If the modern twin stick shooter tried to look itself up on ancestry.com, odds are it will find that all paths lead to Robotron: 2084. Designed and developed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar after their previous success with Defender, the game was released by Williams in 1982 and tasked players with fighting the evil Robotrons before they destroy the last human family.
The twin stick control scheme came about through an unusual case of needed accessibility; Jarvis had injured his right hand and while it was in a cast was unable to use the joystick button on Berzerk, a game he was playing at the time. The idea for using a second stick for shooting lead to development of a new game that capitalized on the method.
Though it wasn’t the first arcade game to use twin sticks in this fashion, Taito’s Space Dungeon did it a year earlier, it was the game that legitimized it through the massive success it achieved.
The game itself is a single screen affair with the player starting in the middle of the screen surrounded by enemies they needed to destroy and humans to save. On destroying all possible Robotrons, the next wave begins and your task begins again but just that little bit more difficult. Enemy types would be introduced quickly over those early waves starting with the simple Grunts and moving onto more dangerous ones such as the indestructible Hulks and zombifying Brains.
One of the first reactions new players would get from Robotron: 2084 would be the pace of it. The game is relentlessly fast from the moment you start to the game over screen. Apart from the plodding Hulks, everything moves at an insane pace that’s only offset by the speed of your own character.
Completion of waves is barely a tick or two on a stopwatch either as you warp from one to the next; it doesn’t necessarily add anything to the gameplay but it will test your mental endurance and ability to rest in those spare seconds.
The original arcade game had a handful of bugs that could lead to the game crashing (later rectified when emulation became the norm in releases) but not all the bugs in the game were fatal.
One I had used often (thank you Internet!) was from an AI quirk that resulted in the Brains prioritizing “Mikey”, the child character of the human family, above the others which allowed players an opportunity to save the others and accumulate a hefty bonus score in the process. In a game where dying comes quick and easy, anything that allows you to earn score and bonus lives is worth pursuing.
My first exposure to the game was via the home computer versions (Atari 8bit) which ironically had the player going back to the one joystick and button configuration that had riled Jarvis in the first place. Later I played other home versions with one of the last of that era being the impressive Atari Lynx version that somehow nails the gameplay even with that console’s relatively small screen resolution.
Despite these limitations, the fast pace and chaos of the arcade game translates really well to multiple platforms and made it a game that was easy to pick up and play. In the following years emulation have helped the game spread to more platforms in as “pure” a form as is possible which is perfect for those like me who were not fortunate to see the arcade version in action.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
In the years following, many games in the arcades and home systems were inspired by the game’s design, including Smash TV which Jarvis himself had a hand in developing. Smash TV took the concept but wrapped it in a game show theme while also throwing in upgrades and multiplayer. There was never an official sequel to Robotron but this was as close to one as there ever would be.
Jeff Minter’s spin on the game, Llamatron: 2112 which released first on the Atari ST in 1991, was in my mind the best take on Robotron for a very long time. The game combined some great control choices (in single joystick mode the button was used to lock fire in the current direction) with absurd humour to make it one of the standout titles on the system. Being attacked by toilets and a screaming Mandelbrot set in the same game is not something you’ll see every day. The game has also been translated to smartphones in the form of Minotron: 2112.
The Xbox 360 received a version of Robotron a few years ago now and it was a pretty faithful port that tweaked the graphics a little to reflect the modern system it was running on but remained close to the original art style. Having a system that natively supported twin stick controllers made the game an easy fit.
The 360 also received an extremely popular take on the genre in the form of Geometry Wars Retro Evolved which was one of the must own launch titles for the system. This was followed up by a sequel that built on both it and a Nintendo DS spinoff to create one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games ever.
Zen and the Art of Digital Carnage
One thing that always fascinates me about playing Robotron and games of the genre is the reaction I have from playing them.
When I’m really focusing I might get into a zen-like state where it feels like my movement and shooting gels for a brief moment and enemies are no match for my speed and precision. For a game that is often the one doling out the punishment it can be quite a surprise to turns the tables on it.
It never lasts for very long (I never said I was a good player) but when it does happen it’s a buzz that I don’t get as strongly from any other game and helps give it that “one more go” appeal. Even now I can’t just play a single session… there’s always another restart just to see if I can do any better or get close to that moment again.
That “trance factor” certainly must have been something that Jeff Minter was aware of – he even had Llamatron go one step further and be a little trippier during those supreme butt kicking moments. It was a psychedelic reward for your gaming awesomeness and I loved it… every… single… time.
Yet even with all the extras these games have brought in they are still built on the incredibly strong foundation that Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar built more than thirty years ago. That a player could go from Geometry Wars back to Robotron and still feel at home shows how relevant the game continues to be for current and future gaming generations.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.