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The singularity beckons: A classic Robotron: 2084 postmortem

The singularity beckons: A classic  Robotron: 2084  postmortem
March 20, 2014 | By Mike Rose

March 20, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Programming, Design, GDC

"It was kind of a magical experience. The feeling was amazing when we put it out."
- Veteran video game designer Eugene Jarvis today offered GDC goers a delightfully technical postmortem for his 1982 cabinet arcade game Robotron: 2084.

Created by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar under the studio name Vid Kidz, Robotron threw endless waves of killer robots in your direction, and asked you to hold them back while saving the last humans on Earth.

"We'd just finished Defender and Stargate, and we wanted to try something completely different," recalled Jarvis.

That something began life as "The Robot Wars Project" -- Jarvis knew that he wanted to make a game about robots, "since all we knew was that robots were really cool."

"We were thinking about the human legacy - pollution, climate change, nukes, wars etc. And we kinda suck," laughed Jarvis. The humans in the game decide to create something better than ourselves to make up for our flaws - hence, the Robotrons. Of course, once the Robotrons realize they are better than us, there's not much point in keeping us around.

"Robotron is a game about confinement," notes Jarvis. "Games are about limitations, and where Defender and Stargate were about freedom of flight, in Robotron you were very confined and slow. You were surrounded, and all you had going for you was the dual joystick control."

"The bottom line is people wanted to kill stupid fucking robots."
The dual joystick was one of Robotron's biggest innovations and achievements. Jarvis had been playing a lot of Alan McNeil's classic arcade shooter Berzerk around that time, and while he adored the game, he found the way in which you could only shoot in the direction that you moved to be cumbersome.

Introducing the dual-stick approach solved this issue, as players could now move and fire separately. Not that Robotron was originally going to involve shooting at all -- in fact, the first prototype had no fire button.

"It was fun for a complete of minutes, but it was too passive-aggressive," Jarvis noted. "We needed to kill things!" After 3 days of fiddling around with this core mechanic, the game felt fun. "Now we just had to finish the soup," adds the dev.

The game was built much in the same way that a game developer might build a game jam title nowadays, with the easiest elements implemented first to make sure the game was enjoyable as early as possible. "It was a very interactive process," he noted. "A game could evolve into something completely different from the original vision."

"Electrodes were the first enemy implemented, then we came up with the Grunts," recalls Jarvis. These were incredibly stupid robots that were fairly easy to kill, which didn't seem to make much sense with the "robots are cleverer than humans" storyline.

Why was this? "The bottom line is people wanted to kill stupid fucking robots," laughed Jarvis.

The designer also noted that back at the start of the 80s, there was no high level languages or operating systems, or APIs and middleware. Everything was written in machine language, and for some devs, that was perfect.

"The cool thing was if you were a control-freak programmer, this was like paradise," he said. "You just wrote everything yourself, and you always knew what was going on. It was a roll-your-own type thing."

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