This article is a bit of a cheat. Unlike the other games I’ve played thus far, I’ve actually played ‘River Raid Recently’. You see, when I was in college, I…wait a second. Ah shit. That was ten years ago! That’s not recent!
Fuck I’m old.
So, yeah, since the most recent time I played this game was a decade ago, it’s still relevant based on a technicality. The real reason I wanted to look back at this game is due to the fact that this is the first video game I ever played.
Let’s go back to the late 80s when I was living in a shitty apartment in the most run down part of Boston (as opposed to now where I’m living in a nicer apartment in the most run down part of Boston). My family didn’t have a lot of money, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we were a little late coming into the NES era. Just because we didn’t have the latest and greatest doesn’t mean that we didn’t have SOMETHING in the house.
I have no idea when they actually bought it (probably in the late 70s based on just about everything else in the house), but lying in a box that was used to prop up other shit was an Atari 2600. One day I walked into the bedroom shared by my brother and myself where I made two exciting discoveries. One, there was a TV in our room (four year old me would later be crushed to find out that it was only temporarily there while the kitchen was being cleaned), and that my mom was playing something. I thought it was something specifically for grown ups, my mother, knowing better, gave up the controller where I had my first taste of video game goodness.
Here’s what I remember:
From my 4-5 year old perspective: Awesome! I’m controlling an airplane! Miss the boat! I died. Do it again! I died. Why is it over? I have to do it again? Why is it so hard! I’m bored. I’m going to do something else.
AN HOUR LATER…
I want to play that game again.
From my 21 year old perspective: I was so certain that the difficulty I remembered from my childhood was a result of poor coordination. When I was young, I couldn’t even tie my shoes without help (I was late in learning due to velcro shoes. They were the shit at the time. Don’t judge me), how the hell did I expect to be good at a game that’s trying to kill you every step of the way? I was going to out maneuver my past self. I was going to get the high score. I was going to make this game my bitch.
I died immediately.
It may have been a little trickier than I thought. It wasn’t simply “avoid the boats”, you had to manage your fuel while choosing the pathway that offered the least amount of death. The controls were tight enough, but with no way to shoot to clear the obstacles, if I didn’t anticipate a ship moving, or chose the path of least resistance only to realize that the other lane had the fuel I desperately needed, that was it. Game over. None of this is a problem however. The only issue I had was my own hubris. After a bit of practice, I was making runs that would last upwards of 15-20 minutes. For a game that’s a single gameplay type, that’s a fair amount of time
I’d make a few runs each day, increasing my high score a little more with each attempt, and eventually I plateaued. This was the era of PS2 and there were other games I wanted to play, so I put ‘River Raid’ back down and moved on. Yup, that’s what I’m going with because it’s certainly not because my roommate, who’s far better at video games than I am, racked up a score so high that it would take years to beat. Nope, not bitter at all.
How does it hold up?
So…lots of stuff I remembered was completely wrong. How the hell did I forget that you can shoot things in this game?!? It’s how you get points!!! One of the most annoying thing that happens is ending up low on gas, seeing that precious fuel tank coming closer, and accidentally shooting it. Yes, you can blow up the shit you need. Yet, somewhere along the line that is the gremlin rewiring factory that is my brain, I forgot that pressing the ONE button on the Atari controller did the ONE thing you’d expect from a top down game involving an airplane.
I also forgot that you could speed up and slow down, which is a pretty key mechanic to leave out (next to shooting, of course).The screen scrolls with you, so it’s not like you can fly freely around the screen like ‘1942’, but being able to speed past those little bullshit jets, or slow down to get the maximum amount of fuel, helped to give me a feeling of full control. At no point did I ever feel like I was trapped in a situation that I couldn’t maneuver my way out of.
The screen was always busy, yet never filled up with an impossible amount of death. There was just enough going on where the slightest amount of inattention could cause you to crash. I enjoyed the balance. If I was just playing for the score, I would have the same feeling I had in college. More so most likely since I found a video online of someone “beating” the game. If you reach 999,999 points, your plane explodes and the score bar becomes exclamation marks.
I actually played an Android version of the game where each run nets you coins that lets you buy new planes and power ups. I don’t have an Atari 2600 anymore and I’m not interested in buying one. It’s free and it’s not like you spend real money for more coins; you have to play. It’s a neat feature to elongate the experience (my jet flies the Brazilian flag…for reasons).
‘River Raid’ has a few limitations given the time period it and hardware came out on, yet it still feels…it’s hard to pick the right word. I just feels right. It’s a simple game with simple controls and adding anything else to it would hamper it one way or the other. It has the aesthetic to give you those fuzzy retro feels while still handling like a fun game. As I said, I downloaded it as an app and it has given me as much if not more value than half the games I’ve downloaded. It’s a satisfying game for new and old players alike, just don’t expect to get sucked into it for hours like when you were younger.