship was still functional. Doug also incorporated a damage system, which hindered or wiped out various ship functions (although there was minimal enough functionality still allowed to let a player return to a star base for repairs.
The game was such a huge success as to be the driving force behind Atari 8-bit sales. It spawned several imitators and spin-offs.
In an interview Doug Neubauer states that it was the first game to use 3-D algorithms which computed positions on all three axes. He explains why explosions in the game tend to slow it down: it took a lot of processing power then to guess the trajectory of the little particles that floated away from the destroyed target. In addition, he states:
Today, of course, it's trivial, but back then it was state of the art. The game code is built up of modules: movement, control, collision detection, audio, photon firing, Zylon brain and console monitor. Special modules for galactic charts (and enemy strategy on charts) were included, along with a module for the long-range scanner.
Below is a more detailed explanation of all of the elements of these modules that make up the game.
Explanations of the screens you will see when playing Star Raiders
An Interpretation of the Main Screen, with Random Observations Relating to Gameplay
The plus in the center is the aiming crosshair for your targeting computer. The plus means that you're facing forward; if you're looking through the aft view port it's a minus.
The box in the lower right of the non-text area is part of the targeting computer that shows you how close you are to a lock-on, which doubles your fire with a single trigger press, and guides your shots into hitting the target a lot more efficiently (locks are a great way to knock back the enemy 's fire as you try to slap them down). Four bars in there light up when you have vertical and horizontal lock, but the bottom two bars light up when the range is right for a lock on.
Having the attack computer on is good when you're hurrying to kill guys to save a base that's about to die, but otherwise it's usually a waste of energy. Although, not as much of a waste of energy as:
The tracking computer. In the upper right of the text bar is either a "T" or a "C". If the T is there, it means that the targeting computer is off, which is smart. What it does is switches the view to rear view if one of the enemies slips to your aft, no matter how far away they are in the sector, and automatically selects a target based on how near the enemies are. It's a big drain on energy, and energy expenditure is the inverse of how you get your final rank. You switch the basic target tracking with the M key, if the tracking computer's off.
Other features of the computer are the lower left and lower middle numbers, which show vertical and horizontal targeting for the current selected target. The lower left is the X axis, and the lower middle is Y axis, with pluses being toward the upper right quadrant, and negatives toward the lower left. R is range, with plus numbers being to your fore, and negative to your aft.
Should the computer be destroyed, all of these features are gone and you have to track down enemies with long range sector scan and visual clues, and switch from fore to aft view manually. If you take damage and you're trying to save fuel anyway, you almost won't notice these things' absence, although the range finder really helps when you're trying to hunt down bad guys.
The V is velocity, which you alter through thrusters and hyperspace thrusters. Good for chasing after the enemies who prefer to run from you or hide deep in the sector, the slippery bastages.
K is how many kills you've racked up, and there are an increasing amount of kills that need to be made in each level of difficulty. You can gauge how much of a risk you should take in a given encounter based on how many kills you have to go. If there are a lot to go, it might be best to repair the sub-space radio, or go easy on fuel expenditure.
The most important stat on this screen is E, or energy. When you hit zero, you're dead. Shield hits drop you 100, and your weapons, photons, drop you a tenth of a shield hit. Everything pretty much costs energy, including basic systems even if all the features are shut down, so you have to be careful you're not draining the energy too quickly, both for score and survival purposes. You can dock with bases to refuel, but doing this takes time, and eats away at your score as well.
On the screen right now, the enemy cruiser is near the middle, and seems to be in the player's target lock. Cruisers are harder to hunt down, they're usually the guys you have to hit the engines to chase after. It looks like it's firing a photon at you in this screen shot, but that could be you shooting at it. The cluster of dots below it show that it's likely that your photons and its photons have met and exploded. It's nice when stuff explodes because the game slows down, allowing you to think more about what you need to do.
The fighter in the upper right, the TIE-Fighter looking guy, is in a spot that is very, very bad, because your photons shoot out of the lower part of the screen. It can hit you and you can't do much but maneuver to dodge it... which is a bit weird since without any velocity you're basically a sitting target. Not saying this game is perfect. Fighters are also rather aggressive, so it's a good idea to spin around to try to get it down where your cannons are.
Finally, the reason the screen isn't black as space is because the shield is on. Without shields, one photon hit or hit from an asteroid collision is instant death. With them, you lose energy, and if you aren't on easy level, you take damage most of the time, losing the functionality of one of the features above, or other stuff I haven't mentioned. Only one system is affected per hit, and it's either damaged (partially functional) or destroyed (most of the time completely nonfunctional, which is especially bad if that happens to be your shields or weapons).
Note: the enemy not shown is the Zylon basestar (not to be confused with the friendly star base, although both have the same flashing, golden glow). Players who pride themselves in sharpshooting enemies who creep in at a distance may be a bit frustrated, because you cannot harm basestars at long range. Basestars have a defensive screen which prevents damage until within a certain range, which you can memorize by noting the shape of the ship when they reach the vulnerable distance. This author still fires at them even at extreme range, though, because hitting them causes an explosion, which slows things down into what could be considered a bullet-time effect (but is really the effect of processor speeds bogging while trying to keep track of debris particles). When it's slower, you can react better to changes in enemy flight patterns, and attempt to cancel out enemy fire with your own photons when they charge at you, guns blazing.
An Interpretation of the Galactic Chart
Typing G on the keyboard in the Atari 400/800 version brings up this, the Galactic Chart. While important to the game, it must be noted that the player need not actually ever use this screen (although to play without this screen would be nearly impossible). Here the player assesses threats on star bases, determines the direction and cost of hyperwarp jumps, and can review the Star Date (relevant to score and enemy ship movement) and damage to Star Cruiser 7.
While in this mode, moving into hyperwarp goes much quicker, and hitting the hyperwarp key might be necessary to avoid a sudden attack. While you can still determine where your ship will travel on this screen while doing this, it is impossible to steer. Unless the player switches back and steers to the proper hyperspace point, the final jump will likely be way off target.
The symbols are as follows:
- The four horizontal dashes represent four enemy ships, which move slowest of all enemy fleets.
- Three horizontal dashes represent three enemy ships, which move slightly quicker than 4-craft fleets.
- A single ship (the symbol with three thruster-like protrusions to its left) represents one or two enemy ships, and travels the quickest of all enemy fleet types. The exact number of targets can be determined when your cursor is over the fleet icon in question. Should you kill some of an enemy fleet, but leave one or two behind, you will actually be making the fleet quicker, and a greater threat to star bases. Unless you're willing to put star bases at greater risk, it's best to go after the faster fleets first, when this option seems the most cost-effective.
- The star burst symbols represent stationary star bases, your source for repair and refueling. Should all of them be destroyed, the game is lost, but every one lost results in a major reduction score, thereby reducing the final rank you receive at the conclusion of the game.
If a star base is surrounded, time is counting down before the Zylon fleet will destroy it. Every 50 time units that pass mean Zylons may move, and before too many more, should a base be surrounded, it will be destroyed. Should two bases be surrounded, only one will be the target, although it's up to the player to figure out which one is the intended target. The fleets surrounding the star base that will be destroyed do not move from their spots, so you can note which fleets may still be moving and figure out which fleet to attack this way.
A cursor, which looks like a photon bolt at long distance, helps the player plan where he or she is going to move on the Galactic Chart. As the player moves the cursor, the Warp Energy indicator will increase, showing the fuel drain of a given jump, from the sector the player is currently in to the target sector. After a certain amount, the energy drain jumps up dramatically. Whether or not this is planned, should the ship's course deviate too much away from the ship's start position, this fuel penalty will occur. Best tactic is to do a series of short jumps to your intended target, instead of one long jump; although long jumps are encouraged if time is a major factor in your strike plans.
It also must be noted that when jumping, where the cursor is placed within the sector square is where the player's ship will jump to in that sector, assuming the piloting has a favorable result. In the case of jumping into sectors with star bases, it is vital to get into the habit of putting the cursor as close to the middle of the square as you can, as all star bases reside at the precise middle of a given sector. The closer you get, the short time it will take to rendezvous with the base.
The Targets indicator tells you how many targets are in the sector your cursor is currently hovering over. This may seem trivial, but it is a vital tool that the player must use in certain circumstances, explained below under Sub-Space Radio. It should be noted that a given target fleet will not change in number until you kill targets there, but they CAN change in composition. Star Raiders does not remember what ships were encountered in what fleet, so if you don't like the idea of fighting two basestars at once, if you return to the sector later they will likely be something else (although the random generator could easily make them the same ships again).
DC stands for Damage Control, and the letters following it represent the different functions which are vulnerable to damage. We called it "Dee Cee Pess Color" when we were kids. The letters turn yellow when a system is damaged, and some sort of pinkish color when destroyed. They stand for the following:
- P - Photons. Without Photons you can't get kills, and without kills you can't win the game. Damage to this system means that one of the two photon torpedo emitters are down. While this limits your field of fire, it tends to be a viable offense situation, and lock-ons will still guide the photon to the target. Destruction of this system is this number one repair priority in the entire game, ahead of even Shields.
- E - Engines. Engines are a vital system when pursuing evasive targets, and when maneuvering to dock with a star base. Hyperspace engines cannot be damaged and are independent of the vulnerable Engine systems. Damage to the engines means that velocity is substandard, and also varies wildly from second to second, creating a violent stop-start effect past a certain velocity. Low velocities are relatively predictable, but high ones can often make the player overshoot the target during star base docking and pursuit maneuvers. If the engines are destroyed, the velocity varies by a very small, relatively predictable margin, and pursuit is often impossible.
- S -Shields. If the shields are off, any hit by Zylon fire or asteroids do not result in damage or destruction of ship systems per se, which would be nice if it didn't instead result in the instant destruction of the star cruiser. While on, shields lose energy when struck, and in higher difficulty levels, this hit usually results in damage or destruction of a subsystem. Shields are a drain on power and invite all sorts of function problems, but are a necessary evil used to avoid receiving a posthumous rank. Should shields be damaged, they flash on and off at a random rate. While on, they provide protection like normal shields. While off, they leave the craft vulnerable, but they still cost energy to maintain. Destroyed shields leave the ship completely vulnerable, but still cost to leave them activated. A wise tactic to save shield energy is to turn them off during warp maneuvers, especially past the velocity where asteroids cease to generate. Another is to realize that damaged shields are a big gamble, and that if you aren't feeling especially foolhardy or desperate, you might want to go get them repaired to avoid having to start over following a violent death.
- C - Attack Computer. This is arguably the least important of all the subsystems. The attack computer is a power-draining system which includes target tracking and the attack computer than places the iconic cross hairs on the front and aft views, as well as fomenting guided photon attacks during lock-ons. Skilled pilots can often kill targets without the assistance of attack computers, although during aggressive ships and desperate situations it pays to have all the advantages one can. Damage to this subsystem removes the attack computer from the screen, although it still drains energy until turned off. Destruction of the system is more dire, in that the useful range finder is frozen, necessitating use of the long range sector scan for target tracking, should the enemy not be aggressive. It should be noted that even skilled pilots have trouble during hyperwarp piloting should the attack computer be damaged or destroyed, because the cross hairs double as a guide for the player. This will be discussed in full in the hyperspace screen interpretation.
- L - Long Range Sector Scan. The sector scan is a useful tool which helps the player locate all enemies in the sector, even when the game limits combat to two opponents at a time. Its usefulness, especially in harder difficulty levels, cannot be underestimated, especially when the attack computer is down. Although it is difficult, even combat kills can be achieved through this screen, although photons only fire forward in this mode, and are very hard to aim. Asteroids also show up on the sector scan, although there are techniques one can use to help differentiate between asteroids and enemy targets. Damage to the sector scan results in a double image, which a savvy player can still use to good effect if she or he can use logic to discern which blip is real, and which one is the mirror image. Destruction of the system results in its complete uselessness, although nearly useless ghost images sometimes show up on the screen. This, combined with the long-range tracking abilities of the attack computer, can together be considered the fourth-most important system, because without both, hunting non-confrontational Zylons becomes very difficult.
- R - Sub-space Radio. This is the system that keeps track of enemy movement, and informs you of star base surrounding and destruction. It is the most subtle of all systems, and care must be taken to not let damaged or destroyed sub space systems go on for too long, should the player lose track of enemy movement and lose the game. Should the radio be damaged, players will not reliably receive messages that a star base is surrounded or destroyed, which can be devastating. In addition, the Galactic Chart is frozen in the last enemy/star base layout the player saw. The cursor still functions, but the only way a player can tell how many targets are in a given sector is with the target indicator at the bottom of the galactic chart screen. Destruction of the sub space radio is technically not a hindrance; the player can still hop from sector to sector in the hope of running into enemies. But as time goes on, enemy movement becomes more and more unpredictable, and without the ability to rely upon the target indicator, or receive ANY star base warnings, it is too big a gamble. This is probably the third-most important system in the game.
It is a rare occurrence, but sometimes a destroyed system can be damaged, which means it reverts to the damaged state, in effect adding to its effectiveness for free. Every time this happens, a baby Zylon cries.
An Interpretation of the Long Range Sector Scan screen
The Long Range Sector Scan screen is a subset of the main screen, meaning you can still see the statistics at the bottom, which are identical to those of the main screen. You can pilot your craft, aim and fire photon torpedoes (forward only), and when you accelerate into hyperspace it doesn't happen nearly instantly like it does in the Galactic Chart.
None of these are really recommended, though, unless this is an emergency, as the combat screens are much more effective.
In this screen you will see any asteroids, photon torpedoes, debris, Zylons, star bases, or refuel-and-repair craft in the sector. They will be in a pseudo-3D sphere around the spaceship (represented in the center of the screen, with fore pointing up, and aft pointing down. When the player changes the direction of the ship's facing, the "stars" will also rotate, giving the impression of a sphere of surroundings. I put stars in quotes because if they really were stars, your ship would be frigging massive. Instead think of them as random space debris or orientation devices that help show ship movement.
Asteroids, Zylons, and the refuel-and-repair craft are all represented by dark dashes only a few pixels wide, as shown on in the screenshot. In order to differentiate between them, note that refuel-and-repair craft (and star bases, for that matter) cannot exist in any sector where Zylons exist, so differentiation is not a problem in this respect. So too do all asteroids cease to be a threat (yes, in general, asteroids are still a threat) when in docking distance to a star base.
When outside star base sectors, it gets a bit more tricky, though. Asteroids always move from the player's fore to the player's aft. They cannot creep up behind you. Stop giggling.
So when you see an object which you think may be either a Zylon slowly patrolling beyond the edge of visual range, or an asteroid, you can spin the ship about in the scanning screen. If the object is an asteroid, it will continue to move in a fore-to-aft direction. If it's a Zylon moving in a constant direction, it will continue to move either toward or away from the space cruiser. Thus, only asteroids, for reasons I'm sure only they understand fully, actually react to a ships change in facing. Asteroids also move at a constant velocity, so erratic blips are Zylons.
When trying to locate a star base for docking, and your attack computer is damaged or destroyed, unless you're very lucky, or a very talented pilot, jumping into a star base sector will likely not put you directly in the center of the sector where every star base resides. Using the long range scan for this is easy, assuming your craft is a reasonable distance to the base. In order to orient your craft so that the star base is to your ship's fore, you must rotate the ship's orientation in the long range sector screen until it is both directly in front of the craft, and the furthest distance possible. If it is not the furthest distance possible, it will be either above or below your craft when you near it. It is wise when nearing the star base to remain in long range mode to be able to make micro adjustments to the ship's heading, especially when the engines are damaged or destroyed, to make sure you don't overshoot the star base. Once close enough, the player can switch to the main screen to attempt docking.
The star base itself is a glowing plus sign, resembling the star base at extreme visual range. It is immediately distinguishable from the other symbols in this screen.
A Depiction of the Dynamics of the Star Base Docking Sequence
Docking with a star base takes time and resources. Every time a player docks, his or her score drops by a small amount, so in addition to losing valuable time you also will earn a lower rank if you do this too often.
A player can play an entire game of Star Raiders and never once visit a star base, but they are either very lucky or very foolhardy. The benefits of a visit outweigh the greater risks of certain death, the trick is just in finding the balance between smart repair and refuel runs, and the obsessive, Star Raiders equivalent to endless hand washing.
Docking with a star base not only restores a ship's energy count to a full 9999, it also repairs all damage. Should both of a player's photon cannons be destroyed, this is a necessity. Repairing shields, while not an absolute necessity to win, is almost always a good decision, and the complete loss of the sub space radio can be deadly the longer it is ignored. Energy can also drop to zero if you're not careful, which is just as deadly as a photon hitting an unshielded craft.
Depicted in this screenshot you see that the saucer-like star base is within the cross hairs, and the attack computer has the base in full lock. Proper distance and orientation is necessary to activate the star base docking procedure, and it's smart to put down the controller to make sure you don't accidentally fire off a photon and kill your own star base. When you are at the proper range, the star base will have a total of seven windows. The main window in the center is flanked on either side by three windows. Only when in the proper range will you be able to see this. The star base must also be at approximately the middle of the fore view's screen, at the same part of the screen as the cross that comes up when entering into hyperspace. When at the proper distance, a message will come up telling you the procedure has begun. Now you have to sit tight and wait for the refuel-and-repair craft to make its way to your spacecraft, because if you move too far out of the proper orientation the sequence will abort, and you'll have to start over.
Once docked, the ship is instantly repaired and refueled, and can now leave the sector to continue the battle. When leaving the sector, the piloting cross, instead of being a solid color as normal, it will be flashing. Also, in the galactic chart, the cursor one uses to jump from sector to sector will also be a solid color once your ship has docked. The former can be a valuable clue if you are jumping blind into a sector and don't know if you've reached a star base or not. If you're trying to repair, and you notice the cross is solid, you may want to jump out of the sector and back in again, trying to use the galactic chart and good piloting skills to bring you as close to the middle of the sector as you can. Doing so may result in being fairly near the star base.
While it is impossible to collide with a star base, it is possible to destroy one with photons. While this is usually a dumb idea, should a star base be close to destruction by Zylon attack, and it looks as though you won't be able to save it in time, destroying it leads to a smaller reduction in score, and thus rank, than allowing it to be destroyed.
The refuel-and-repair craft, seen in the screenshot as an oddly shaped vehicle with two lower prongs (resembling a dual-prong plug), has a few interesting qualities. Should the star base be destroyed while it is returning to its parent craft, it will continue to drift, forever, in the direction it was headed. As long as they player doesn't allow the craft to move out of visual range, the player can follow it, although its velocity lies between two values of normally functioning engines, meaning you'll have to shift between the two velocities to keep apace with the craft. It is destroyable through player photon fire, but it doesn't explode like all other objects in the game. It is apparently so fragile that it just disintegrates, and the photon continues onward. Other properties, such as its disappearance during aborting and re-initializing docking, are left for the players to discover on their own.
Should a player be in a star base sector when it is destroyed, Zylons will instantly be in the sector. Should a player have been trying to repair at the base before it was destroyed, this can be really bad news, as she or he will likely be attacked relatively quickly, especially if they were near to the star base at the time.
A Depiction of the Dynamics of the Hyperwarp Jump Sequence
In order to win the game, the player must engage a hyperjump at some point. While in a sector, it is impossible for enemy ships to move into or out of a sector. It is a very smart tactic to land NEXT to a star base you think will be surrounded, and wait for the star date to change to .50 or .00. Zylons will be unable to surround the base for as long as you stay there, but it also means you cannot kill them sitting in one place. You have to take the fight to them.
Doing so will mean using the unreliable and sometimes dangerous hyperspace engines. Mastering this system is, along with targeting enemies, the key to winning and excelling at Star Raiders.
When the engines are engaged, photon torpedoes no longer function, and at higher velocities, enemy photons will not be able to harm you. Engaging hyperspace engines is a very intelligent defensive tactic to use when you're overwhelmed and heavily damaged. As long as you can dodge enemy fire and asteroids during the initial acceleration, you're home free (assuming you're jumping out of the sector. If not, be quick about figuring out where you're going, or all you're doing is prologuing your coming death by a few seconds). This tactic does come at a price, because aborting a hyperspace jump costs as much energy as a hit on your shields.
As the engines warm up from the nearest velocity level (so if you're already going really fast, you can just hit hyperwarp and jump even quicker to hyperspace, although this author doesn't know if this is a way to reach hyperspace quicker than the standard sequence from 0 velocity). In the center of the screen, as depicted in the screenshot, a small cross symbol will appear. The closer to the center this cross is the closer to the center of the reference point on the Galactic Chart your ship will go.
As long as you have enough fuel to make a jump, hyperspace engines will always work. You don't even need to use the Galactic Chart to enter hyperspace. The galactic chart allows you to change the point of reference that the center of the screen represents, but if you have this in mind when you engage the hyperspace engines, you can actually jump to sectors really quickly by bypassing the Galactic Chart entirely. Each sector of space is about the width of the cross symbol. If you imagine the Galactic Chart as being an overlay on the main screen, as the ship accelerates, you can move the cross to other sectors on this theoretical map. This is a great tactic if you're pressed for time, and are either desperate to get there without fiddling with the Galactic Chart, or have a reasonable idea where the target sector is.
The problem with these strategies is that, except for the lowest difficulty level, the player must struggle to keep this cross in the middle. It will move in a random direction as the ship accelerates, and the player must move the controller as if flying toward the cross, banking, climbing and diving until you reach the hyperspace screen. Failure to keep the cross in the middle may result in being way outside the center of the sector (assuming that's where you were trying to get in the first place), or in another sector entirely. Damage or destruction of the attack computer can make this even more difficult, although skilled pilots will either remember about where to keep the cross on the screen, or will have put a little piece of tape up on the screen to remind them where the cross should sit.
When leaving hyperspace, the player can fire photons again, and considering how desperate you are for a kill at that moment, it might be good to fire off a few rounds if you think you might clip a Zylon in the process. Should a Zylon get killed, not only are you one step closer to victory, but explosions will also cause the game to slow down a bit, allowing you to better orient yourself for the next attack.
We used to justify this slowdown as debris shooting away from the destroyed object, which caused buffeting and made movement more difficult, although now this author realizes it was probably a function of processor speeds.
Only with a proper combination of quick thinking, energy efficiency, combat proficiency, and piloting skills can one hope to save the star bases and achieve top rank.
This concludes your briefing, cadet. Good luck.
(Note, these explanations apply only to the Atari 400/800 version, as far as this author knows)
Star Raiders was released during a revival of science fiction which followed the first Star Wars film. It also seemed strongly influenced by the original Star Trek series, which was still present in the public mindset. Faster than light travel was referred to as hyperwarp, warp being a staple term in Star Trek's faster than light travel, and the weapons both players and Zylons used were photons, referred to sometimes as photon torpedoes, one of the main weapons of some Federation ships in the 1960's TV series and recently released motion picture. It may also be relevant to note that early games that featured Star Trek were often of similar design, where the player commands a Federation starship, warping from sector to sector to defend star bases from marauding enemies, keeping an eye on the fuel gauge and taking damage to ship subsystems.
Another subtle Star Trek reference seems to have been in the design of the Zylon cruiser. As it draws close, one notices a bump between the two curved arches that point downward from the ship's middle. This close-up view could be seen to look like the head-on view of the classic Klingon Cruiser design.
References don't seem to stop at Star Trek, though. Star Wars was referenced by the Zylon fighter, which closely resembled the TIE-fighters used by the Galactic Empire.
Yet another reference could have included the short-lived, original series Battlestar Galactica. In the show, the enemy robots were called Cylons, a close enough word to the Zylon enemies in Star Raiders, and the Zylon basestar resembles the Cylon basestar of the TV series. The manual also listed descriptions of the unit system used in the game (to differentiate it from miles or kilometers). These terms sound vaguely like the decimal based time and distance system that was used in the show.
Many of these observations can certainly be considered mere suppositions, and alternate theories are of course welcome.