I first played this game either in late 1979 or early 1980, I could probably get my Dad to figure out exactly when he first brought home the Atari 800
and this game. I would have been 7 years old, and just two years earlier saw Star Wars for the first time (at a drive in), eagerly awaiting the 2nd movie. I remember being drawn in by NASA and the burgeoning shuttle program. My television viewing was Battlestar Galactica and then Buck Rogers. And here I was sitting down at a TV, and I could see myself flying through space, manning the guns. You can not fathom what that was like, and I don't know if a game will ever affect me as much. But basically this started me down a path where I would be fascinated with games, computers and all that went with it.
The game itself is mostly first person perspective out of the cockpit, a format that later games like Elite or Wing Commander would use to success. Stars rush by the ship (faster as you increase speed) as well as occasional asteroids. You can jump into hyperspace and fight a small array of enemy craft. The enemy is an alien race called Zylons and you need to eliminate them while protecting your bases. The simple graphics are somewhat derivative of the major sci fi franchises, as the Zylon Fighters look like TIE Fighters, the Zylon Basestars being dead ringers for the Cylon Basestars, with the Zylon Cruisers have a winged shape evoking the Romulan warships.
Movement and firing is done from the joystick, with all other commands (turning on and off shields, attack computer, bringing up maps, engaging hyperspace, setting speed) done from the keyboard. Coming from a world of simple arcade and Atari VCS
controls, this was a revelation even at age seven that so many potential functions could be available in a game. So many controls, like I was Han Solo at all of the mysterious controls of the Falcon, or Sulu piloting the Enterprise. The controls of Star Raiders are really quite good, even after you learn that the torpedoes largely follow the movement of your joystick and can be directed.
The game requires you to maintain simple resources, basically the energy supply of your ship which can be refilled at the bases (which you also need to protect) spread across the galaxy. It was a incredibly involved game (for its time), and really showed off the potential of home computer gaming as a platform. You had a mini map to see where the enemies were and could fly more or less freely through Space. I would play hours at this game, and remember scanning magazine articles (in Compute!, Antic or A.N.A.L.O.G) on strategy and tips (turn off your shields in hyperspace to save energy, only use the computer when needed, etc.)
I never achieved the higher rankings of the game, and not sure I ever really cared. Clearing the map and waiting for my ranking was enough, before I'd start up and play again. I was flying through space, I was shooting the bad guys, I was maintaining my ships. It was heavenly, and fulfilled all of the optimism I had for space exploration before Challenger, before you realize that the public doesn't really value space exploration, that that common public awe of the Apollo era may never return. I sometimes wonder if I'll ever be as happy again as I was those afternoons after school shooting Zylons, and doubt I've ever find a game that will inspire me as much as this game did.