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Starmaster is a video game written for the Atari 2600 by Alan Miller and published in June 1982 by Activision. The game is very similar in many respects to Atari's 8-bit computer game Star Raiders.
In the game the player pilots a starfighter, with the purpose of destroying a number of enemy ships before they destroy four friendly starbases. Gameplay is presented mostly in first person cockpit view, which is achieved with surprisingly good effect given the 2600's primitive graphics capabilities.
The starfighter carries laser weapons, shields, and a faster-than-light drive. The fighter also carries a limited energy supply, which is drained by firing the lasers, being hit by enemy fire, warping, or simply flying around. If the ship's energy drops to zero it is destroyed, and the game ends. Enemy fire can knock out the fighter's subsystems (such as weapons) on top of draining energy.
The game "universe" is a square-shaped galaxy mapped into a grid of 36 sectors. Each sector can be home to some enemy ships, a starbase, both, or nothing. The player "warps" the fighter to a sector to engage enemy ships; once they are all destroyed, the player moves on to another. The player can also warp to a sector with a starbase, and dock with it (a rather tricky process) to replenish energy and repair damaged subsystems. Enemy ships in turn maneuver through the galaxy as they home in to destroy the starbases.
The game is won when all enemy ships are destroyed, or lost if either the player's fighter or all four starbases are destroyed. In this way a game can last only a certain time, in contrast to games like Space Invaders which can go on forever.
Feedback, sounds, and controls
The game displays a tactical readout of the player's ship status. A radar screen displays the relative position of enemies and other objects. The following symbols signify damage to a ship's systems, which could have any or all of the following effects:
- L: Laser cannons destroyed. The player cannot fire at the enemy or meteors.
- S: Shields destroyed. The player's ship is defenseless. One more hit from enemy fire or collision with a meteor during warp travel will destroy the ship and end the game.
- W: Warp engines are damaged. The player's ship will use twice as much energy during warp travel. Watch energy reserves.
- R: Radar destroyed. The player can no longer spot enemy fighters on the Galactic Chart. Starbases will continue to appear.
The game uses color in an innovative way to inform the player of the game's action: a red explosion occurs when an enemy ship is destroyed, a blue explosion occurs when the player destroys incoming enemy fire, and a yellow explosion results when the player's ship is hit by enemy fire.
Starmaster is limited to a single player only. The "BW/Color" control on the console is used to switch between the "sector map" and the "cockpit" views, instead of its usual function. The "Select" switch simply adjusts the number of enemy ships at the start of the game. The "Skill" switches have no function.
Creator Alan Miller packed into the game some advanced effects given the low-end graphics capabilities of the Atari 2600, such as the depiction of stars whizzing by the cockpit, and the use of perspective when firing the lasers.
As in many Activision games, players could earn embroidered patches by photographing their television screens with a certain score and mailing the picture to the company. To join the "Order of the Starmaster," players would need to reach the following levels:
- Ensign: 3800
- Leader: 5700
- Wing Commander: 7600
- StarMaster: 9000
Starmaster has been re-released as part of collections of Activision games, such as Activision Anthology. In July 2010, the game was re-released on Microsoft's Game Room service for its Xbox 360 console and for Games for Windows Live.
Starmaster was covered in Video magazine's 1982 Guide to Electronic Games where it was described by reviewers as "the best space-piloting game cartridge ever created for a programmable video-game system".:52