Retina Burn – The Kindred Spirits of Robotron

You’re surrounded! Flanked on all sides by an aggressive, ever encroaching enemy force. No exits, no hiding places, nowhere else to run. Your death is expected, inevitable; At least put on a good show, will you?

Robotron 2084 is a legendary game with unmistakable influence. It’s debut in 1982 was a watershed moment for game design, and paved the way for hundreds of derivatives. An unconventional control scheme made it stand out to arcade goers of the time, utilizing two joysticks during game play. The project was forged by Vid Kidz, A partnership between Eugene Jarvis and Larry Demar. Enjoying considerable fame from their work on William’s Electronics’ Defender, development only took six months. A sequel was planned, but the North American Video Game Crash in 1983 disbanded Vid Kidz and left Robotron II unrealized.

The airtight design of Robotron is completely intentional: Not a single byte feels wasted, and every element has an explicit purpose. While remembered for their heinous difficulty, arcade games of this era also featured a “second to second enjoyment” that hasn’t been topped since. If the player wasn’t having fun, they’d spend their money elsewhere; But Robotron is more than fun, its a bona fide riot. Strafing across the play field, laying waste to hundreds of relentless foes, and rescuing members of the last human family: “The ultimate conflict between man and machine.”

While Robotron never received an official sequel, multiple spiritual successors tried to emulate the title’s success. SmashTV and Total Carnage are both notable attempts by Midway to seize the Twin-Stick Shooter Throne. While visuals saw a massive upgrade, the game mechanics saw only a handful of changes: Stage sizes, cooperative play, weapon pickups, bosses, and an actual “Win Condition” separate these games from their ancestor. The lack of changes could be seen as a negative, but why risk spoiling an already perfect formula?

This “perfect formula” has slithered its way into more games than you may realize. Robotron was a pioneer in power fantasies, and sees itself replicated in many an arcade shooter. These Kindred Spirits may feature more complex mechanics, Win Conditions, or even entirely different perspectives, but they owe their creation to Robotron. Serious Sam, Painkiller, and 2016’s DOOM reboot all have a surrogate in Vid Kidz. You’re locked in a room, and running is only a temporary solution to a permanent problem, better start blasting! In these games, player control and feedback is all evocative of Robotron: You’re always dangerous, while being in constant danger yourself. This fact creates a dance of sorts, wherein skilled players use positioning and swift movement to emerge alive.

If you’re a horde shooter fan, and you’ve somehow never played Robotron, consider taking a trip to 2084; Arcade Perfect ports have been very forthcoming (Midway Arcade Treasures/Origins, Xbox Live Arcade), and the unusual control scheme is easily replicated on any modern controller. For self diagnosed experts looking for a bit more, Housemaque’s Nex Machina could be considered a belated Robotron II: It shares many of the same themes, and even featured our pal Eugene Jarvis as a design consultant.

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