The humble Atari 2600 had an astonishingly long lifespan, being officially produced between 1977 and 1992. As you might expect, this means there’s an equally astonishing difference between the very first games for it and those which came out later in its lifespan.
Solaris by Doug Neubauer came out in 1986, putting it towards the latter end of that lifespan. To date it remains one of the very finest games on the Atari 2600 from technological, gameplay and design standpoints — although not one that gets talked about all that much. And all this makes it a title well worth checking out even if you don’t normally “do” Atari games.
Solaris’ predecessor is also probably Neubauer’s most well-known work outside of his numerous contributions to Atari hardware: 1979’s Star Raiders for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. This is an enormously influential game that combines first-person space combat with lightweight simulation and strategic elements, effectively making it the grandfather of more modern space sims such as LucasArts’ classic Star Wars-themed titles, Origin’s cinematic Wing Commander series and, more recently, titles such as Egosoft’s X series.
Neubauer originally pitched the game that would become Solaris to Atari in 1984 after Carla Meninsky’s successful port of his original game to Atari 2600 a couple of years earlier. But as anyone familiar with gaming history will know, this was a period of considerable upheaval for the business, since it immediately followed the great “crash” of 1983. Writing on his personal website, Neubauer recalls that “Atari was planning on calling it The Last Starfighter as a tie-in to the movie. In fact, in late June, Atari flew me down to Los Angeles to see a screening of the movie. The next Tuesday, Jack Tramiel bought the company and laid most everyone off. It looked like the end of video games for Atari.”
This wasn’t the only time Star Raiders and The Last Starfighter intersected in gaming history; the game that would eventually become Star Raiders II for Atari 8-bit computers — a game which Neubauer had nothing to do with — was also originally intended to be a video game adaptation of The Last Starfighter, but came out two years late when the movie was no longer relevant, and was thus tweaked and rebranded as a sequel to Neubauer’s classic.
But I digress. Solaris eventually found its way to release in 1986, after a somewhat battle-scarred Atari had picked itself up after the crash and decided to start releasing games for its most popular home console once again. Neubauer, who at this point had moved on from the company, was one of the people they called to contribute their work, and so it was that Solaris, rebranded from the now-irrelevant The Last Starfighter license, eventually found its way onto store shelves.
In Solaris, you’re tasked with finding the titular planet, which is hidden somewhere in a predefined arrangement of 16 quadrants, each of which is represented as a grid of 48 sectors. Passing from one quadrant to another is achieved by warping your ship to a sector that is adjacent to a “doorway” on the map; after completing a successful warp to this sector (and fending off any resistance that might be in the way) you’ll proceed to the next quadrant, and in this way you’ll move from area to area in a similar fashion to top-down adventure games such as Atari’s own Adventure and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda.
Of course, it absolutely isn’t as simple as it sounds. While moving around on the quadrant map, you cannot pass through anything in your way. This means that you’ll have to destroy enemy fleets and negotiate minefields that are blocking your path, and in many instances you’ll have to find ways around inconvenient star clusters that act as walls, making the entire galaxy you have to explore something of a labyrinth.
There’s a single, correct route to the planet Solaris across the quadrant maps, and deviating from this can put you in an unwinnable situation thanks to game elements such as one-way wormholes. While this could easily be frustrating, the game is set up in such a way that even if you’ll never reach the final goal of the game — which, given the difficulty, is pretty unlikely even if you go the right way — you can still play for score, since there are lots of ways to score points.
The simplest means of doing this is to confront enemy fleets in space. There are several different types of ship to face off against, ranging from the fairly straightforward space pirates to the powerful Zylon flagships which, like in Star Raiders, bear an uncanny resemblance to Cylon Basestars from Battlestar Galactica. But we’ll assume that was a happy coincidence.
Different enemies attack in different ways; flagships shoot out “Distractors”, for example, which sap your fuel level rather than destroying you outright, while others fire energy blasts that can knock out your targeting computer until you visit a friendly planet to refuel.
Fuel management is an important part of playing Solaris, particularly if you’re making an honest attempt to reach the final goal. Everything you do in the game costs a certain amount of fuel, and when entering hyperspace to move between sectors, you’ll burn more fuel if you fail to keep your ship in “focus” by keeping it and its flickering double image in synchronisation with one another. Run out of fuel and you’ll lose a life — unlike in Star Raiders, you start the game with two additional lives — but dock with an installation on a friendly planet and you’ll replenish your supplies while also repairing any damage.
While Star Raiders was very much a defensive mission, tasking you with defending your quadrant’s starbases against enemy attack, in Solaris you are generally on the offensive, always moving forward in an attempt to reach your final goal. There are times when you’ll need to come to the assistance of a friendly planet, however; failing to clear out the enemies from the planet surface before 40 seconds have elapsed since the initial alert will destroy the planet, meaning you can no longer refuel there, and also turn the whole quadrant into a “Red Zone” where your controls are reversed and you’re constantly battered with loud, distracting electrical storms while flying through space.
You can take the fight to the Zylons in a couple of ways, though. Descending to their planets allows you to rescue stranded Federation officers and take out enemy targets, and this is actually a crucial part of success in the game, since successfully rescuing three officers from an enemy planet causes said planet to explode, awarding you with an extra life and a large chunk of points.
You can also attack the Zylons through “Corridors”, which are high-speed trench runs where you have to fend off enemy turrets and grab keys to safely pass through force fields. While these challenges don’t reward you with extra lives, they are worth a lot of points and can often open up new paths for you to explore. Plus they’re a ton of fun.
Your first few trips through the galaxy of Solaris will feel like a journey of discovery as you figure out what all the different symbols mean and how to deal with the various enemy types. Once you have a grasp of the basic mechanics, it becomes an enormously satisfying quasi-3D shoot ’em up with some of the smoothest, slickest and most colourful visuals you’ll see on the 2600 — and highly enjoyable, varied gameplay that still holds up extraordinarily well today.
While some may lament the loss of some of Star Raiders’ more immersive, “sim-like” elements in favour of greater depth and complexity to the game’s overall structure, Solaris firmly defines itself as its own distinctive experience immediately rather than riding the coat-tails of its illustrious predecessor. And that experience as a whole is one of the most fascinating experiences the Atari 2600 has to offer; a real underappreciated gem that deserves to be celebrated much more than it typically is when we contemplate the long and proud history of spacefaring games.