The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Thrax Lair Atari 900 XL









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Thrax Lair - Publisher: Rantom - Designer: Randy Turner - Atari 800XL - 1982

Sliding across the screen, attacking enemies while navigating a dark cavern, this top-scrolling title mixes flying and shooting objectives simultaneously to create a unique game. Initial inspection seems to reveal a simplistic game. Thrax Lair doesn't offer many options, such as different levels, stage selects or difficulty options. You basically start all games at the initial, somewhat slow stage and the main object is too achieve the maximum endurance. This could feel repetitive or monotonous when compared to modern shooters but the straightforward arcade-style game's open-ended structure and simple flight mechanics don't feel constrained thanks to the sensation of speed and momentum its fluid controls provide.

When Thrax Lair is judged in relation to its contemporaries, its deceptively simple but engaging. gameplay holds up surprisingly well. While your range is combined to three angles of shots (horizontal, diagonal and vertical) that consist of narrow lines of attack, Only allowing a limited range of firepower paths requires you to maneuver around he screens carefully and place your shots in advance. Implementing a rigid approach to the dragoon's projectiles creates a layered challenge to Thrax Lair that keeps the gameplay engaging throughout.

Beneath the arcade-style surface, it offers surprising depth once you begin play and discover a number of surprising elements that add to the seemingly simple challenge. The superficial resemblance to other shooter titles comes as you control the space dragon as it flies through innumerable caverns. Knocking against the edges will slow you down significantly, but it won't automatically destroy your dragon. This gives you some leeway when flying around, allowing you to use specific areas as a brief barrier, allowing you to shoot enemies from a relatively safe position. This is a cool technique but don't get used to it, since these random occurrences in the levels don't happen particularly often.

Thrax Lair doesn't auto-scroll, instead allowing players to set the momentum of the dragon as they see fit. This non-linear approach gives Thrax Lair a unique feel that gives you a rough sensation of flying, allowing you to move along at your own pace. You can pull back on the joystick to slow down gradually which gives Thrax Lair controls a reasonable sense of pacing and momentum. The dragon is animated nicely and its flapping wings lend a good sense of speed to the action. You can choose to charge ahead through the levels at a fast rate, but this will cause you to fly past the spider enemies, forsaking points. These opponents move across the screen in somewhat erratic fashion which makes them somewhat difficult to evade in certain circumstances. This is particularly annoying when they arrive at close range. Fortunately, your shots are versatile and powerful and can dispatch these foes with a single shot. Its mostly a matter of timing and reflex.

Using the controller to steer is intuitive and simple, with the dragon's responsive movements allowing you a great deal of flexibility. You can duck and avoid enemies easily. The smoothly-scrolling stages and fluid animations make the game play flow seamlessly, allowing you to change tactics on the fly without worrying about slowing things down. Thrax Lair doesn't have any power-ups or enhancements to speak of, but the game's simplicity is a key part of its appeal. You can start right away and have fun without excessively cluttered screens or complex systems getting in the way. This allows you to concentrate on the action without getting bogged down.

Thrax Lair's basic game mechanics are easy to understand, but there are some interesting portions that offer surprising depth and strategy. At first, it seems like you're going to be battling against an endless armada of spiders, but as you get farther into the game, they begin to attack in waves of multiple opponents, before other enemies start to appear. These take the form of larger spiders who are more aggressive in their attacks and harder to beat. The constrained controls pose an interesting challenge. While you can shoot in front, diagonally or sideways, you can't shoot or move backwards, Once you've passed an enemy you can't go back, so you need be careful and not rush ahead.

One of the more engaging aspects of Thrax Lair with its unpredictability. Each level layout is randomly generated while the enemies appear in seemingly random order. This males it impossibly difficult to memorize patterns or preset generalized forms. However, the game's randomly-assembled parameters are structured in a limited way, that allows you to anticipate what lies ahead effectively. You can't exactly know where enemies will appear, but you can get a pretty good idea with practice. Randomization is also implemented and a similar approach applies when navigating the levels. You never what's set ahead, but can figure it out eventually. Thrax Lair unfolds through a series of caverns that alternate between open areas and narrow sections.

The strategy you need to follow in order to survive its levels is relatively straightforward; move quickly through the large gaps while move with caution through the narrow sections. You can avoid enemy shots easily from a distance, but the forces will relentlessly attack the dragon, any contact with them causes you to lose a life. However, shooting opponents isn't the only way to score points. Thrax Lair tracks how far you've managed to get into its cavers, accumulating a score the longer you proceed.

Your dragon's total flying points are combined and calculated together, accumulating in parallel with the shooting points, Both scores are then combined into a single total at the end of the game. It seems simple but this combined approach rewards you no matter which strategy you choose to follow. Focusing on shooting the enemies will cause you to rack up points but travelling won't get you very far. On the other hand, you can choose to fly through the stages and try to avoid enemies, this approach isn't particularly satisfying. The most effective approach takes some practice but after awhile, you'll be able to use both strategies at the same time. Putting the flying and shooting together isn't easy but will eventually let you accumulate the most points.

An impressive visual presentation helps to give the game a robust appearance. While the sprites are relatively simple, they are well-designed and easy to understand. Sound effects are pretty decent, highlighted by yells of the enemies when they grow closer. These aren't especially elaborate or impressive, but effectively implemented to accompany the action without overwhelming the gameplay. Depending on how long you play, the increased momentum, aggressive enemies and unpredictable layouts mark an interesting game that delivers a strategic layer that goes beyond what's seen in the usual arcade-style game. Thrax Lair's basic gameplay is immediately accessible. Its surprisingly nuanced mechanics and surprisingly randomized elements offer surprising depth and challenge that remains appealing and engaging.

- Michael Palisano