Nostalgia Lane: Atari 2600’s Starmaster and Star Raiders

For today’s Nostalgia Lane trip, I wanted to head back to the ’80s for two of my favorite titles on the Atari 2600. We were all nuts about scifi, Star Trek, and Star Wars back then, and there were several games on the console that tried to give us a knock-off feeling of having your own ship and blasting through the cosmos.

1982’s Starmaster was the simpler and more streamlined of the two titles. It was pretty impressive for what it offered with a one-button joystick setup: The player got to be a pilot of a ship racing around outer space trying to destroy all of the enemy fighters before the fighters destroyed the starbases and/or the player. The game utilized a couple of the switches on the console itself to handle navigation and even offered a real-time strategy component (all of the enemy ships were constantly moving around in the map screen even as the player did).

There was a lot of strategy here, what with conserving fuel, making trips to the starbase to repair and refuel, and deciding which fighter groups to tackle next. The combat itself was simple but satisfying, with lots of loud sounds and flashes when either ship got hit. And considering that your ship could have components damaged and there were four difficulty levels, it was a surprisingly deep title. I had a lot of fun jumping in the cockpit and zooming around for a quick game, even if space was nothing but white dots floating by.

Star Raiders also came out in 1982 and offered a bit of the same setup, although it ran to a more complicated design. The game required the little-used Atari keypad for additional input, which was a bit cumbersome but also more immersive. Punching in buttons for ship commands and navigation helped to flesh out the fantasy of being a spaceship captain.

There was more enemy variety and arguably better graphics than Starmaster, but most of the gameplay was pretty similar: warp around, protect starbases, refuel, and blast bad guys. It definitely stole from other scifi franchises, such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica with the ship design, but video game copyright infringement cases weren’t as much a thing back then. And since we weren’t getting a really great Star Wars arcade experience on the 2600, these titles were acceptable substitutes.

I liked Star Raiders, but because I’d have to plug in the touch pad every time to play it, I didn’t get around to Star Raiders quite as much as Starmaster. The combat wasn’t as good, either. Starmaster had you blasting with fast lasers, whereas Star Raiders had you shooting what looked like a pair of balled-up socks. Maybe rocks. It felt jankier, too. However, there could be more than one enemy ship on the screen at a time, and there was cool battle damage like losing one of your two guns and having to make do with the remainder.

Both of these games were strong predecessors to Wing Commander, which took the freeform flight concept and went in a more narrative direction.

2 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: Atari 2600’s Starmaster and Star Raiders

  1. Nimgimli (@pasmith) April 25, 2020 / 9:07 am

    Star Raiders, the Atari 400 version, not the console version, was the game that caused me to purchase my first computer. Before that I played a game called strtrk on a PDP-10 mainframe that I accessed via a teletype at my school (no screen, everything printed on paper). Star Raiders felt like the designers might’ve spent time playing the same game and it made me GIDDY knowing I could play it at home (and without churning through a small tree’s worth of paper every time I played).

  2. Scott M. April 25, 2020 / 1:32 pm

    Star Raiders on the Atari 400/800 is still one of my favorite games of all time. I never played the 2600 version, but ports in general, whether from arcade (viz the huge Pac Man disappointment) or the 400/800s, were rarely very good.

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