Original version: River Raid, released on 1982/08/19 for Atari VCS a.k.a. Atari 2600
Recommended version: River Raid, released in 1983 for Atari 800
Isn’t it amazing how war, the greatest misfortune, often provides the greatest backdrop for a story? Whether it’s an epic tale of a warrior’s fight as in The Iliad, or the slow torment of a man’s mind as in “Lawrence of Arabia,” war has a seemingly limitless capacity for showcasing the ultimate struggle in all its manifestations. It makes sense then that video games, tasking the player with overcoming a struggle, would be so well suited to war. What makes River Raid so special, though, is that it’s one of the first shooters to take place on a “realistic” depiction of Earth. The cover of the manual even appears to be alluding to the mountainous jungles of Viet Nam. So let’s go raid that river!
River Raid was created by Carol Shaw, who holds the honor of being the first female game developer (not Dona Bailey, as I mistakenly wrote in my Centipede article). Her first published game was 3D Tic-Tac-Toe in 1980. In 1982 Shaw left for Activision where she could find a better use for her talents–the difference in quality between the two games is like night and day. River Raid was conceived as a vertical scrolling shooter. Like its contemporary Xevious, you fly your aircraft up the screen and fire upon enemies. The two main differences between this and other shooters are that River Raid had no enemy fire, and gameplay was just as much about maneuvering around obstacles as it was about shooting. Take a look:
wow. much bad. very die.
Let’s talk briefly about what made this game so good. River Raid was very well programmed, with an abundance of non-flickering sprites onscreen with great collision detection and tight controls. If you run into an obstacle you have no one to blame but yourself (so, having done just that, I blame yourself). A trigger-happy player would be dismayed to discover that you can shoot the fuel depots and risk running out– this is definitely not a “shoot constantly at everything” kind of game. You have to be smart with your shots and if you get too aggressive you’ll pay the price. The plus side is that a particularly skilled (or lucky) player can shoot a fuel depot after touching it, getting both fuel and points. Shaw even encouraged players to do this in the manual.
The one major ludonarrative flaw is that your fighter jet explodes if you try to fly over land. Why?!? That makes no sense. If you instead controlled a boat or a hydrofoil, it’d make much more sense that you can only stay on the water. Despite this glaring oversight, River Raid is a terrific game. River Raid was a very simple shooter, being one of the first overhead vertical shooters, but the need for fuel combined with the ability to destroy fuel tanks add a whole new dimension to the gameplay. The main reason for not including River Raid as a timeless classic is that the gameplay is largely obsolete; many newer games do the same thing but better. Nevertheless, River Raid is a great game on its own merits and you’d probably have a great time if you played it. It was later released on the Atari 800 home computer with improved graphics and sound; if you play River Raid, that’s the version I’d recommend. River Raid was a commercial success–selling over a million copies–and a critical darling for its engaging gameplay. Of course, not everyone was as thrilled about it…
River Raid was the first game to be banned by “Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Schriften” (Federal Department for Writings Harmful to Youths) for the effects it purportedly had on teenagers. The authorities stated that “minors are intended to delve into the role of an uncompromising fighter and agent of annihilation….” Note that it says “minors” specifically; apparently a work of fiction about a pilot who fires missiles at enemy combatants can’t be enjoyed by adults. The report went on to say that “playing leads… to physical cramps, anger, aggressiveness, erratic thinking… and headaches.” Oh, no. Not headaches too! Thankfully the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and this federal department was dissolved as East Germ–wait, what? Hold on, this was in West Germany? Oh, pardon my mistake. It was the supposedly non-communist country that banned a work of art. How silly of me.
Anyhoo, it’s all water under the bridge now. In 2002 Activision lobbied the reunified German government to remove its ban so they could release Activision Anthology on the PlayStation 2. The government acquiesced and the not-at-all evil-sounding “Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle” rated it “free for all ages.” Apparently children nowadays are more resistant to headaches. They must be. Why else would they listen to Justin Bieber?
As mentioned before, the Atari 2600 version of River Raid is included in Activision Anthology. It’s also included in a number of many-in-one game machines such as this one. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any re-released of the improved Atari 800 version. The Atari 2600 cartridge can be bought here and the Atari 800 cart can be bought here. If you need a backup Atari 800 rom you can get one here and run it with Atari800. (mirror)