I love shoot-em-ups. I'm not the best at them; I have a hard time with hundreds of enemy shots flying at me at once, but I still love them. Funny enough, one of my all-time favorites doesn't have a single enemy bullet aimed for you.
I'm talking about River Raid, one of the biggest 2600 hits from Activision. It was one of the first vertical-scrolling shooters ever created, and, even today, it still delivers a tense experience even without enemy bullet-storms.
The graphics are simple and colorful, and the scrolling is actually more fluid than many Nintendo Entertainment System games. It's actually quite eye-pleasing (if you can get over the early 8-bit appearance). The sound effects are well-handled, too. Granted, the whooshing sound that accompanies flying your plane can get a little droning, but, compared to the fart noises that were commonplace for many Atari and Intellivision games, I can't really complain. Activision knew how to get the best results from the early hardware even more so than Atari themselves, and River Raid is the perfect showpiece.
The gameplay is simple, and oh so satisfying. You control your jet with the joystick and fire with the fire button. You can speed up or slow down by just pressing the stick up or down. It's as intuitive as it gets.
You may wonder where the challenge is if the enemies aren't shooting back. Activision solved that beautifully in three ways. One, you have no life bar. One hit, and it's back to the start of the stage. Two, you're confined to staying over the river. Try to get over the land, and boom. That may be a non-issue during the straight "light" stages, but the "dark" stages would really test your navigation skills. Three, you have to watch your fuel gauge. Whether flying quickly or slowly, your fuel depletes at the same rate. There are fuel canisters sprinkled in the stages that you can fly over to refuel, but they can be destroyed by your shots. All these combine to make a perfect challenge level without having to resort to enemy shots.
River Raid still stands as a testament to scrolling shoot-em-up game design. Anyone can load it up and enjoy it. Luckily, you don't have to dig the Atari 2600 out of storage to play it since it's shown up on every single Activision collection ever released. You have no excuse; check out River Raid!