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Robot Odyssey (Apple II) artwork

Robot Odyssey (Apple II) review

"People made good money off long multiple choice tests disguised as educational software back in the Apple II's heyday. It took a while for kids to get over playing a computer to realize it was just a quiz. Some games went beyond. Oregon Trail taught the dangers of fording a twelve-foot river and the wisdom of resting if you have dysentery. Number Munchers helped speed up your mental arithmetic. I found Type Attack, a Space Invaders clone that taught the QWERTY keyboard, more useful than e..."

People made good money off long multiple choice tests disguised as educational software back in the Apple II's heyday. It took a while for kids to get over playing a computer to realize it was just a quiz. Some games went beyond. Oregon Trail taught the dangers of fording a twelve-foot river and the wisdom of resting if you have dysentery. Number Munchers helped speed up your mental arithmetic. I found Type Attack, a Space Invaders clone that taught the QWERTY keyboard, more useful than either, and Rocky's Boots had you sort shapes with elementary logic gates and circuits. Yet each was obviously educational and didactic. You knew you were completing an assignment.

Robot Odyssey has enough story to let you forget. It's a sequel to Rocky's Boots, where you control a boy who, during a dream, falls into the sewers of Robotropolis and must work his way through four other top-down mazes full of high-tech trinkets, with the help of three robot assistants. Scanner, blue, bounces left and right. Checkers, white, bounces up and down while always trying to go right. Sparky, orange, moves counterclockwise around any walls he finds. You can enter any of the robots to see how they're wired and see how circuits change when a robot hits a wall. Or you can ride past electric barriers or stuff robots inside each other. Most importantly, you can send robots to retrieve items you can't reach. In the sewers where you start, the robots are preprogrammed to solve a room apiece. There's a small maze where Checkers's sensor lets you find an invisible item, and this item immobilizes the Ampire Bot, which otherwise drains your robots' energy on touch. This is as violent as RO gets.

RO is more about insane difficulty, though, and if the sewers are too much, it's time to quit. Next, in the subway, you'll need to use more OR and AND gates attached to the thrusters and bumpers, and you'll get used to changing your little guy to a soldering pen (to connect gates and sensors) and back, whether to configure your robot right the next time or move on to the next puzzle. You must fetch and reuse a subway coin to visit various stations. The coin's in the center of a room behind an electric field, so you need to rig a robot's directional sensor to home in on the coin, get it, and return. Re-fetching the coin after dropping it by a turnstile is low-level but entertaining mischief.

In each puzzle, failure the first few times without a pictoral diagram is inevitable. You may even need to pick up a recharge crystal. Robots may run down, especially if a lot of your experiments go wrong. It's not all bad, though; if you figured the circuits, learning the wrapping maze to know which stations you can skip is easy stuff, and if you're careful, you won't even need the exit ticket sensor to help your robot pick up the exit ticket that kicks you to level three, the streets.

Mean puzzles loiter in these mean streets. The items you want start moving. Once you've grabbed the token that won't stay still, you need two robots to operate the vending machine. There are more hazards than a robot running out of energy, which can be recharged with crystals anyway. After finding vending machine token that moves when you touch it, you need two robots to operate the machine. The first time it works, you'll probably kick yourself for finding no way to bring them back. There are two rooms at the end: a practice room, then the real thing. You send a robot to a room from the left, and it must enter an inner room open on top to push a button in the center. This is the last time RO will hold your hand.

Because in the Master Computer Center, the save feature becomes a dire necessity, and yet it's entirely possible to save in an unwinnable situation and not know it for a long time. In the case of Apple enthusiasts, this may mean buying several 5 1/4" disks. I forked several emulator states. So that's another way RO is about programming and not just logic gates. It's a lesson in prudently backing up your work. The puzzles become more treacherous here. One robot must mimic another's passage through an invisible minefield maze-the remote control is useful here. Another room two screens wide requires all three robots to hand off items among each other. A ventilator shaft is tough enough to map without figuring how to make a compact wiring that'll get your robot through the maze. Another set of rooms features a randomly bouncing button where you need to deploy robots so they have the best chance of catching it before their energy winds down. Suboptimal solutions mean a robot is left behind until you open the chamber with Master Robot.

He's necessary for the skyway level, which gets weird. You go spinning around a disk drive or need to wire a series of beeps from a robot's antenna in a certain order. Then come puzzles where you need to send robots zigzagging a room or two away. The four-robot puzzles involve timing and bouncing them off walls, and even when solving things I knew I didn't have the best solution. The Internet revealed there were, by people who knew more about burning the in-game chips than I did. I'm not sure I understand these solutions, despite illustrations and YouTube clips. I'd like to, but months later, solving RO still gives more of a sense of accomplishment than some of my favorite RPGs or puzzle games. The latter generally have fixed solutions, and even the toughest puzzles can be solved by logical elimination. RO forces you to find methods or to use that circuit or gate you avoided learning about.

It's not just some abstract progression of puzzles, though. The introduction is separate from the game and accessible without ruining saved games. Small interludes include Frogger-style mini-games in the skyway with all kinds of cars. Sure, they could've made a mainstream game--that's a computer programmer's ego. There are programmers' bad puns, too: the subway features Picadilly Circuit and Seer's and Robot stations, and each puzzle room's instructions contain a groaner. But best to me is how the game isn't just about getting it right but programming well. Often, I'd figure a solution, but I'd realize it wouldn't fit in my robot, or wires would be overlapping each other. That visually taught compaction of code as my lame old computer science teacher never could. Microchips act like a function library, so you want to create reusable ones. I have a job in the computer industry, but even so, RO gave me a new way--and really, my first fun way--to look at streamlining things.

Robot Odyssey isn't perfect. It's annoying to get all the items from one level only to realize what you don't need for the next, or to worry you've saved in a dead-end. And the time penalty for making a mistake can be too high for many people. In addition, a later puzzle trips off a better solution to an earlier one, which you can't visit easily without restarting. This all is fixed with emulation or with the various remakes by people whom RO helped inspire to a career of programming. You'll probably be too exhausted from RO to want to replay it right away, too, though after a break I've enjoyed seeing why other people's solutions work better than my own, watching the orange currents go through the robot circuits. It's one game where you can learn a lot even following a walkthrough, and it's a great gauge of interest in computer science.


aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (October 02, 2010)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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