Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Game 124: Robotron: 2084

After replaying Robotron: 2084, and with Williams’ Defender and Stargate in recent memory, I’m almost inclined to think of it as the third game in the Defender trilogy. It’s obviously not the same kind of game as those two – while Defender and Stargate were horizontally scrolling shmupoids with five or six different action buttons, Robotron is a single-screen overhead shooter with zero action buttons. And yet there’s a lot that I see in common. The most obvious is the dual goals of destroying enemies and rescuing people, which can often conflict. Robotron doesn’t compel you to rescue people as Defender does, but it’s by far the best way to score points, and by scoring points, gaining sorely needed extra lives. And like Defender, Robotron awards extra lives at regular point intervals, an uncommonly generous design balanced out by the alarming difficulty of holding onto all those lives. It’s a difficulty which feels fairer than most arcade games, but with a very high skill floor, and a good part of that difficulty stems from the sheer amount of deadly chaos on the screen, which was high in Defender, higher still in Stargate, and possibly peak pandemonium on Robotron, being all too happy to throw everything it’s got at you all at once on a single screen.

The first time I heard of and played Robotron was in 1998, when a 3D sequel came out on the Nintendo 64. I was hooked by its simple, addictive gameplay, ingenious control scheme, and intense difficulty, with massive swarms of killer robots, balanced by ample chance to earn huge supplies of extra lives.

Some years later, once I had and understood MAME, I knew I had to give the original a try, but it didn’t quite grab me the same way. I think they key difference is that in Robotron 64, there’s an end game, even if it you have to complete 200 waves to reach it, and it hands out extra lives by the dozen, generous enough that a patient player may actually reach it.

Replaying it now, with more of a score-oriented mindset than a completionist one, I found it much more appealing this time around.

Like Defender, Robotron has a backstory and gameplay instructions in its attract screen, and it’s more animated and in-depth. Few arcade games in the era offered anything of that nature, at best giving instructions and/or plot printed on the side of the bezel.

I wasn’t quite able to reach wave 200, but after wave 10 you’ve seen most of what Robotron: 2084 has to offer, and after that it only gets harder. The waves essentially loop through five types, like so:
  • 1 – Grunts and spheroids (except during the first loop)
  • 2 – Tanks (except during the first loop)
  • 3 – Grunts and spheroids
  • 4 – Hulk mob or grunt mob (except during the first loop)
    • Hulks on waves 14, 24, 34, etc.
    • Grunts on waves 9, 19, 29, 39, etc.
  • 5 – Brains

Grunts attack by mindlessly moving toward you in large numbers, but they’re not difficult to herd as long as there aren’t other threats (and there always are). They’ll trample electrodes, neutralizing each other. In grunt mob waves, they’ll surround you. The longer the round goes, the faster the grunts move.

Hulks are big, slow, stupid, indestructible nuisances that kill humans and get in the way of you and your laser shots. They don’t seem to have any particular movement pattern, except that they seem to walk in straight lines for some time, and then turn 90 degrees left or right before walking in a straight line again. Shooting pushes them back a bit, not enough to make a huge difference, but you can occasionally push them away from a human for just long enough to rescue them.

Spheroids generate enforcers, which spam projectiles of varying speeds in your direction. The sooner you kill the spheroids, the fewer enforcers you’ll have to deal with, but that’s easier said than done,  and often endangers the humans because your attention is diverted from rescuing them.

Quarks should have been called cuboids. The generate tanks, which spam large, rebounding projectiles, often leading you, and often deliberately aimed to make you think the shot will miss, only to hit you on a bank shot. They only appear during tank rounds, and appear in much greater numbers than spheroids do on their respective rounds.

Brains are, I find, the deadliest enemy, as their zig-zagging shots are extremely difficult to dodge or to shoot down. Their ability to enslave humans and turn them against you isn’t nearly as bad – brains move slowly, the converted humans aren’t extremely dangerous, and levels with brains also have lots of humans, which means more points and more extra lives.

GAB rating: Good

What else can I say? Robotron rocks. Creating balanced difficulty is a very tricky thing – when arcade game developers didn’t design a hard playtime limit into their game, they had to err on the side of high difficulty – better that a game be unfair than unprofitable. Defender, Stargate, and Robotron are more chaotic than anything else I’ve looked at here, but through carefully polished design and understated depth, never feel unfair, even at their most blink-and-your-dead intensity. I award it a harpoon, along with Defender, making Vid Kidz a top tier arcade developer of the era, and the first developer of any kind to get two harpoons.

In 1983, Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar would create Blaster, a pseudo-3D, pseudo-sequel to Robotron, set in the year 2085 when the Robotrons have finally exterminated the human race, and you must blast your way through space in the cockpit of a space shuttle in search of a safe haven. Blaster was not a success, and this would be the last game that Jarvis and DeMar would create for Williams Electronics.


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  2. There are also different difficulty levels the game can be set to, which makes a HUGE difference. Level 10 was the hardest level on the original arcade Robotron.

  3. I'm curious what controller you used to play Robotron? Is it playable with the two analog sticks on a gamepad or do you need something heftier to work with? It always felt rather unapproachable to me unless you've got the actual arcade cabinet or something comparable.

    1. I have a homemade arcade-style control panel with two Happ Super joysticks. Made the thing almost two decades ago.


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