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The History of Robotron: 2084 - Running Away While Defending Humanoids

August 4, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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!.]

Robotron: 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 arcades.

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."

Indeed, it 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.

The player 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[1], 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 for shooting.

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,"[2] "Hulk," "Enforcer," "Brain," and "Tank" variations.

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."[3]

A typically intense scene from Robotron: 2084.

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.

[1] See Choplifter author Dan Gorlin's quip in bonus chapter, "Defender (1980): The Joys of Difficult Games".

[2] Standing for Ground Roving Unit Network Terminator.


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Stephen Northcott
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Robotron, Defender, Stargate... Good times! I even bought original arcade cabinets of the two Defender machines, and had boards and EPROMS for Joust & Robotron that would fit in my Stargate cabinet. :)

Dantron Lesotho
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I was hoping for a nod to Bangai-O. I was also hoping for a comment to how schemes for dual control would have greatly improved other games, for example Resident Evil and its bizarre "tank" controls.

Bill Loguidice
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While Bangai-O is an interesting game, the focus of the whole book is more on games with a western or truly worldwide influence. Bangai-O was decidedly limited in that regard and only in its Dreamcast iteration. Further, the point is not to mention as many games as possible, but to provide key reference points and let the reader extrapolate from there. Resident Evil and survival horror in general are discussed in chapter 1 of the book. For the full table of contents, check here on the book's official landing page: The benefits of the control scheme are discussed throughout the chapter--we leave it up to the reader to decide if/how that could or should be applied elsewhere. Hope you liked the piece otherwise.

Matt Barton
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My fault. We had a paragraph in there about Bangai-O, but my hand-eye coordination is lacking (ever try to type an article using a dual joystick setup?) My hand slipped at a critical moment, and that whole section got devoured by a Brain. Uh oh, Bangai-O.

Sorry, long day. :P

Tom Newman
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Robotron is for sure on my top 10 of classic arcade games. The gameplay is still relavant today for sure. What I personally like about Robotron is the sounds! It may have the best sound effects (along with Tempest) ever. I still love listening to the sounds of this game.

Gary Liddon
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Blimey, no Llamatron. That's a bit of a surprise

Todd Bezenek
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I never did find a Robotron console which had both joysticks adjusted perfectly to allow all eight directions of fire.

If anyone knows of a place that has a properly adjusted Robotron available for play in the San Jose, CA area, please drop me an email. at


Todd Bezenek
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The previous comment did not like the way I formatted my email address. Please send email to "my last name" at


Robert Nesius
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I played this game in the original stand-up cabinet a few times, but my favorite implementation was on the Apple II, where yes... I used the keyboard (to great success). I also figured out a trick to get farther into the game - I'd first play the game on an Apple IIgs booted into "fast mode", and play for awhile on that. Sometimes I could make it past the first tank and brain waves in fast mode. Then I'd reboot into normal mode and play the game at the slower speed. It was like going into bullet-time in The Matrix.

Tom Bodaine
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As a thirty year hardcore gamer, I would put Robotron: 2084 in my list of top ten video games of all time.


There are very, very few games that can sustain playability even after two years, never mind twenty-seven. Games like Pac-man, Starcraft, Tetris, or Asteroids can still evoke the same enthusiasm, challenge, and adrenaline years after their heyday. I play many games from my youth and am disappointed at how dull they seem now. Not so with Robotron: 2084. Play it in its original arcade format and it hasn't lost a scintilla of its appeal.

There are, in my view, about three or four arcade cabinets worth purchasing purely for the aesthetic of playing a game in its ideal form. This is one.

It should also be noted that Robotron: 2084 is really the grandfather of the FPS. Of course, the game is not in first person mode, but the idea of endless swarms of enemies and dual joystick carnage is the precursor to Halo, Gears, Doom, and all the others. The Library level in Halo: Combat Evolved is absolutely identical to Robotron: 2084 in terms of game mechanics and intensity. Serious Sam is also a 3D implementation of Robotron: 2084.

Ryan Szrama
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Thanks for the write-up; know I'm late to the comments, but Robotron 2084 became an instant favorite after a couple nights at Columbus, Ohio's 16-Bit Bar+Arcade. Owning a cabinet is a new personal goal. : )