Today was the day of Cleveland’s Classic Console and Arcade Gaming Show. This year was especially well attended, and I was very happy to see a higher proportion of female gamers attending. I’ve been going since I heard about it 2005, and every time I go there is always something I have never seen before, and it’s always a good time. In addition to rows of tables with old games to buy and look at, some homebrew and modding fun, and some old school systems set up with games to play, there are drawings and tournaments.
This year, they had two of my favorite 80’s arcade games: Zookeeper and Robotron 2084. Robotron was a tournament game. I thought I might have a chance at winning, but I didn’t come close to the top score — although I did have the second highest score. I played a lot of games to get sharp, but my top score of 214,000-some points was still far from the winner, who posted a score of almost 391,000. It’ll take me a while to get that good.
While the experience is still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d reflect on what makes Zookeeper and Robotron two of my favorite games.
If you’re unfamiliar, here’s some videos to give you an idea what the game is like. Zookeeper has been a bit of a forgotten game, anymore, but for a time Zeke the Zookeeper was a better jumper than Mario.
With Zookeeper, it’s appeal to me is purely one of greed. I love the potential for scoring over 1,000,000 points with a single jump. The exponential point structure makes the game really addictive. You always think you can do more, but if you get too greedy and try to jump too many animals, you won’t make it. It’s nearly always better to play careful and conservative to try to reach the higher levels where the really high scoring happens. Likewise with the “bonus” levels — both incorporate an exponential risk/reward curve that makes it tempting to stick around longer than you really should in the hopes of scoring some big points.
Zookeeper actually frustrates me more than gives me reward. I’m competent at it, but not great. Occasionally I get a score I consider respectable, but no matter how well I do, I always think I can do much better with just a little more luck/effort. Most of the time, though, I fall well short. Despite that, I keep wanting to play it. I always “know” that if I play one more time, I can really get a high score. It’s probably a very similar feeling to gambling addiction. No matter how many times you lose and fail badly because you tried to risk too much, you just want to try again because if you can pull it off, you’re likely to double your score in one move, which feels amazing when you accomplish it.
Robotron ranks highly on many all time great lists, and for good reason. It is an absolute blast to play, brutally challenging, immersive, and requires total concentration. It is masterpiece of game design. It innovated by being the first dual-stick control arcade game, and providing the player with the ability to move and aim in independent directions. It was the granddaddy of the Arena Shooter genre, which had a revival a few years ago, courtesy of the equally excellent Geometry Wars.
What I like so much about Robotron is… well, just about everything. This makes it more difficult to analyze, but also more worthwhile. The graphics and especially the sound are iconic. But I especially love how well balanced it is, and how the challenge curve escalates. The variety of enemies is wonderful — there’s an orthogonality to the progression of the enemy design that is simply beautiful:
- Electrodes: Lethal, but immobile. They’re easy obstacles to avoid or clear, but not true enemies since you don’t have to destroy them to clear a wave.
- Grunts: mindless, headlong kamikazes that kill you by touching you, but are easy to kill.
- Hulks: invulnerable, and can kill the humans you’re supposed to rescue, but generally pay you no mind. They only kill you if they happen to be blindly headed in your direction and you get pinned and can’t get away.
- Sphereoids: The first enemy whose movement is more reminiscent of flight than walking. They slide around, attracted to walls and corners, making those areas less safe. After a few seconds they begin spawning Enforcers, which are very dangerous in large numbers. This makes them a high priority target, and to reinforce that, shooting them nets you 1000 pts., making them one of the most valuable targets to shoot in the game. If you don’t shoot them before they spawn all the Enforcers they’re programmed to spawn, they self-destruct, denying you the points while leaving you with a mess that can be impossible to clean up.
- Enforcers: Enforcers are very deadly. They are fast-moving, and are the first enemy that fires projectiles at you. You can shoot down the projectiles, which look like large sparks, but that just means that their shots shield them, meaning it will often take multiple shots to take an Enforcer down. If there’s more than, say, 5-8 Enforcers on the screen, things get hairy. You can survive if you’ve cleared enough room to move around and evade them. Running away while firing backwards is a sound tactic with them — be careful not to get cornered. Occasionally, an Enforcer will hang back and stall, and sit near a wall or corner, firing shots at you just to harass you, usually from behind a wall of Hulks who inconveniently happen to be in the way, making life difficult. Mostly, they glide about the room, heading in your general area, bum rushing you and cutting you off. When backed by a wave of stampeding Grunts, they’re particularly effective.
- Brains: Brains are so much fun. They’re perhaps the most evil robotron in the game, because they “reprogram” the humanoids you’re supposed to save, turning them into enemy mutant “progs” and denying you points. Their very appearance is sinister and revolting, which is a real accomplishment considering the size of their sprite. Of course, Brains only appear in special waves where there are LOTS of humanoids. This makes it a race between you and the brains to claim the most humanoids. You can get a lot of points (and extra lives) out of the deal. Brains don’t move especially fast, and don’t generally move toward you, unless there are no humanoids nearby for them to target. They fire cruise missiles at you, which snake about haphazardly, and are challenging to shoot down. Progs move vertical or horizontally only, at a frenzied pace, leaving a blurry trail behind them. Mastery of the Brain waves is key to long play times, because if you do well you can often rack up 3 or 4 extra lives by collecting as many humanoids as you can.
- Quarks: Quarks are like Spheroids, in that they are worth a lot of points, and spawn an even more deadly enemy: the Tank. And they spawn SO MANY TANKS! Unlike Spheroids, Quarks tend to bounce about the room diagonally, in a mindless, deterministic linear motion, rather than sneakily heading for walls/corners. Their high speed makes them almost like projectiles, hard to dodge. And they spawn copious numbers of Tanks. If you don’t wipe out many of them right away, you end up with a swarm of Tanks that seemingly rivals the numbers of Grunts that you’ll see on a typical Grunt wave. And each one of those Tanks will fire bouncy bullets that make it seem like you’re on a killscreen. Due to their motion, it seems that a constant stream of horizontal fire is the most effective way at taking out lots of Quarks quickly. Unfortunately, most waves that include Quarks also include a lot of Hulks, who will act as a barrier, shielding off large parts of the room from your fire.
- Tanks: They roll around en masse, lobbing cannonballs at you, which bounce at 45-degree angles. I’ve never really paid attention to the way they move, probably because I’m so busy dodging, but I think they just sortof mill about in the center of the room, for the most part. I’m not sure if they reverse course other than when they intersect the walls of the room, but it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. In twos or threes, Tanks are not so dangerous, but much more than that, they become a major headache quickly. You can shoot down their cannonballs, which may help you survive a barrage or two. The best way to deal with Tanks that I’ve been able to find has been to clear the room from yourself to a wall, then move close along the wall, leaving enough space so you can dodge without getting pinned down, but not so much space that a cannonball is going to get behind you and ricochet. If your only threat is on one side, it’s much more manageable to avoid death.
What makes these enemies so great isn’t just their individual behaviors, it’s the way they synergize due to their differing properties and behaviors. The way Hulks make the projectile-firing enemies more dangerous is a prime example, but a Grunt/Enforcer assault force can also be overwhelming, and if you thought Tanks were bad by themselves, try Tanks and Brains.
Robotron throws huge numbers of enemies at you at once, and this is always close to overwhelming, but — with skill — manageable. The game doesn’t ruin this by making the objectives complicated. You have only two things to do: kill enemies and rescue humanoids. The humanoids give you a reason (beyond survival) to move around. Thankfully, you can’t accidentally shoot them — your shots go right throw them without hurting them. This keeps tactics simple. Never stop firing, never stop moving, and try to rescue as many humanoids as possible while staying alive. There are no power-ups to grab, no permanent obstacles to navigate around, just a featureless room and never-ending swarms of enemies, the humanoids, and you.
Another brilliant element of design which helps manage the overwhelming assault is the way each Wave is drawn in. When you clear a level, you get maybe 2-3 seconds to catch your breath. When the new level draws in, enemies and humanoids draw in first, but don’t move for perhaps a second as they are still forming. You always appear in the center, which generally is otherwise sparsely populated, although there will occasionally be an enemy within a few sprite-lengths of you, or some nearby humanoids who you can pick up immediately. When the action begins, you can move for maybe a half second before the rest of the enemies, which gives you an advantage. Savvy players will note the layout of where the enemies are random spawning, and use that information to pick the initial direction they’ll fight towards. Usually there will be one part of the room that is just a little less densely populated, and therefore easier to clear out. If not, then you have to prioritize in other ways, such as heading toward the part of the room with the most humanoids, or the fewest Hulks, or try to target the Spheroids or Quarks if there happens to be a concentration of them in an area where you can get to them before they begin spawning.
When you play Robotron long enough, you change the way you see in response to the stimulus the game throws at you. To survive, you have to stop looking at details, and become aware of everything in your field of vision all at once — vaguely for the stuff at the far end of the screen, and more aware of the stuff closer to you, but still taking in the whole thing. This change that happens feels almost like evolution — as you die again and again, you develop the traits that help you to survive. And that is pretty amazing, when you realize that’s what’s happening.
All of these things come together to make playing Robotron an awesome experience. It’s just fun to play, and each of these aspects contributes to that. There really isn’t anything to detract from the fun. It’s a hard game, brutally challenging, and playing it will make your pulse rate and make you sweat. But it always feels fair. There are times when you will accidentally run into a Grunt, thinking you’re about to pick up a Humanoid, but even then, I know I’m really to blame, and I should have been focusing more on my foveal vision instead of twitching in response to my peripheral vision.