The true brilliance behind this game is how the folks at Activision (programmer Dave Rolfe, to be precise) managed to preserve the elements which made Tempest so much fun yet offered them in an environment which didn't tax the 2600's hardware too much. I know Atari once played with the idea of making Tempest for the 2600, but the old Stella's hardware is just too limited to handle the rather-complex graphics utilized in the arcade classic.
The player is given a triangular ship which sits on one end of a grid. The player can shoots along the diagonal axes and move across the vertical one to which the ship is anchored. In addition to normal "laser lariats," the player is given three very powerful torpedoes per level (which, by the way, are great for shooting at a "boss" ship which floats along the top of the grid at the end of each level).
The player's primary job is to dodge shots (of course) and debris while blasting enemy ships. Yes, this is a shooter, indeed, but offers a very unique element - the screen is meant to portray combat in a three-dimensional world. Enemies start at the end of the grid farthest away from the player and gradually come closer (as do shots, asteroids and etc.) What's fascinating is there's some honest-to-goodness scaling effects which look pretty advanced for an Atari 2600 game. The scaling is done very well, thus creating the illusion that objects start off far away and gradually come closer. That's pretty unique for a system which is famous for games featuring environments which didn't come close to emulating three-dimensional space.
The graphics are crisp and the rather blob-like items on the screen are animated well. There is a fair amount of screen flicker here, but nothing that detracts from the game. The sound - like in most Atari games - is nothing to write home about, but the players is given enough audio cues to convey important information.
Control is very good, but that should come as no surprise. The player can only move right or left and fire either a lariat or torpedo. The player's ship responds quickly to the joystick, and that's essential in a shooter.
All in all, Activision went above and beyond on this one. The only drawback to this game is that it came out in 1984 after the video game market came crashing down and, as such, can be a bit hard to find. And, although this is a solid shooter, there's just not a lot of depth to it - once you get past the thrill of playing a game similar to Tempest on the 2600, you'll likely discover the game gets repetitive in a hurry. Still, the graphics are done very well and this is - on the surface, at least - a very solid 2600 game. However, the faults in Beamrider are minor and this game is one that I love to put in when in the mood for blowing stuff up for about half an hour.