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Robotron: 2084 (Arcade) artwork

Robotron: 2084 (Arcade) review


"Robotron: 2084 has lasted and evolved for me well beyond my expectations. It's the only arcade cabinet I'd still throw money into: an overhead arena shootout, dazzling when you suck at it and intricate once you actually get good. You, a cyborg from a failed genetic experiment, must protect wandering humans from Robotrons, whose logic circuits have dictated that destroying their human creators is the next step in the quest for perfection. The double-joystick controls--one fires, one moves-..."



Robotron: 2084 has lasted and evolved for me well beyond my expectations. It's the only arcade cabinet I'd still throw money into: an overhead arena shootout, dazzling when you suck at it and intricate once you actually get good. You, a cyborg from a failed genetic experiment, must protect wandering humans from Robotrons, whose logic circuits have dictated that destroying their human creators is the next step in the quest for perfection. The double-joystick controls--one fires, one moves--are hard to replicate on traditional emulators, which force you to settle for only moderately improbable twist-and-shoot maneuvers. Levels compress constant action into thirty seconds, with no mercy on restart when you die. Yet traps like this that once guzzled quarters now combine for a fascinating challenge.

It goes beyond just shooting. You also rescue humans wandering around: the first nets 1000 points, the next 2000, up to a maximum of 5000 until the level ends or you die. Seven humans make 25000 points and an extra life, but getting the wrong stray human gets you killed or trapped. Early on, you'll be silly enough to want to capture everyone, but soon you realize you must make choices. Most people must die, trampled by invincible hulks. These green box-chested pinheads merely bounce backwards if shot. As levels go by, they get better at tracking down humans, or you. Brain Robotrons appear every five levels to not only invert humans into probes that hunt you down, but the missiles they fire slowly work their way towards you, often on tricky diagonals--even spraying shots and weaving may not be enough.

Of course, some enemies are just out for you; grunts zigzag-jump at you, slowly at first, but eventually as fast as you. Others spawn several shooters before vanishing. Spheroids beget enforcers with an array of x-shaped curveball missiles that stay at the wall before vanishing, and quarks leave behind tanks whose bullets go off the wall. Not shooting enough of these enemies early on means quick death. Shots just flood the arena.

From this it seems that grunts would be the easiest to handle, but it's not so simple. Shooting all enemies leads to the next level, so humans left at the end give no bonus. Grunts running at your speed block you out, so you need to learn to deal with shooters for lucky levels where ten or more people remain. Other times, ducking missiles--or even making the final tank run out of them--allows a few seconds' break. With one-on-one fights maddeningly difficult at first, you'll need to make a lot of bad gambles near the end of the wave until some become good gambles. Trying new stuff during a rotten game that won't hit the high score list is a wonderful way to learn, whether it's a new way to swerve around grunts at the beginning or duck missiles at the end.

In addition to all this planning, you need instincts. Robots' two halves zing together at the start of a level, and you need to pinpoint the weak link in the formation. Sometimes, you can't, so you'd better have some lives to spare. You may also sacrifice a life deliberately; grab a few humans when you're about to die anyway, or even better, kill a clump of brains on the brain level before they touch humans, leaving huge pickup bonuses for your next life. Other times, you need to jump between a grunt and a hulk to break containment to the edge and fire on a crowd of grunts. As robots' perfectionism doesn't include teamwork, obliterating a crowd that didn't surround you well enough is superb revenge for bad luck at a level's start.

It's payback for many other quirks you need to learn, too; 2084 would probably be a lot easier without pushing the envelope, but working around its gamesmanship provides the satisfaction of defeating the fantasy computers as well as the real one. Spheroids and quarks pulse big-and-small, so many shots should've hit them. You don't find out until later that grunts zigzag slightly, and on the screen pause after you die, a shot appears just behind the enemy you meant to shoot. The game pauses a second as you die, as if to brag, and half the time you realize what you should've done--the other half, you'll realize the robots aren't as slow and predictable as they seem.

Then there's the outrageous stuff, like hulks walking into a corner on top of an enforcer, so you have to duck a while. Other robots can run or shoot through each other, too. You need a more general, algorithmic sense of what is going on, and you yourself have to avoid perfectionism or getting mad at the game for its silly rules that side with the robots. Or if it traps you badly in the center three lives in a row. Yet it's fair about the big things. Nothing comes off the screen to zap you, and you get a frozen half-second to decipher what went wrong after you're killed.

The seemingly unfair stuff has workarounds, too. Senses and timing are important. The hypnotic thrumming of your shots can make you forget to sweep the board with them. Because you can't see the whole board at once, you need to evaluate various sounds--screaming when a hulk steps on a human, or the whirring of a brain creating a probe. Different electronic slurpings mean you hit a robot you can't afford to look back at. You hear how fast the grunts' footsteps go and need faith they'll walk into that electrodes that can kill you, too. Zigzagging or pulling close, without overdoing it, to hit that robot in front of you takes practice. And noting clumps of robots or humans of one particular color can give you a decisive jump in planning. Then, once you've figured how to tackle many each individual enemy, you'll get to the later waves where you face them all.

So while 2084 is about robots wanting to kill humans for your imperfections, the only way to improve is to accept these imperfections--yours or the game's--and deal with them. It's rapid gambling with shooting; any one level's enemy layout can trap you four times in a row, but the next may let you sacrifice one life for the prospect of a huge bonus later. With levels where you gain 100000 points or lose five guys, games surge between great and lousy. This keeps 2084 fresher than many more advanced games with better graphics. Instead of throwing patterns to memorize like many shooters, 2084 forces you to construct your own. They are fun even when you plan wrong. So because 2084 reinvents itself efficiently with randomization, it's worth returning to, to discover new ways to shoot robots. I'm still finding them.

Rating: 9/10

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (August 20, 2009)

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