Even though I had a pretty extensive collection (upwards of a hundred ) of Atari 2600 carts back in the day, population health there were a few big titles that never made it into my library of games.
Atari’s home version of Space Invaders, for instance, may have been the “killer app” that compelled millions of consumers to purchase the previously struggling VCS console, but I’d already had my fill of the arcade version and its many, many handheld LED display clones when the opportunity arose to buy a copy of the game.
In the case of Activision’s River Raid, on the other hand, my desire to experience what my classmates at the Linscott-Rumford elementary school had waxed so enthusiastically about was offset by the fact that none of my usual sources were willing to offer a discount the steep ($24.99) retail price. At a time when clearance bins were bursting at the seams with unsold inventory, River Raid was the rare game that could still shift a shitload of copies at its full MSRP. By the time the game did drop down to a level of tweener affordability, I had already moved on to the oh-so-sophisticated realm of coding scratch-built text adventures for my shiny new Commodore 64.
It wasn’t until 1999 and my discovery of the emulation scene that I finally got around to playing the highly regarded shoot ‘em up.
Though the graphics and gameplay felt positively quaint after years spent navigating the visual noise and massed enemy fire of its vertically scrolling genre descendents, I could still see why my playground pals were so jazzed about River Raid in the early 1980s.
Like Pitfall, River Raid does an excellent job at establishing a convincing (for its time) world — in this case an infinitely long river canyon which the player must navigate a canary yellow fighter jet sent on an apparent suicide mission to blow up a bunch of shit (bridges, choppers, boats) before running out of fuel or smashing into an enemy or wall. Like most retrogaming titles that have retained a degree of playablity over the decades, River Raid’s relative simplicity has become its biggest virtue: maneuver and shoot until you eventually screw up and burn through your stock of lives.
The game is essentially a port of Sega’s Zaxxon arcade game — right down to the need to regularly replenish the fighter craft’s fuel supply – but with the slick (or frustrating, depending on the person asked) isometric perspective and corntol scheme flattened out into something a bit more manageable for the 2600′s dated hardware…which is nice, considering the hatchet job Coleco did in its vanglorious attempt at creating an official 2600 version of Zaxxon.