Programmed entirely by Carol Shaw (one of the first female game designers), River Raid puts the player in control of a fighter jet tasked with flying over a river from a top-down, vertical perspective, shooting enemy vehicles like news helicopters, planes, and civilian cargo ships. Other than dodging enemy vehicles, your primary concern is your jet's fuel level, which slowly depletes over time, and can be replenished by flying over fuel pads found throughout the environment, however shooting a fuel tank will also boost your score by several points, making whether or not to fuel up or go for the points somewhat of a strategic decision. Inexplicably, the plane will also explode if it flies over land. While River Raid features the forced movement common in scrolling shooters, you can affect the speed of the scroll with your jet by pressing either up or down on the control stick.
River Raid was the first video game in history to be listed by the German Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons, cited for "its intent to compromise the minds of children by forcing a paramilitaristic [sic] education upon them, and the playing of which caused cramps, anger, headaches and aggressiveness". The Department finally admitted that River Raid was harmless in 2002.