While Star Raiders was an accomplished title on Atari computers and the 5200, the version of that game for the 2600 fell a bit short. In typical fashion, Activision trumped Atari with a competing title that was better. StarMaster, indeed, is one of the better titles available for the 2600, and it's not surprising that Activision hit another homerun with this fantastic cart.
StarMaster, set in the distant future, calls on the player to blast the fool out of enemy ships before they can surround and destroy enemy spaceships and destroy your starbases. The truly novel thing about this game is that it requires the player to use the "color/ black-and-white" switch to call up to screens. The first one is a galactic chart, which shows the position of the player's ship, the clusters of enemy space fighters and friendly starships. The other is a "cockpit" view where all of the fighting takes place. On an Atari 7800, the screens can be swapped by flipping the right difficulty switch.
Now, the strategy element requires the player to decide which groups of enemies to attack while conserving as much energy as possible. Starbases get destroyed when surrounded by enemies, and formations of their ships are always moving toward one starbase or another. Warping around the galactic chart, firing weapons and taking hits all drain energy, so the player has to be careful -- stopping in at a starbase to get more fuel takes up time, and enemies must be destroyed as quickly as possible.
There are four starbases to defend on all levels of the game. Not only are those starbases a source of energy, docking with one can also repair the player's ship. I love the way this game handles ship damage. The player has shields, which usually stop enemy shots. However, absorbing a hit can result in damage to the ship. If warp engines are damaged, it takes twice as much energy to travel around the galactic map. If radar is hit, then enemy ships won't appear on the chart. If lasers are destroyed, then the player can't fire at the bad guys. Finally, if shields are knocked out, the player will be destroyed upon taking a hit. The best tactic is to avoid getting hit by shots from the sneaky, no-good opponent altogether. However, the player can use his laser cannons to knock down shots being lobbed at him.
Getting shot at isn't the only thing the player has to worry about. While warping around the chart, asteroids can appear and hit the player's ship. Those, too, are best avoided. Here's a tip, by the way -- never travel in a straight line while in warp. I tend to steer my ship up and to the right while warping so as to avoid pesky asteroids.
As for graphics, they are quite good for the 2600. The galactic chart is nice and basic, but the cockpit view features stars that zip by (particularly in warp) and spaceships that are well-detailed, even if they are only one color (yellow, by the way). The bottom of the screen is color-coded to reveal the status of the sector through which the player is flying -- red means an enemy is in the area, green means all clear and blue is for areas with star bases in them.
The cockpit view, also, features a useful gun sight, and the "Mission/Attack Computer" which lists the amount of energy used and lists damaged ship components. The screen isn't plagued with the blasted flicker that ruined many a 2600 game, and the colors are sharp and vibrant. The quality of the graphics should come as no surprise as Activision was known for milking 2600 hardware for all it was worth.
As for replay value, this game has it in spades. You get four levels, with the first being dead simple (nine, slow-moving enemies) to downright hectic (31 enemy ships that travel very quickly). On the easiest level, the enemies travel at a leisurely pace on the way to starbases and can be intercepted easily. On the more difficult levels, the nasty bad guys are clearly on a mission and try to swarm around bases quickly. And, on the harder levels, the enemy ships move faster and are hard to hit, thus requiring the player to fire those cannons more often and expend more energy.
On the topic of energy use, the player is at a slight disadvantage because fuel consumption is a huge issue in this game. The villains, however, can fly around all day with a seemingly endless supply of energy. However, that disadvantage is counteracted by the fact the player has shields and enemy ships are destroyed with just one shot.
The sound here is pretty good, too. Sure, there's an absolutely miserable and bloopy version of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" at the beginning, but everything else is right on. A constant, tinny bit of white noise simulating the engines is in the background and that noise increases in intensity when the ship is in warp. Enemy shots aren't mere "bleeps" or "bloops" but sound rather like a large ball of energy heading toward the player's ship. The player's lasers are well-represented by a short, high-pitched tone that emits as the two bursts of energy converge in the gun sight in the middle of the screen. And, when a starbase is blown up, the player hears it regardless of where his ship is. There's nothing particularly extraordinary about the sounds, but they fit in well with the game.
Truly, this is one heck of a game for the 2600, and a must for people who enjoy their space combat with a bit of strategy. This is a primitive space flight simulator with some arcade action built in, and is the kind of game that remains fun for a very long time.