Yars’ Revenge was released during an era dominated by heroic space-shooters. And while the game took place in space, it broke some conventions of the genre. Instead of piloting a spaceship, you play as a flying alien. And instead of playing as a known protagonist, you are an unknown Yars warrior serving in an unseen army of flies. 

Howard Scott Warshaw’s seminal Yars’ Revenge tested the limits of the Assembly coding language and the Atari 2600 hardware. Warshaw pushed the graphic capabilities of the 2600 to the breaking point, and included a number of clever coding tricks only his fellow developers could appreciate. For example, the ever moving safe-zone is actually created by overlaying the program code counter-scrolling over itself vertically across the screen.

Warshaw’s stated goal was to overwhelm players. His efforts produced a barrage of fast-paced action, with full-screen explosions and brightly colored motion meant to confuse players. An array of sound effects add even more inputs to overstimulate players.  Success in Yars’ Revenge requires entering a flow state of concentration so you pick up on important visual and audio cues and respond with twitch-like reflexes. 

In Yars’ Revenge you play as a Yarian fly defending your homeworld from the evil Qotile empire.  You dart out from a protective shield to shoot and nibble at the Qotiles’ defenses, avoiding their missile attacks. The Qotile continually changes colors, and the color sequence is your cue to the appearance of a Swirl, a powerful enemy weapon that carves it way towards you like a lethal frisbe

If you successfully create a gap in the enemy defenses you can fire your powerful Zorlon cannon into the breach and take them out. But watch out for the enemies swirl, a special weapon that carves it way towards you like a lethal frisbee. 

The user manual offers this cryptic advice upon defeating the Qotile:

When you destroy the Qotile, or a Swirl, there will be an explosion, during which the Yar stays on the screen. Use this opportunity to make up your own victory dance.  And watch out for the Ghost of Yars!  You’ll see his mean streak, so stay off it!

Destroying the Qotile base sends you on to a next, more difficult level.  As you progress, the Zorlon cannon can bounce off the Qotile shields and the enemy missiles move faster.

Warshaw included some easter eggs in Yars’ Revenge, including some cheeky nods to Atari leadership in the names of the alien races and locations. For example, Yars flies and their homeworld, Razak, were derived from the CEO of Atari’s name, Ray Kazar.

When asked in 2022 why he thought Yars’ Revenge was such a popular title, Warshaw answered:

“I believe there are several factors behind the games’ popularity. Yars’ Revenge is a stimulating, multi-sensual experience. That was one of my chief design goals. Also, Yars does two things gamers love to do; establish interesting new rules and break pre-existing limiting rules. I suspect Yars’ Revenge appeals to the rebel in all of us. 

For more background on Yars’ Revenge and Warshaw’s career in the video games, read his book Once Upon Atari: How I made history by killing an industry.

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