To this day I'm not quite sure where our copy came from, probably a trade or castoff from someone else. I do know I wasn't too fond of it at first. It was the favored game of my sister Missy, who didn't play Atari very often otherwise, during the days when I was busy blasting my way through Desert Falcon and swearing at Tower Toppler.
One day, however, I picked up the Solaris instruction manual and never looked back. Even as a young thing I had always had a thing for space adventure, be it "Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space" or "Battlestar Galactica." I could sit and play Vanguard, Defender, Galaga, Yar's Revenge, or any other space shooter for hours. If it had spaceships and laser cannons in it, I was there, so I really can't explain why I was slow to get into Solaris. Maybe watching Missy shuffle through the map screens reminded me too much of the video versions of board games, which I could never see the point of.
But once I finally read the manual and played the game myself... I was simultaneously hooked and annoyed that I had been depriving myself of the pleasure of warping through space blasting the daylights out of flagships, Kogalon star pirates, Cobra ships, and all sorts of other things, trying to save the planet Solaris before the evil Zylons destroy it.
Some of the best I've seen in a 2600 game. The enemy ships, of which there are many, all have different shapes and ways of moving about on screen. They increase/decrease in size as they fly up close to your ship or scoot off into the distance. Stars and round objects referred to as "neutral planets" (which are more like asteroids compared to Federation and Zylon planets, but never mind) streak past as you head into battle.
The map screens which formerly put me off turned out to be a nice touch. Each of the sixteen space quadrants (though wouldn't a sixteenth be a quadrant of a quadrant?) has its own grid containing handy icons indicating where star clusters, wormholes, Federation or Zylon planets, and enemy fleets are located.
While the color palette is subdued and every planet you land on is picked out in shades of purple, the details more than make up for it.
No music, but a boatload of sound effects: laser blasts, explosions, whooshy sounds while flying or warping, alarms when you are running low on fuel or when a Federation planet gets invaded by Zylons. Background music wouldn't make a lot of sense unless Federation starships come with CD players.
Despite the complexity and scope of the game, it's fun, and that makes it a winner in my book.
Instead of just flying and shooting, there is some strategy involved as the star clusters form a giant maze you must maneuver through to get closer to the goal. The on-screen targeting system is a nice touch; it changes colors as you get closer to enemy ships and points to where the enemy is when they're out of view, saving a lot of tedious flying and searching. The same display helps you locate docking bays on friendly planets for when you need to refuel.
The one complaint I have is that certain wormholes will shunt you straight into a corner blocked in by star clusters, and once you pass through certain sectors containing a planet the game won't let you back out the way you came. There's nothing like playing a game for hours only to find yourself stuck with no way out, or the only way out being to destroy a friendly planet (along with all your possible rest stops in that quadrant).
For the most part, pretty responsive. The ship moves about pretty easily and is fast enough to dodge enemy fire. Warping is tricky at first, as the ship splits into two ships which have to be kept as in phase as possible, but gets easier with practice and a bad warp basically just means you arrive further from the enemy. The quadrant maps are accessed with the second joystick, which can be cumbersome if you're in a hurry, but you're not in danger of losing something important or blundering into an obstacle if you mix up the joysticks (unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
The only time control is a real problem happens when a Federation planet is destroyed, either by the Zylons or if you shoot a docking bay: the quadrant becomes a "red zone" where the controls are reversed. This situation is best faced with the 7800 proline joystick: both fire buttons function the same way, so if you simply hold it upside down you can almost maneuver normally.
Perhaps the best way to describe how I feel about this game is that I've never won it but I still love it. Normally a winnable game I can't win either gets ignored or trashed, but this one works on so many levels: a strategy maze game, a shoot-'em-up stressbuster, or a quick space flight vacation. This might be the last Atari game I got for a long while, but it's usually the first one I reach for when I'm in the mood for a good game.