Yars’ vs. Yar’s: 30 Years of Fighting Space Insects

I was eight-years-old in 1981 when Yars’ Revenge was released for the Atari 2600 console. At that time, Yars’ seemed a radical departure from most other available titles. Unlike the other games I owned at that time (Combat, Space Invaders, Basketball), the goal of Yars’ Revenge isn’t immediately discernible by simply looking at the playfield. The left hand side of the screen contains a big white bug (that’s you); on the right sits something or someone else (presumably a foe) behind a big red shield. A strip of rainbow-colored static runs vertically between the two of you. You can shoot (or peck) away at the shield, but not while hiding in the rainbow zone. Sometimes a missile appears behind you. Sometimes your enemy turns into a deadly spiral and shoots you in the face. There’s another wandering wafer that players quickly learn is not friendly.

Yars’ Revenge by Atari
Yar’s Revenge by Atari Interactive


It isn’t until we read the game’s manual that we learn we are not controlling a fly, but rather a Yar scout. The Qotile (aka “the guy hiding behind the red shield”) can only destroyed by a blast from the Zorlon Cannon, which the Yar must arm by using TRONS (units of energy). TRONS can be obtained by nibbling on cells from the Qotile’s shield, or touching the Qotile when he is not swirling. Yar can hide from the Qotile’s Destroyer Missile in the Neutral Zone (the “colorful and glittering path down the center of the playfield”), but cannot fire from inside it.

In addition to the manual, Atari also included a mini-Yars’ Revenge comic book that further detailed the Yars’ plight. According to the comic book, the titular “revenge” was in response to the destruction of the Yars home planet of Razak IV. We also learn that Yars are alien descendants of common house flies who wear chrome armor into battle. And if you didn’t get enough back story from the comic book, Atari also released two separate vinyl records containing dramatic reenactments of the Yars story. Atari used to put a lot of effort into their releases back then, yo. In this case the efforts paid off, as Yars’ Revenge became Atari’s best selling original title for the 2600.

Yars’ Revenge has seen multiple ports, mostly to portable consoles. The game was released for the Game Boy Color in 1999, as part of a compilation package for the Game Boy Advance in 2005, and Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 for the Nintendo DS in 2011. Yars’ Revenge was also included on both the Atari Flashback 2 and Jakks Pacific’s Atari Joystick Plug-n-Play/TV Games controllers. Most recently, the original version appeared most recently on the Atari Classics compilation for the PSP and iOS. (Just to clarify, all previous versions of Yars’ Revenge have been ports of the original, 1981 version.)

That brings us to Yar’s Revenge, a brand new Atari game developed by Killspace Entertainment. You can tell it’s an all new game because the old one was Yars’ (with a trailing apostrophe) and the new one is Yar’s (with the apostrophe before the “s”). SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE? This sly bit of coy marketing probably would have worked better if people hadn’t been misspelling the original version as “Yar’s” for the past three decades. Exactly thirty years after the release of the original, Yar’s Revenge hit PCs and XBLA in late April and PSN whenever hackers finally got gone done pissing all over it.

Despite the name of the original, apparently the Yars never got their revenge. In fact, in the sequel we learn that the Yars were all but wiped out by the Qotile, and what few Yars weren’t killed were captured. That’s where you come in, of course. After escaping, you’ll be exacting revenge against your former captors with guns a’blazing, which (technically speaking) means the game’s title should probably have been “Yar’s Yars’ Revenge Revenge”. Fortunately for us all it’s not; apparently, revenge is a dish best served one Yar at a time.

Speaking of names, this all new Yar’s Revenge doesn’t much resemble its namesake. The new Yar’s Revenge is at heart an on-rails shooter. Players are automatically guided through a beautifully pre-rendered world, and are allowed to move (but not steer) using the left analog stick while aiming with the right. In the past thirty years, Yar weaponry has come a long way; along with your traditional pulse laser, you also have a railgun and missiles at your disposal. Like all shooters, there are trade-offs (missiles are limited and the rail gun needs to recharge). Along the way you will also encounter power ups that can do things like recharge your health or make you temporarily invulnerable.

As with nearly all video games, the overall goal here is to rack up a high score. Your score can be boosted by acquiring and maintaining multipliers, which themselves can be increased by shooting accuracy and speed. Yar’s Revenge contains six levels, each of which ends with a boss fight (where those powered-up weapons will come in handy).

One thing the sequel shares with the original is in-game poor story telling. In the original, the Yars’ back story had to be conveyed through the help of a comic book (the Atari 2600 wasn’t particularly known for its ability to render cut scenes). In the sequel, the ongoing Yar saga is related to players through voiceless, subtitled cut scenes. I hope you can read fast, because the words tend to zoom by faster than a Qotile Destroyer Missile. Even worse is the written dialogue that appears in-game, usually while a wave of enemies is firing lasers at your insect-shaped head. If you have a tough time texting and driving, you can forget about following the plot.

As far as shooters go, Yar’s Revenge isn’t great and it isn’t terrible; it’s just kind of there. While some of the bosses and waves of opponents can be tough to dispose of (depending on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen), more than anything, the repeated zapping of continual onslaughts of baddies grows monotonous long before players can blast their way through the game’s two-to-three hour playtime. More important to me than the fate of Yar was finding out when this punishment was going to end.

Thirty years ago, Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw created the Yars’ Revenge, a 192×160 resolution game that consists of 4k of code and is still being played today on modern systems. Thirty years later we have Yar’s Revenge, an absolutely gorgeous on-rails shooter that is bigger in size than a conventional CD (the PC version is well over 700 meg) and will be forgotten by most gamers in 30 days, much less 30 years. If that doesn’t sum up the current state of the gaming industry, I don’t know what does.