Ah, River Raid ... I wish I knew how to quit you. Sorry for the Brokeback Mountain moment, but I can't help myself. River Raid on the Atari 2600 was the first review I did for Defunct Games for a very good reason: it is one of my most favorite games and a strong contender for the best shooter of all time. It is a game that I can still play for hours even today. I couldn't imagine that it could get better, but that was before I tried it on the ColecoVision.
I had mentioned in my review of Pinball for the Intellivision that Mattel's hardware trumped the 2600 from a technical standpoint. The ColecoVision upped the ante even further. It was truly capable of providing arcade-quality experiences at home which was proven by the arcade-perfect port of Donkey Kong packed in with the system. The only real fault with the ColecoVision was with the controller. Like the Intellivision controller, it has one of those annoying numeric keypads, though thankfully Coleco didn't try to use it for gameplay that much. More problematic was that the joystick is way too stiff. Fortunately, the ColecoVision controller could be swapped out for an Atari, Sega Master System, or Genesis controller and work fine.
I made it a point to mention the controller since that is one of the only things keeping River Raid on the ColecoVision from being as perfect as its 2600 sibling. The stiffness of the stock joystick can make navigating the river more difficult than it should be, especially considering how control was so effortless on the 2600 version. Switching to an Atari or Sega controller makes navigating your jet just as easy as before.
Navigating effortlessly becomes extremely critical here because the ColecoVision version of River Raid made several enhancements to increase the challenge level. Activision didn't just make the graphics prettier and call it a day (although the graphical improvements are very noticeable with more detail and better animation). The river that you have to stay over had become more treacherous, zig-zagging in ways that weren't possible with the straight lines that the 2600 was limited to. More enemy craft are on screen at once, making even the earlier stages nail-biters. The simple houses and trees that lined the river before had been replaced with tanks and anti-aircraft guns, reinforcing a war vibe. Furthermore, in the later stages, the tanks shoot. I actually think that was a bit of a cheap move to increase the difficulty since there is no way to destroy the tanks. All you can do is try to dodge their shots which is easier said than done.
The ColecoVision had made me fall in love with River Raid all over again. This one took everything that was wonderful about the 2600 legend, juiced it up, and made it more challenging. If controller-swapping wasn't so de rigueur, then this version would be just as perfect as its Atari big brother. All the same, on a console loaded with outstanding shooters, there's still a place near the top for River Raid.