Save The Last Human Family

Today’s been work, which is usually something I try to avoid at weekends except they asked nicely and it looked interesting, and it’s coming together kind of okay but I’m damned if I’m capable of anything other than some meta-post about what I’ve been playing and writing about because that’s what my head’s full of right now. And, you know, sod that.

So tonight you get a piece from a couple of years ago that I did for Edge’s 100 Best Videogames special. It’s about a game that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the last few years, simply trying to learn how to play it properly. I’m not a natural at Robotron; came to it quite late and had a hard time wrapping my head around the controls at first. Later played it on MAME before they’d sorted out its peculiarities, so it played too fast; the XBLA version was better but the analogue sticks weren’t right. MAME fixed the performance weirdness so I updated and finally had a version that behaved like the arcade machine, and I practised, lots.

From being able to maybe touch 100K and get to the first tank wave, now I’m up to something like 650K and capable of getting to around level 20. It’s not bad, not especially great, but it’s an improvement and it’s something to work on and have fun with every now and then. I love the simplicity and balance of Robotron, how it creates utter fucking devastating chaos that can nevertheless be beaten if you have the skills and the nerve. And I wish I was better at it.

Here’s what I wrote about it. It’s not bad, possibly a bit more Edge than I generally am, none the worse for that. And look, in trying to bunk off for the evening I’ve ended up writing this introduction. Yay me! G’night!

Robotron: 2084

There’s something fundamentally intimidating about Robotron. That’s a bit of a common theme for the golden age of Eugene Jarvis; Defender and Stargate were just as likely to frighten off the average player with the brilliant combination of lots of controls that needed to be mastered and a mechanic that involved more than just shooting stuff. What was he thinking? And then he and Larry DeMar come along with Robotron, which at least doesn’t scare you with a mixing board’s worth of buttons, but which nonetheless takes a lot of nerve to approach. It’s a dark, hulking beast of a machine that you can’t help suspect is merely biding its time until it decides to crush you with a single casual slap.

Your suspicions, of course, are correct. It’s a monstrously difficult game that instantly wrong-foots your arcade instincts with its pair of joysticks; one for moving, one for shooting. Eight directions of fire are yours for the taking and you need all eight of them, often within the space of about a second. It’s a brilliant idea and yet there’s something inherently counter-intuitive, something – yes – intimidating about it. Games traditionally assign the complex business of movement to the left hand and the more straightforward task of firing to the right hand. In Robotron the right hand ends up performing a task of equal complexity to the left and it’s almost too much to take in at first. Ask a neurologist about it and you’ll probably be told that it’s something to do with the way that the left and right hemispheres of your brain communicate with each other, perhaps with the phrase “enforced non-cross-dominance” thrown in for good measure. In other words, it’s messing with your head, man. It demands a degree of synaptic reprogramming before you stand a chance of surviving for more than a couple of minutes, and it reinforces that demand with the old carrot-and-stick technique: points and progression if you succeed, repeated electric death if you don’t. Harsh but fair.

The rewards of scaling Robotron’s near-vertical learning curve make it well worth the effort, though. Accept and assimilate the non-cross-dominance and you discover that although Robotron, like Pai Mei in Kill Bill Volume 2, is a cruel and uncompromising master, if you learn its lessons well you’ll emerge a formidable warrior, unfazed by the spectacle of a whole 60 Grunts rezzing into the game’s too-small play area at the beginning of level 9. Rather than panic you blast a path through to the edge of the screen and start to work your way around, taking pains along the way to vaporise as many Sphereoids as possible before they release their cargo of death-spitting Enforcers, and using the Grunts’ homing instincts against them you circle around and work them into a big gaggle of sitting ducks, ready for the plucking. Wipe out most of them, collect any lagging members of the perennially unfortunate Last Human Family, mop up the last of the Grunts and Bob’s your uncle.

In your dreams. After the first couple of easy-peasy introductory levels, every level of Robotron’s capable of taking a life or two off the most seasoned player, and even the hardcore elite can have a lapse of concentration that leaves them committing the ultimate faux-pas of blundering into a Hulk. Its randomness forms an enormous part of its appeal; it’s not a game you can learn by rote and it’s never, ever a walk in the park. But while you’re in the zone, outnumbered and outgunned and yet still getting away with it by the skin of your teeth, it offers up moments of true exhilaration. Before smacking you back down to earth again.

It’s also, at best, an immensely physical gaming experience, which probably goes some way to explaining why it’s always been something of a cult and critical classic, but has successfully avoided mass appeal. Even today, when we’re all used to having joypads adorned with twin sticks and Robotron’s available on Xbox Live Arcade for an eminently reasonable 400 points, it’s not being taken up en masse. Granted, it has looks that only a mother could love and it carries off the remarkable feat of looking worse with the enhanced graphics switched on. There’s also the small matter of its eight-directional controls not sitting particularly well on analogue sticks.

Really, though, it’s not a game suited to chilled-out play on the sofa. Robotron’s best experienced on a full size arcade cabinet with a pair of proper microswitch joysticks, with your face nice and close to the screen so that you don’t miss a trick. It’s best played with clenched teeth as you wrestle the joysticks and risk toppling the machine and killing yourself. If you’re not breaking a sweat, you’re not playing a proper game of Robotron. A proper Robotron session should leave you exhilarated, exhausted and soaked.

And they say gaming’s a sedentary pastime.

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