Between this and Crossfire, I have recently rediscovered a fondness for old school shoot ’em ups. While they ran on rickety hardware and weren’t always visually pleasant, I really get a kick out of playing these creative shooters with novel gameplay concepts to them. Hyper Gods would be a modern example, but I am holding out for more indie developers getting a piece of this cake.
Beamrider is a space-themed shooter where you are flying towards the horizon while enemies swoop in to try and take you down. The playing field is cut up in several rectangles and you are literally snapped to the lines between them. You and the enemies can both move left and right to position yourselves or dodge incoming fire, but you always come to a stop on the lines.
This is both useful and a hazard. The “beams” allow you to make precise shots at enemies despite the nice pseudo-3D scrolling effect. You always know how your projectile travels and, when an enemy moves, you always know where it will end up. The same applies to you and the enemies’ ability to snipe your spaceship.
Your weapon of choice is The Lariat, a single-fire armament that doesn’t let itself be spammed, so the game emphasizes taking precise shots. Each level provides you with 3 rockets as back-up which have more stopping power, but there is no refilling them and you need them if you want a chance of scoring the bonus at the end of each level.
The goal of the game is to clear each sector, and you do so by shooting down all of the white saucers. You constantly spot them on the horizon, waiting for their turn to charge at you. These are, incidentally, just about the only enemies vulnerable to The Lariat. With each sector cleared, the game introduces new enemy types or increases the difficulty by speeding up the enemy creatures and adding more of them. Personally, I think the game is a little too excited about introducing foes that are immune to the player’s main weapon.
The challenge isn’t so much in shooting down the relatively easy saucers, it’s in actually trying to get a shot at them while they dart around and you have to dodge an onslaught of different enemies that you can’t hurt without expending rockets. There are constantly enemies getting in front of your shots or forcing you on the defensive because there is just too much going on. It’s wasteful to shoot rockets at it too, as these enemies do respawn constantly and only reward a pitiful handful of points.
And yes, I know that I complained in my Crossfire review that different enemy AI would have been a neat addition, but Beamrider introduces it all in rapid succession and everything is resistant to your gun and super fast. Or, you know, they would be fast if the ZX Spectrum version could handle it. The game chugs along inconsistently, so enemies unexpectedly slow down and speed up, which is an unfair extra layer of challenge.
Besides that, the game is actually quite forgiving. You die in one hit, but extra lives are plentiful and the game allows you to start at sector 1, 5, or 10 when starting a new game, so experienced players can skip ahead. It also remembers the number of enemies you still had to shoot after dying during a sector, so you don’t have to keep retrying the entire wave each time.
If you can, I recommend the Atari 5200 version, which has the nicest visuals. Otherwise, any of the supported home computers are a good pick or even the Atari 2600 version for a more retro take on the concept.