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[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, 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," "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."
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.
 See Choplifter author Dan Gorlin's quip in bonus chapter, "Defender (1980): The Joys of Difficult Games".
 Standing for Ground Roving Unit Network Terminator.