[In the latest in a series of
Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice
and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games, we examine classic twin-stick arcade shooter Robotron: 2084 and the sub-genre of frantic games it birthed. Previously in this
'bonus material' series: another classic Eugene Jarvis title, Defender, as well as Elite, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Pinball Construction
Set, Pong, Rogue and Spacewar!.]
2084, an arcade game developed by Eugene
Jarvis and Larry DeMar at Vid Kidz and released by Williams Electronics in
1982, is without doubt one of the most difficult games ever to grace the
In terms of sheer physical and mental challenge, it is second only to the
popular Defender and direct sequel, Stargate, whose history and
development are detailed in bonus chapter, "Defender (1980): The Joys of Difficult Games."
repurposed the technology found in those games, offering a graphical style,
sound effects, pacing, and difficulty familiar to fans of these earlier titles.
What makes Robotron stand out from its predecessors, however, is its
concrete gameplay and innovative control scheme.
Unlike Defender, where the player pilots a
spaceship across an abstract, scrolling planet, Robotron is more down-to-Earth, putting the player in the shoes of
an avatar whose movement is limited by the edges of a single screen.
is tasked with the grim, desperate, and ultimately futile task of saving the
last family of Humanoids.
A scene from Robotron: 2084's lengthy attract screen,
explaining the rather superfluous plot.
Unlike Defender's Humanoids, who were scarcely
recognizable as such,
Robotron's family is distinctly human,
complete with clothing and accessories. However, perhaps the biggest
differentiator from the earlier games is the breakthrough control scheme -- instead
of a single joystick and multiple buttons, Robotron
features two independent eight-way joysticks: one for movement and the other
This control scheme is immediately intuitive -- a minimalist
design and virtuoso implementation that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat
bewildering scheme of Jarvis's earlier game.
Robotron features the same attract screen format as Defender,
describing the story and how to play, though going into much greater detail.
The quick version of the story casts you as a super-powered genetic engineering
error, or mutant, whose job is to protect clones of the "last human
family," consisting of "Mommy," "Daddy," and "Mikey"
(young son). The family is being pursued by the Robotrons, a collection of
robot enemies that includes "GRUNT,"
"Hulk," "Enforcer," "Brain," and "Tank"
Although the detailed
backstory is nice, it's really incidental to an action game that is not even
winnable. The developers realized, though, that "all this mindless carnage
would need to be held together by some sort of plot, and that's where the
nuclear family and robots came in."
A typically intense scene from
The game takes
place on a single screen with random placement of Humanoids and Robotrons. The
screen is also populated with both fixed (such as the deadly "Electrodes")
and moving objects. The moving objects include units that create some of the
Robotrons, like "Sphereoids," which produce Enforcers, and "Quarks,"
which produce Tanks. Humanoids are rescued whenever the player's character runs
into them, but walking into pretty much anything else causes instant death.
Once all of the
Humanoids have been rescued, play continues on a new, slightly more difficult
level, with an increase in both speed and number of enemies. Most enemy types
fire back and are deadly to the touch (for both the wandering Humanoids and the
player), and some are simply invulnerable. The game is famous for its
fast-paced, even frantic, intensity.
Screenshot from Taito's Space Dungeon arcade game from 1981,
which used a dual-joystick configuration before Robotron: 2084, but failed to attract much gamer interest to its
combined shooting and treasure-hunting gameplay.
 See Choplifter author Dan Gorlin's quip in bonus
chapter, "Defender (1980): The
Joys of Difficult Games".
for Ground Roving Unit Network Terminator.