11/9 – River Raid

Hello and welcome! My name is Katosepe and I’ll be your host for today’s Video Game of the Day.

The days of Atari were fascinating in the gaming industry and almost show an alternate possibility from today’s games. Back in those days, games were almost exclusively made by one or two people and rarely had any kind of company oversight as long as new titles were being pushed out. This meant that developers had nearly free rein to make whatever kind of game they wanted and that led to some great creativity. Today’s game is one such game that has had a significant influence on video games today. Today’s game is River Raid, developed by Carol Shaw and released on the Atari 2600 in 1982.

River Raid has players flying a plane down a river. They must avoid hitting the sides of the river while contending with enemies and an ever-depleting fuel supply. Shooting down enemies earns the player points and fuel depots can be flown over to replenish the fuel gauge. If fuel runs out or if the player hits an enemy, they will crash and restart at the last checkpoint, marked by bridges that could be destroyed by the player. When all lives are lost, the game ends.

In the Atari 2600 days, developers had to be creative with their programming due to the extremely limited memory involved. Cartridges had only a few kilobytes at most and the Atari itself had only 128 bytes of memory. This meant that sprawling, hand-crafted worlds were simply impossible to make. And yet, River Raid was not random. It was a near infinite game that was the same each time players came back to it. Carol Shaw had realized that she could use procedural generation to accomplish this. 

Many of you have likely heard of procedural generation as a buzzword in today’s gaming industry. Games like Minecraft, Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, and Borderlands all use this technique to randomize aspects of their games. This is how developers can make randomly generated worlds or, in Borderland’s case, have so many different guns. Carol used this technique back in 1982 but gave the random generation a hard-coded vector, meaning that the instructions used to generate the world would be the same every time, always resulting in the same game layout every time. This allowed the extremely limited Atari 2600 to have an infinite game world that stayed the same for every player, every time. Today, games like No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous use this exact same technique, allowing them to create the massive universes players can explore together.

River Raid was ported to the Atari 8-Bit and the 5200 as well as the Colecovision and Intellivision, ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 over the next two years. It won a number of awards from gaming outlets at the time and remains one of the most well loved Atari games ever made.

Thank you so much for listening! If you want to hear about more video games, make sure to check out our complete archives on videogameoftheday.com and if you like the show, leave us a review on Amazon. Don’t forget to check back here tomorrow for another Video Game of the Day.

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