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Classic Games (Games) Entertainment Games

A History of Robotron 78

blacklily8 writes "Gamasutra has published our history of Robotron: 2084, Eugene Jarvis' ultimate twitch-game of 1982. Robotron's frantic gameplay, intense difficulty, and elegant control scheme made it a hit in the arcade and a favorite of countless retrogamers. The illustrated article compares the game with Jarvis' earlier hit, Defender, describes its gameplay in detail, and traces its roots and impact on later games such as Smash T.V. and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. Robotron's gameplay may be intimidating, but never too complex to grasp — with both hands!"
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A History of Robotron

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  • Another Hard One (Score:2, Insightful)

    • One of my flatmates still plays this. The only problem is that he turns the speakers up to cinema level and I can tell you, at that level, the sound effects, well, they just aren't so hot anymore.

      I don't care if he is frying his brain playing this for hours, but frying my brain with the sounds, it had to stop. We now have a special "Robotron Sound Rule" in the household.
      • " that level, the sound effects, well, they just aren't so hot anymore."

        Maybe you're not smoking enough weed to grok the Robotron experience. This appreciation technique also works with Sinistar.

    • While i really tried back in the day to get into Robotron and its sister Defender, I just never could "get the groove". For me the best of that period was Vanguard and Pleiades []. Man I used to get into a zone playing those two. I would often play for hours on a quarter and then let some kid have the game, especially Pleiades, as I already had all the high scores on it at the local pool hall. Good times.

      Did anybody ever make a home version of Pleiades or does it run on MAME? Because I would love to sit bac

      • by Anonymous Coward

        "While i really tried back in the day to get into Robotron and its sister Defender, I just never could "get the groove"." - by hairyfeet (841228) bassbeast1968&gmail,com> on Friday August 07, @04:49AM (#28983649)

        Man - this brings back memories: These are the things that got me "into" computers, circa 1980 - 1983 or thereabouts... I loved "DEFENDER", but I liked Robotron 2084 a lot too (&, I still have them, on my PC, via "Williams Arcade Games for the PC", which still runs on Windows, just fine, even though I bought it in 1996 or so @ MicroCenter Atlanta, which I lived down the street from on in those days)...


        LMAO (now, I wasn't back then, when this all "went d

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Eventually??? I killed myself, by hyperspace deaths (in other words, it was the ONLY WAY YOU DIED & DID NOT WIN ANOTHER LIFE) ... the only way around the bug in DEFENDER I found, back in 1983-1984 iirc... as to the dates.

          Yep, that's exactly how it worked.

          Here's an explanation of the Defender infinite life bug [], that you encountered, complete with disassembly of the relevant code.

        • LMAO! I salute you for your Defender skill. I was once kicked out of an arcade for conquering Star Wars. The woman in charge said I did something to the machine because it was going so slow. I handed it off to another arcade-goer, and he lost all six shields and died within a minute. She still didn't get it, even though she saw me weaving through the holes in the trench barriers while using the force (not firing until the end for the big bonus.) "It's not cheating--it's skill!"

          It was an unhappy occasion whe

          • I used to get the same treatment with Pleiades and Vanguard. I had a friend whose dad owned a pool hall at the time, and I got to play whatever games were there for free when nobody was around. I got good enough at those games that I used to live on the free pizzas and always had a new free T-shirt to wear (that was when they were still allowed to give out prizes to high scorers) from the other arcades thanks to the practice I got. Occasionally when I would get accused of cheating I would simply say "I'll h

            • Right on! Maybe I should have tried to find a way to capitalize on my skills. The woman I dealt with was just an idiot--too bad the sign featuring people's records the previous owner put on all the machines were gone.

              I loved Vanguard--GRUB RIDES!

        • by dickens ( 31040 )

          I was never a big fan of Defender, but my roommates were, so much so that they (in 1982) utterly destroyed the controllers for my Atari 5200 console within a period of 2 or 3 months.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by tuffy ( 10202 )

        Did anybody ever make a home version of Pleiades or does it run on MAME?

        It runs in MAME under the name "Pleiads" because that's what comes up on the screen.

  • I used to play robotron for ages including the later N64 version.

    It's like tetris for robotic death!
    • by moon3 ( 1530265 )
      Loved the autofire.
    • It is a wonderfully challenging, difficult game. I must admit that I once played a single game on Robotron for about 32 hours. My score was over 127,000,000 points - it was a 'world record' score for a while during the arcade era. Found one overflow bug - too many extra men and it rolls over to >>zero extra guys (8 bit overflow). Pretty much a panic situation after playing about 20 hours. I now own one and have it in the game room in the the basement (next to my Asteriods machine). Still a lot o
    • ah how well i remember best quarter i ever spent 4+ hours screen 268 ihad an actual audience scored well over 4 million
  • "It's very dangerous
    Putting money down on Robotron"

    Quite possibly the most intense shoot-em-up of all time.
    How many hours of play will it take you to clock the level counter?
    (It wraps to zero three times before reaching level 1 again.)

    Of course you can always take a break on a Brain wave:
    Leave one Brain, go to the edge of the screen and wait till it does too, then get your GF^H^HMom to fire up & down while you go take a leak.

  • Llamatron! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Friday August 07, 2009 @03:40AM (#28983379) Homepage
    Always liked Jeff Minter's clone of it - Llamatron. Still downloadable for free, and I still play it in DOS Box now and again. To those who haven't tried it - have a quick search and give it a go.

    What depresses me is that it's hard. Very hard. Not only myself who thought that, but my friends who were playing it at the time agreed too. Having a hard game isn't depressing in itself though, so why is this one different?

    Because about a year I watched Jeff Minter, in a Google Talk about indie game development, said he wrote it to be easy. Well, thanks Jeff. That's just great. There's ten years of my gaming self-esteem down the drain...

    • Yeah, Llamatron was the only game which was better than Robotron. I used to play it on my Atari STE. I managed to get through all 100 levels with the droid helper but never solo.

      I can still play it now on my XBox via an Amiga emulator. But ageing eyes and arthritic fingers make it much more of a challenge these days.

    • Yes, llamatron was AWESOME. And very, very funny. And very hard. I did manage to complete it (well, get over level 100, where it reverts to level 1) in the 'assist' mode where instead of a second player you have a robot pal. Hard is good though: It keeps you coming back. Not hard as in 'stuck at one particular point and can't go further', which seems to be a problem with modern games (eg. GTA4, there's one mission I can't get past, so I've just stopped playing), but hard as in 'try again, and again, and ag
      • Hard is good though: It keeps you coming back. Not hard as in 'stuck at one particular point and can't go further', which seems to be a problem with modern games (eg. GTA4, there's one mission I can't get past, so I've just stopped playing), but hard as in 'try again, and again, and again, and gradually get better'

        My thoughts exactly. I think Llamatron has a very nice learning curve, it seems like the progression of levels is very carefully tuned. I've played it up to about level 80 without any assist, and at that point I feel like some kind of a cyborg, because of the particular reflexes and strategies you develop on the way. I also like having the occasional easy levels in between.

  • This was one of my favourites on the emulators. The dual joystick control is fantastic, especially on the xarcade sticks. Some people tried to emulate it with a keyboard on home computers (eg llamatron), but they were never as frantic or fast.

      Sadly, the version I had stopped working with newer versions of xmame, and now xmame seems to have pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Well, from a development standpoint. Anyone know what happened there?

    • I can recommend wahcade []
      Either compile from source or install system packages and use wahcade for a frontend.

    • by tuffy ( 10202 )

      Sadly, the version I had stopped working with newer versions of xmame, and now xmame seems to have pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Well, from a development standpoint. Anyone know what happened there?

      xmame, along with AdvanceMAME, DosMAME and others, were wiped out by the big graphics subsystem overhaul that came with MAME 0.105, as I recall. These days, it's been superceded by SDLMAME which should work most anywhere with SDL installed.

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot.hackish@org> on Friday August 07, 2009 @03:49AM (#28983419)

    One of my personal interests in this era of gaming, which doesn't have a direct analog today, is the arcade->console adaptation route, and the technical, artistic, and gameplay challenges involved. I guess I've always known that such adaptations were common, but until recently I didn't really understand just how deeply such adaptations/ports were affected by the differences between special-purpose arcade hardware and generic and generally underpowered console hardware, and what sorts of heroic efforts porters went to to try to get something even vaguely like the cabinet to run on a home machine (sometimes in vain). That's probably the single thing I found most interesting about a recent book on the Atari VCS [] that opened my eyes on that. I'd read all sorts of stuff [] previously about the VCS (aka 2600) hardware, and different stuff about its cultural, business, and social role, but pulling the two together by looking at how the tech affects the culture and vice versa is really fascinating to me. I think ports are a particularly good lens to look at that through, because they focus sharply on how the tech affected what the designer could or couldn't do; the aforementioned book's examples of the disastrous Pac-Man port [], on the one hand, and the unfaithful but interesting/successful adaptation of Star Castle [] into Yars' Revenge [], on the other, are particularly thought-provoking.

    So I really like that aspect of this article, tracing how Robotron was and wasn't successfully adapted to home machines, and which parts specifically of the arcade version survived the translation and were still compelling in the home version. Although we don't have nearly the same hardware limitations on home machines these days, I think we're in a way still struggling with similar issues about "what worked in the arcade, and how can we adapt it?"--- e.g. the discussion in this article of custom controllers to make the home version more authentic reminds me of our current era's custom controllers (Rock Band's peripherals being the best-selling). And, more broadly, we're trying to figure out whether platforms matter, and if so, how. The Wii has a compelling "what's different" angle for its platform, but is that a one-time, peripheral-only thing? Do the Xbox 360, PC, and PS3 have interesting differences going for them? Do physical arcade cabinets still matter?

    More generally, I think it's one way of getting at a sort of design science that's still lacking for games, and I like how this article tries to break that down. Obviously much of game design is not really "science", but other design fields still do carefully analyze existing works, try to identify which elements specifically mattered, etc.; you might be doing something that's artistic/subjective in a lot of respects, but that doesn't mean you have to do it blind. I mean, if I want to learn architecture, there are a lot of books I can buy. I can buy a book specifically on the Bauhaus style, or some sub-style of it, or one particular architect's style. But, despite their huge role in popular culture, I can't buy a book about the design style of, say, Microprose 4X games, analyzing what elements they had in common or didn't, their relationship to other games of the era, how technical aspects influenced the design and vice versa, etc., etc. As a player, I can probably tell you some stuff off the top of my head, and I think there really is a book to be written there--- or an in-depth article on the internet if you can't interest a publisher--- but nobody's written it.

    So I guess that's a long-winded way of saying: yes, more of this!

    • Obviously much of game design is not really "science", but other design fields still do carefully analyze existing works, try to identify which elements specifically mattered, etc.;

      Not to detract from your main point, but give them some credit, game designers totally do this. The field is still relatively young, and you're right that there's not the same body of literature yet as there is for, say, graphic design, but that's got more to do with the fact that you can't get tenure at a major university teachi

      • by Trepidity ( 597 )

        Yeah, I agree; I didn't mean to imply people didn't actually think about these problems and come up with those sorts of insights. But my impression is that there isn't nearly the same sort of discussion and shared knowledge and vocabulary on this subject, even beyond books. Are there even names for all the successful game mechanics used by important games of the past few decades?

        The situation may have improved somewhat since then, but Doug Church [] expressed a similar sentiment in an article [] back in 1999, so

    • So I guess that's a long-winded way of saying: yes, more of this!


  • Robotron and it's derivatives are amongst the favorite games of me and my friends - in fact, it's probably the game in which I perform best to this day. For whatever reason, we can play Robotron, Smash TV, and Geometry Wars for hours and hours - I think the difficulty despite the largely predictable patterns makes it such an enticing and fun game to play. Figuring out the best techniques and learning to master them, learning to account for the unexpected. Even when you know what needs to happen, it REALL
    • I used to work up a tremendous sweat playing this game at the arcades. Hardly moving, just those two joysticks, but expending almost as much energy as jogging.

      The difficulty of the game was just right. The controls are hard to get used to, but they make sense. When you're just beginning, the game smacks you down so fast, you wonder if it's even possible. Then you start getting some mastery, and then you run into level 5, the hulk wave. The chaos just gets more and more intense.

      There was some amazi
      • Your assessment is right on the money. Man, I want a stand up version pretty badly, to be honest. I'd even build my own box just for it :D
  • Gotta love Robotron and the old Atari. The pioneers in video games and gaming systems.
  • by raju1kabir ( 251972 ) on Friday August 07, 2009 @05:46AM (#28983937) Homepage
    I can still hear the pseudo-synthesized voice that called out once in a while when the game wasn't being played.
    • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

      Yeah , I remember that. Also the voice from The Black Knight pinball game from the early 80s has always stuck in my head too. It was like an evil sounding version of Speak-n-Spell. Which was probably the idea!

      • Firepower too--it was monotone, but robots were cooler in '79. "Enemy destroyed you..." followed by the sound effect that would later mean an extra life.

    • That wasn't Robotron. Robotron had no speech. You're thinking of either Gorf or Wizard of Wor, I believe. They were both very early games that used the Vortax SC-01 phoneme synthesizer.
  • [] I'd buy that for a dollar!
  • Why two joysticks (Score:4, Informative)

    by Jim Hall ( 2985 ) on Friday August 07, 2009 @07:36AM (#28984479) Homepage

    The article doesn't mention why there were two joysticks for the game: one to control movement, the other to control direction of fire. So you could travel in one direction while firing in another. Great freedom of movement that made the game very popular because it was such a diversion from most other games.

    This is probably one of the coolest bits of trivia from the era: Jarvis had been in an accident, [] and his arm was in a cast when they started work on the game. It would have been impossible for him to work on the game with a typical "stick and button" approach and he decided the dual-stick design made it easier for him to design and play the game.

    [...] The dual joystick control design resulted from two experiences in Jarvis's life: an automobile accident and playing Berzerk. Prior to beginning development, Jarvis injured his right hand in an accident--his hand was still in a cast when he returned to work, which prevented him from using a traditional joystick with a button. While in rehabilitation, he thought of Berzerk. Though Jarvis enjoyed the game and similar titles, he was dissatisfied with the control scheme; Berzerk used a single joystick to move the on-screen character and a button to fire the weapon, which would shoot the same direction the character was facing. Jarvis noticed that if the button was held down, the character would remain stationary and the joystick could be used to fire in any direction. This method of play inspired Jarvis to add a second joystick dedicated to aiming the direction projectiles were shot.[10] Jarvis and DeMar created a prototype using a Stargate system board and two Atari 2600 controllers attached to a control panel. In retrospect, Jarvis considers the design a contradiction that blends "incredible freedom of movement" with ease of use.

    • It's funny--I thought of that control scheme a couple years before Robotron came out. I thought it would be too complicated--shows how much I knew.

  • Robotron is the best arcade game ever, bar none. I purchased the stand up version from the local Chuck E. Cheese that I used to play it on, years ago. None of the console version compare to the dual joystick action of the arcade version. For the record, the score rolls at 10 million; My record sits at about 21 million which took about 5 hours until the comic shop owner finally conceded that my kung fu was stronger and begged me to quit to he could close his score.

    Here is some interesting trivia: The origina

  • When I was a kid, my step-brother and I would spend hours playing this game "co-op." One of us would take charge of the movement joystick while the other took the firing one. It was great fun yelling back and forth about where to go and what to shoot. Try it with a friend some time.

    • Ooooh! I like that idea.

      Have you played Blasteroids? It's the fourth in the Asteroids series, and one button lets you cycle the size and capabilities of your ship between three sizes. In two player mode, if one ship is large and one is small, they can merge into a large ship that moves fairly fast and fires large shots, and the small ship becomes a turret that fires a spread of little shots, but has no say in the direction of travel. That made for some interesting arcade playing.

      It may be hard to do with em

  • I love Robotron, play it regularly, Defender too .. In fact this is a list of games on my WIZ console, which is running pretty much MAME exclusively these days:

    Moon Buggy
    Crazy Climber
    Crazy Climber 2
    Juno First

    Currently, I just can't stop playing Juno First .. love it so much, I'm considering doing a 'tribute/remake' for iPhone ..

  • Morality of Robotron (Score:5, Interesting)

    by realinvalidname ( 529939 ) on Friday August 07, 2009 @10:17AM (#28985709) Homepage

    One thing this (and many articles) overlook about Robotron is how its "bonus collection" morality sharply differed from other games of the time. Many contemporaries, especially Japanese games, used bonus point pickups as a lure to your death. For example, unless you're working from a known pattern, going after fruits in Pac Man is a great way to get yourself killed. I remember one early video game book whose intro said, succinctly, that "greed kills" in video games.

    Except in Robotron. The bonus structure for saving the family gave you 1,000 points for the first, 2,000 for the second, and so on until you maxed it out at 5,000 per save. Since you generally got a extra life at 20,000 or 25,000 points (operator setting), you could get free life with just six saves, and a second for another four. Once the counter was at 5,000, it's a sensible tradeoff to go for risky saves: the payoff in extending your game is usually worth the very real risk of dying instead. Indeed, while Namco-style games awarded free lives on very long intervals (3-4 Galaga waves, for example), and thereby valued getting through most waves safely, Robotron had a flow of fast death and rebirth, with players often earning and losing one or more lives on each wave. Provided you could earn more lives than you lost, even at a fairly low margin, you could keep going, which is why taking risks to save the humans was a winning strategy.

  • The bonus content videos on the Midway Arcade Treasures Vol 1&2 (for Gamecube) were wonderful insights into the technical minds that created the games. I mention this because they include video clips with Eugene Jarvis, Ed Logg and others as they talk about their respective games. It's too bad Midway hasn't made their own game history videos because the devs recalled some hilarious and interesting technical footnotes to the games they worked on.
  • I remember how amazed I was when I got a hold of Robotron for the Apple. I had never seen so many objects move at one time on the Apple, and they even did a halfway-decent job with the sound on a machine that was only designed to play one simple sound at a time. And, the two-joystick control was faithfully reproduced on the keyboard. Another game that made great use of independent control was the original Castle Wolfenstein (and, if I recall correctly, it predated Robotron by a year or two.)
  • 4 Million with it on uhm.. I think it was the medium hard setting, the "arcade" setting, as I remember it the Williams boxes had a bunch of dip switches you could set and I'm thinking was "7" for the arcades with the odd "5" for department stores and stuff, but I am old. Interestingly a friend of mine and I who could both get a few million got bored and plopped in a quarter, and I drove and he shot thinking that would be funny and we die right away. We got nearly our high scores combined. There has never be
  • Sinistar and Robotron were 2 of my favorite games. Everyone else was standing in line waiting to play Pac Man or whatever, I wanted to play games and they were open.

    Playing Robotron was an extensional experience. Sinistar tended to induce a seizure.

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