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Robotron: 2084

Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

   
1982 - Williams - Released in arcades
Robotron 2084 - video game classics
 
 
 

Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!

 
 

April 22, 2003

Robotron 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 for quarters.

This 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.

Robotron 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.

Jarvis, 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Much 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.

I 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.

Eugene 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.

If you think that idea sounds quaint and silly, well, I have three letters for you: Y2K.