Blue Max is a video game written by Bob Polin for the Atari 8-bit family and published by Synapse Software in 1983. It was released for the Commodore 64 the same year, and in 1984 it was ported to the ZX Spectrum by U.S. Gold. In 1987 Atari Corp. published it in cartridge form for the then-new Atari XEGS.
The player controls a Sopwith Camel biplane during World War I, attempting to shoot down enemy planes and bomb targets on the diagonally scrolling terrain. It has strong similarities to the arcade game Zaxxon. The game is named after the medal Pour le Mérite, informally known as Blue Max. Its theme song is "Rule, Britannia!".
In 1984, Synapse released a sequel, Blue Max 2001, with a futuristic setting, but otherwise similar in design to the original.
The game opens with the player's aircraft parked on a runway while the theme - a rendition of "Rule, Britannia!" - plays. After selecting from various control and difficulty options and pressing start, the screen shows the aircraft speeding up down the runway. The player is required to push the joystick in order to take off, but not before the plane reaches a certain minimum speed. From then on the screen scrolls diagonally in the fashion of Zaxxon, using oblique projection to simulate three-dimensionality. The player can move left and right, forward and backward, or raise or lower their altitude with the joystick. The fire button shoots the machine guns continually, while pressing and moving the stick down at the same time causes a bomb to drop.
The game is divided into several areas, each one ending with a runway on which the player should land. The first area consists of a large river on the left side of the screen and a grassy treed area on the right. In the second area the river eventually gives way to land and roads filled with tanks and enemy airbases. The third and final area is the city, composed of skyscrapers and bunkers, destruction of which is the main goal of the game.
Each area contains various targets to destroy, including warships in the river that fire flak, tanks, bridges, various buildings, and enemy biplanes that appear periodically in front or behind the player and shoot at the player's aircraft.
The player's aircraft may be damaged by enemy firepower. Each shot taken causes one of four possible impairments: gun damage, bomb gear damage, fuel leak, or decreased maneuverability. The fifth shot taken obliterates the plane. The player may also die by colliding with ground or an enemy plane, or by using up all of the fuel.
After flying a certain distance the player is notified, by a beeping sound, that a friendly airbase is about to appear. The player should then land on the airfield, which refuels the aircraft, fixes its damage, and replenishes its supply of bombs.
In order to access the next area, the player must destroy a certain amount of special targets - flashing cars and planes, and buildings and bridges marked with a flashing cross. If not enough special targets have been destroyed, the plane, upon taking off, will fly through the same area again.
The ultimate goal is to reach the final area and bomb the three bunkers inside the heavily defended city, and then reach the airfield at the end of the stage. Upon finishing, either by succeeding or dying, the player is given a numerical rank based on their performance.
The C64 version generally had better graphics, but somewhat muted sound. Missions were shorter, about half as many stages as the Atari version.
Softline praised Blue Max's graphics, describing the game as "River Raid for real and Zaxxon with meat on it ... if Zaxxon deserved to be a hit, this deserves to be a monster". In 1984 the magazine's readers named the game the second most-popular Atari program of 1983, after Archon. Compute! wrote "along comes a game that may make standard two-dimensional eye/hand games obsolete ... Blue Max may well be the best action game there is". It stated that the game improved on Zaxxon, noting the functional instrument panel and need to land, refuel, and take off. The magazine concluded, "Blue Max is head and shoulders above other shooting games".
Ahoy! approved of the game's sound and 3-D graphics but criticized the unrealistic plane shadow. While the reviewer stated "Occasionally I found myself wishing for more action. No, not more action—bigger action", he concluded "Bob Polin has done an exceptional job; this is one game that is really addictive". Compute!'s Gazette stated that "Blue Max has far more depth than Zaxxon. It is one of those few good games that have successfully combined strategy with arcade play". The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software 1984 gave the game an overall A rating, calling it "very enjoyable" with "a realistic sensation of flying", and concluded that it "has great depth of play to hold interest for a long time".
In 1996, Computer Gaming World ranked the C64 version of this "fun shooter" as the 142nd best game of all time.
In contrast to the positive reception given to the original, reviews of Blue Max 2001 on both Atari and C64 were mixed.
Ahoy! called the C64 release an "exciting sequel" which "extends and refines the elements which made the original game popular, while it introduces enough new challenges to generate fresh excitement," while Antic commented the Atari version had "fairly good graphics with some interesting touches" and despite problems with documentation it was "well worth the effort" in persevering.
However, Zzap!64 called the C64 version "one of the most disappointing sequels of all time", criticizing the "very poor" graphics (including the "jelly mould" ship and "wonky" perspective) and sound, as well as the difficulty in control caused by use of the joystick diagonals and left-to-right scrolling.
Atari magazine Page 6 also considered it a "disappointment" compared to its predecessor, noting that the ship resembled a Polo mint and was "a nightmare to fly, far less operate the bombs and lasers, with any degree of accuracy."