Looking Back: Raft Rider (Atari 2600)

Looking Back: Raft Rider (Atari 2600)

Raft Rider is a game about riding a raft, and it’s about as exciting as, well, riding a raft. In a river without water, from which you can never escape.

 

Sadly, this is something you don’t see much of today. A company that has the insanity to create a game from something even the most depraved of Earth’s denizens would consider sadistic. Atari was the giant of the industry back in the 70s, and essentially the grandfather of everything we know today of video games. When the Atari 2600 hit the market, it revolutionized American culture forever. But everyone wanted in. By 1980 there were too many competing systems for the public to keep up with and the saturation of the market by horrid releases, such as the legendary Chase the Chuck Wagon, led the industry to “crash”. There is still some debate about this among enthusiasts, and those who were working in the industry at the time. Some programmers I’ve talked to say the shift just went to PC, others say the industry was decimated. Companies like U.S. Games (creators of Raft Rider) didn’t stand a chance.

 

Raft Rider Atari 2600 Screen 4

 

Never heard of them? Sure you have, because they were a subsidiary of Quaker Oats. What’s more delicious? Oh wait, we’re talking about video games, though… This illustrates quite easily what was going on and what you don’t see very often today: companies that have no right making video games deciding to get their hand in the basket. Sure, these days we might have less gaming atrocities available for laughter and hate-gaming sessions, but it might be for the better – at least for people who aren’t masochistic like me. U.S. Games was the company’s attempt to cash in on the video game craze in the 70s, and though they have at least two or three titles that are pretty fun, Raft Rider is not one of them. It’s not just the awful video game concept, either, that doomed this game and our hero’s chances of franchise stardom – our rider of the thing called the raft. You heard me, this is a game about riding a raft, and it’s about as exciting as, well, riding a raft. In a river without water, from which you can never escape.

 

Raft Rider Atari 2600 Screen 1

 

Someone probably downed a few while making Raft RiderĀ (or drowned themselves). Like most of U.S Games’ releases it has a nice, vibrant design for the cover artwork. In terms of the in-game graphics it’s another story, though certainly not the worst in the 2600’s library. Your raft rider looks pretty much as one would expect an 8-bit river-navigating hillbilly to appear. Nice little hat there, spread-legged, ready for the rapids. Everything else is up to your imagination in most respects. If you check out the video below, yes, what appears a nondescript mass of brown pixels is, in fact, a moose. Decent job suggesting depth with the tree sizes, but how in the hell is the rider actually moving this raft anyway? Guy must be a beast, because he’s steering with one hand without using his arm! The blinking objects are actually gold, so that works at least.

 

 

As you undoubtedly just heard, the sound does nothing to sell the exciting concept of raft riding. In fact, it’s practically non-existent. When the beaver appears you get a strange, bird-like blip, the trees crashing in the water sound nice, but the moose, not so much. But hey, for the Atari 2600 –which has an awesome sound chip for its age — can’t really complain. The sound as you move the raft around is actually very fitting. I suppose the lack of music was intentional, so you could literally feel the waters flowing past you, the callouses forming on your hands as you navigate through the rocks, the tension as your raft barely edges past a dangerous limb, the joy as you use your stick at an odd angle to collect gold, somehow…

 

Which brings us to the gameplay. This one is explained fully in the title, so let’s give U.S. Games some credit. You ride a raft. The raft must be ridden without striking objects. The end. That’s seriously all there is to this game, though it’s worth noting the controls are very unusual, almost, dare we say, revolutionary. Well, ok, they’re not – but they are somewhat unique. The joystick is manipulated up/down to maneuver, but you have the additional skill of stopping mid-push by quickly moving left in order to navigate difficult spots, especially when the game speeds up. It’s essential, because Billy Bob here (real name never given actually) moves the raft in an arc, not just straight up or down. So you need to learn to steer at the right time to avoid everything, which is sometimes difficult, because the appearance of objects is sometimes so random that they can be literally impossible to evade. So we get to the real trick; keeping your lives stable. By collecting three blinking gold nuggets you get an extra life, and the only way to do it is just using the tip of your stick. Trust me, it’s not so easy, and takes some real skill. So much that I purposefully picked Raft RiderĀ for an Atari 2600 competition I took part in some months back, but unfortunately everyone else figured out how to play it, and then things got…dark…evil…

 

Raft Rider Atari Evil

 

Though you have to give Raft Rider some credit for the unusual idea and somewhat interesting gameplay, the big hyuck moonshine shotgun-to-the-head reality check occurs at about 10,000 points. The main problem is points are acquired only through progression. You don’t get any for passing objects, and you certainly can’t hit anything for points, so the point meter simply keeps running like an odometer and doesn’t give you any real incentive past a certain mark, unless your mind went bye-bye long ago. The reason is simple, rolling is really all you have to work for, but you have to be insane to do it. Rolling refers to when you get a score so high the game resets the score meter back to zero or glitches. In Raft Rider this happens at 100,000. Each 10,000 points takes approximately ten minutes of play, minimum, so that means you’re looking at at least an hour and forty minutes of straight nothingness if you actually want to do it. Trust me, I have, and it’s not something a man can easily come back from. Once your abilities are solid it’s all up to mental stamina, and in the end it’s not really worth it. No one will care if you are a true Raft Rider, no one, just let it go…

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