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

August 4, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

The basic gameplay of Robotron was most inspired by the Berzerk arcade game, which we discussed in the book's Chapter 2, "Castle Wolfenstein (1981): Achtung! Stealth Gaming Steps Out of the Shadows."[4]

According to Jarvis, "I was a great fan of the game Berzerk, and the frustration of that and all other single-joystick games was that you have to move toward an enemy in order to fire in that direction. Berzerk had a mode that alleviated that somewhat in that you held the fire button down, the character would stand still and then a bullet could be fired with the joystick in any direction. So essentially in that mode the joystick fires the bullet. I just put on a separate joystick to fire bullets."

Jarvis toyed with the idea of a more passive game with no firing, where you would kill the robots by making them walk into Electrodes, but soon realized that this was not the path to gaming enlightenment:

"It was fun for about fifteen minutes, running the robots into the electrodes. But pacifism has its limits. Gandhi, the video game, would have to wait; it was time for some killing action. We wired up the 'fire' joystick and the chaos was unbelievable. Next we dialed up the Robot count on the terminal. 10 was fun. How about 20? 30, 60, 90, 120! The tension of having the world converge on you from all sides simultaneously and the incredible body count created an unparalleled adrenalin rush. Add to it the mental overload of a truly ambidextrous control, and it was insanity at its best."[5]

The Atari 5200 received the only home conversion of Space Dungeon. The addition of the pictured joystick coupler made the experience more authentic and also worked great with the Robotron: 2084 cartridge.

The result was that Robotron was one of the very first, all-out, nonstop action games that truly resonated with the general public. Though unforgiving in its intensity and requiring an almost Zen-like state-of-mind to rack up a respectable score, the game was perhaps the first evolution of that elusive "perfect" twitch game, an all-you-can-kill buffet.

The nonstop action and wave after wave of enemies were balanced by the basic human need to nurture, in the form of rescuing the Humanoids. It perhaps speaks even more pointedly to the human condition that death is inevitable and unavoidable, as in the arcade classic nuclear missile defense game, Missile Command (Atari, 1980).

Box back for the Atari 8-bit version of First Star Software's Astro Chase, which offered what it claimed was revolutionary "single thrust propulsion," but was really just an option for the player to lock in a movement direction while firing in another. It was a nice concession to the limitations of home controllers, but still not an ideal replacement for the preferred Robotron dual joystick control scheme.

As described briefly in book Chapter 18, "Super Mario 64/Tomb Raider (1996): The Third Dimension," it wouldn't be until the idea (or discovery) of using dual analog sticks to control 3D games became an option in the late 1990s[6] -- often using one stick for movement and the other for aiming or camera control -- that using two controls simultaneously became common practice.[7]

Prior to that, dual, simultaneous controls were used sparingly outside of the arcade, for mostly practical reasons. As stated by Jarvis, "Robotron has always been frustrating in non-arcade versions because of the lack of the dual-joystick control. Because of the intensity of play the game is very athletic, and it is very nice to have a 300-pound arcade cabinet stabilizing your joysticks. Without true dual fixed joysticks, the game can be quite frustrating in console and PC versions."[8]

A scene from Bally Midway's arcade game, Tron, based on the cult favorite movie. Gameplay consisted of various scenes, including Light Cycles, MCP Cone, Tanks, and the pictured Grid Bugs. Tron made simultaneous use of a spinner and a joystick with a fire button trigger.

Nevertheless, home versions of Robotron-style dual-control games typically took one of two basic approaches to the challenge. Some games, like the home translations of Vanguard,[9] would simply combine movement and firing into one controller -- where you moved, you fired. This typically changed the basic gameplay. In the case of Vanguard, the arcade player was able to move with the joystick and fire separately in one of four cardinal points with the buttons.

[4] Other suggestions either from Jarvis himself or others include Chase on the Commodore PET computer and Robots for UNIX, each of which shares similarities with the later Berzerk.


[6] More or less after the release of Sony's DualShock in 1998 for their PlayStation console.

[7] That is, outside of the mostly first-person shooter computer games from a few years earlier. Their interfaces eventually developed into the now-common mouse/keyboard combination. See book Chapter 5, "Doom (1993): The First-Person Shooter Takes Control," for more on this.


[9] A 1981 Centuri release in the arcade, and a 1982 Atari release for the Atari 2600 VCS and 5200. The home versions would also allow the player to shoot forward continuously if they so chose.

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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. : )