is the very essence of the instant-gratification "twitch"
videogame. It ranks among the fastest and most intense shoot-em-ups
ever made, even today. This game is among my personal favorites,
and thanks to arcade emulators and the brilliant Williams Arcade
Greatest Hits compilation, it can be enjoyed without the need
was the second game for Williams by Eugene Jarvis. His first was,
of course, Defender, the legendary outer space shooter
that continues to intimidate players two decades later. Jarvis would
easily be remembered for that classic, even if he faded into obscurity.
Thankfully, he did no such thing.
seems to be a response to the best and worst of Defender.
That game was blazingly fast, with alien ships, laser blasts, and
explosions flying every which way. It was, also, one of the most
difficult games of the classic era. One of the reasons for this
was the control setup, with its joystick and five buttons. For the
followup, Robotron slimmed the controls down to two joysticks;
one to move, and another to fire.
I suspect, wanted a challenge, but perhaps something a little different,
too. The key was to capture that intensity, while also making it
easier for players to move around. The final result works wonders.
Those playing Robotron today have the added benefit of
using joypads with a dozen buttons. This, of course, makes things
easier, but there really is no substitute for the two joysticks.
Watching someone play the arcade game is not unlike watching the
underground workers in "Metropolis," only much faster.
game features a humanoid hero who moves around a full-screen playfield,
shooting different varieties of robots that flail at all directions.
Here the greatness of the controllers becomes apparent. It's often
necessary to run one direction while shooting in another. This is
not one of those shooters where you have an overwhelming advantage.
If anything, it is you who are overwhelmed. The key is to survive
long enough to actually destroy all the robots.
addition, players must rescue human family members, who themselves
are targets for execution. The best levels involve alien brains,
who seek out the humans and turn them into suicidal zombies. Every
businessman and housewife you don't save just becomes another target
gunning for you.
like Defender, Jarvis draws Robotron with simple,
blocky characters. The graphics are a little abstract, and very
colorful in the way everything explodes when shot. Of course, this
was pretty much the state-of-the-art in the early '80s, and the
screen becomes literally packed after a few levels. But movement
of your hero is swift, and the lasers fire with that same cool rainbow
effect that the spaceship in Defender did.
think the appeal for Robotron comes from its almost hopeless
situation. The tension that comes from playing is like drinking
four cups of coffee on an empty stomach. Until you become very skilled,
most games will be over in less than five minutes, and you'll walk
away with shaking hands. Each attack wave is not beaten or completed;
it is survived. There really never has been anything quite like
this. Next Generation magazine famously said that you are never
more than two seconds away from death at all times in Robotron,
and that is the best description I've ever heard.
Jarvis found a home with Williams, the company responsible for some
of the best video arcades of the classic era. Gamers in their twenties
and thirties often wax nostalgic over such names as Joust,
Sinistar, Bubbles, Defender, Robotron.
This was the first golden age of the videogame, and Americans' first
real introduction to the computer age. Our ideas of what computers
could do were still molded by Star Wars and Isaac Asimov; the man-versus-machine
plot of Robotron was a genuine fear for many people. After all,
computers were moving into the workplace, making life more efficient,
but also making many lines of work obsolete. Those damned machines
were taking our jobs away, moving into our very lives. Pretty soon,
they may become so intelligent as to turn on us entirely.
you think that idea sounds quaint and silly, well, I have three
letters for you: Y2K.