Robotron: 2084 (Williams, 1982)
Robotron: 2084 is one of the most intense and revered games of all time. Released in 1982 by Williams Electronics, it was designed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, both also of Defender fame. It was a huge hit in the first wave of arcade games, but has also gone on to develop somewhat of a cult following.
The game starts each level with the humanoid player in the middle of the screen surrounded by robotic enemies. The enemies shoot and swarm towards the player, who must dodge and destroy them all before progressing to the next and progressively more difficult levels. By surrounding the player in an enclosed space, Robotron moves away from the one-directional focus of shooters such as Space Invaders and Galaga. The intensity and speed of the struggle is made all the more powerful by the simple and intuitive controls: 2 joysticks, one for movement, the other for firing in an independent direction.
Added into the mix, is a ‘last human family’ that must be rescued. They provide an important conflicting goal that balances aggression with preservation. The screen is filled with so much danger that the player usually dies quite quickly. This is countered by the relatively generous issue of new lives every 25,000 points, but these points can really only be earned by saving most of the humans. Skillful play involves continuous ‘death management’, where one has to constantly finesse risk and reward every fraction of a second.
Robotron: 2084 has been described as a ‘twitch’ game. Each wave is over in a flash and the speed of the game seems to put play slightly ahead of conscious perception, as though the game takes place in the muscles. Long sessions leave players in a sweaty mess. The bright cycling colours and harsh electronic sounds (reminiscent of Defender) leave a mental ‘burn in’ that is hard to forget.
The world of competitive Robotron gaming continues today, with two variations currently recognised by Twin Galaxies. The first is Marathon settings, which are the default settings of the machine. This is because the most skillful gamers are able to play indefinitely; the only limitation being the need for sleep. This world record is over 300 million, set in 1983. There is a controversy however over this score as it ends in the digits ’80′ which is impossible in Robotron. Furthermore, the game would have to have taken about 67 hours, which is considerably longer than any other marathon gaming session on any video game. The matter is part of an ongoing investigation at Twin Galaxies.
The other variation is Tournament settings. This removes the free lives that normally come every 25K. For a long time Abdner Ashman, also the Ms Pacman world champion held the title but it was recently broken by John McAllister with 1.2 million.
Interestingly, a problem has started to emerge for contemporary players playing marathon sessions on early 80′s games. Twin Galaxies along with a seeming consensus of players considers games played on the original arcade machine to be in a separate category to those played on the emulator MAME using the original ROMs. The problem is that the aging electronics frequently cannot cope with marathon play and the machine ‘resets’ mid-game, ending the chance of a high score. Thus a number of classic games have high scores set in the early 80′s with no realistic chance of being beaten today. This was detailed in the disheartening documentary “High Score” about a Missile Command player suffering the same problem.
This problem could perhaps be overcome by manufacturing new original arcade machines with the same electronics. However this would be prohibitively expensive, and there would always be the possibility that slight differences in the circuitry would create minute timing changes that would change the difficulty imperceptibly, but that would have an effect over the length of an elite gamer’s game. Few would consider such records official and in the same category. This is probably the same reason why the MAME emulator versions, despite being logically identical to the arcade machines, are generally considered ‘different’, and their high score records not classed together.
Perhaps, even within the narrow confines of digital gaming, the conditions of the early 80′s will never be reproduced closely enough to allow us to make fair comparisons of high scores. Then Heraclitus’ maxim that we cannot step in the same river twice will continue to hold.