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River Raid (Commodore 64) artwork

River Raid (Commodore 64) review

"River Raid is a 1984 Activision game that is counted among the better shooters on the Commodore 64. After all these years it remains as a favorite of many stubborn Commodore gamers, and is among the first games mentioned when such veterans are asked which titles they remember most fondly. River Raid owes this remarkably popularity not to deep gameplay or stunning visuals - it has neither - but to being a simple, solid and lovable title that's easy to get into. "

River Raid is a 1984 Activision game that is counted among the better shooters on the Commodore 64. After all these years it remains as a favorite of many stubborn Commodore gamers, and is among the first games mentioned when such veterans are asked which titles they remember most fondly. River Raid owes this remarkably popularity not to deep gameplay or stunning visuals - it has neither - but to being a simple, solid and lovable title that's easy to get into.

River Raid consists of a large number of small, vertically scrolling levels. You control a low flying combat plane that's cruising over a river through an enemy nation, and your objective is to destroy important bridges. These bridges mark the end of each level and the beginning of the one after that, and each level basically consists of getting from the bridge you just destroyed to the next one, in one piece. To do this you will have to navigate your plane over the river, taking care to avoid the shores and any islands that may pop up, and either avoiding or shooting the many enemies that crowd each level. These include ships, helicopters, planes, tanks on the shores and even hot air balloons. Very few of these enemies actually fight back; most are just moving obstacles that need to be either evaded or blown up. The latter is of course preferable, because destroying enemies is what you are being paid for, in points.

Your plane has only limited fuel but thankfully, the enemy has been thoughtful enough to leave their fuel tanks out in the open. Moving your plane over one will replenish your fuel bar, and if you come across tanks while you still have plenty of fuel you can destroy them instead for good bonus points. Early in the game you are likely to do this a lot, but later on fuel tanks become sparse and you'll have to be more conservative.

The game's levels have a set layout and once you've played a few times, you will get to know the lay of the land. The challenge then is to destroy as many of the enemies as possible in each level and rack up the points (and, directly related to those, bonus lives) while the going is still easy. At the end of every level, a tank will attempt to cross the bridge you must destroy to proceed to the next stage, and if you time it right you will be able to destroy the bridge while the tank is on it. This scores bigger than anything else in the game, and it remains satisfying even after you've done it a hundred times.

One thing that absolutely shines in River Raid's gameplay is its learning curve. The first level is disgustingly easy; there are few enemies and they do not move yet, making them sitting ducks. The first few levels gradually introduce every type of opponent, and once that has been done the game's difficulty picks up bit by bit. Passages become smaller, enemies are packed more tightly together, and fuel tanks will be farther and farther apart. Every time you die, you will have to restart at the beginning of the level you were on, but the levels are so short (most can be completed within a minute) that you'll never be set back very far. Impatient gamers can even skip levels at the beginning of the game and start at various other points than level 1, though I personally prefer to use the first 20 levels or so as my playground to build a good starting score and a steady supply of badly needed lives.

The controls of River Raid are very simple to learn, though it will take experience to control your craft with the grace and agility you will need in the later levels. You automatically move forward at a set speed, which can be increased by pushing the stick forward or decreased by pulling it back. Obviously you cannot stop entirely. Moving left and right is as easy as moving the stick in that direction, and your plane only has one weapon, a cannon which is fired with the only fire button the Commodore joystick comes with. (Back in those days, games didn't need those expensive 20 button sticks!) Some care is needed when shooting, because you can have only one shot on the screen at any time, and a miss will therefore render you helpless for a few seconds. In the first levels, you will frequently fly at the slowest speed possible to give you time to shoot all the enemies. Later on, when fuel tanks are rarer and you need to hurry up to get to the next one without running out of fuel and taking a dive in the cold river, this is a luxury you can no longer afford. This is where the high speed comes into play - and you'll notice that navigating the often treacherous passages in the later levels is quite a challenge then!

River Raid's controls are surprisingly smooth under all conditions. Your plane reacts quickly to every move of the joystick, and even when the screen gets crowded in later levels and some slowdown inevitably occurs, the controls do not get bumpy and you will still be able to navigate with ease, as long as you keep a light touch on the stick. This is remarkably better than in many other shooter games, where it sometimes seems that you can either tap the joystick too quickly or too long, and fine corrections to your course are almost impossible. You'll never have this headache in River Raid. The programmers have tuned the simple controls to perfection, which is definitely worth a thumbs up.

Visually, River Raid is fairly simple, but it shines with colour. Whereas many Commodore games leave most of the screen black, River Raid's lush green shores and light blue river are far easier on the eyes and give the game a much ''fuller'' look at the same time. The graphics are not particularly detailed, though. With only a few exceptions most sprites (including your own plane) consist of one colour only, and none of the sprites are artistic masterpieces. The same goes for the sound effects, which are limited to the steady whoosh of your engines, the sounds of your shots and explosions when you destroy enemies (same explosion sound for every enemy). Nothing groundshaking in the visual and audio departments, then; they do, however, get the job done, and that's the feeling most of the game gives you. It's all pretty simple and straightforward, but it runs like a song and in my opinion, clearly shows that the development hours have gone into the right areas.

Summing it all up, River Raid is an easily accessible title for everybody. You sit down, you grab the joystick, you start playing, and you'll have the hang of it before you know it. Nevertheless the difficulty picks up soon enough and even an expert player will meet his match eventually in the later levels. I've clocked many hours on this game and still can't reach level 50 from the start. The game allows you to start at level 50 if you're particularly bold, and if I do that I don't get beyond 57 or so. After all those years I still have no idea how many levels the game has, and what happens if you pass them all. I am tempted to keep trying, though, and over time I've figured out why: River Raid is not advanced in any way, has no great innovative gameplay or masterful graphics, but what it does, it does absolutely right. And as such, it stands proudly above dozens of similar titles that aren't put together quite as well, and deserves a place in the collection of any Commodore player.

sashanan's avatar
Community review by sashanan (June 19, 2009)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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