It was nice growing up in a technophilic household. Thank to the help of in-the-know family members and my own parents, we had various PCs and game systems to supplement our school days, He-Man interludes, My Little Pony adventures, and our infamous Barbie vs. Transformer battles (hey, two sisters, one brother…that’s just how we rolled). My parents usually left us to our own devices, whether to play indoors or out, and they rarely joined in our sugar-fueled chaos. (Though, there were a few years when carob and unsalted potato chips ruled the house – they shall remain unspoken of from henceforth).
The one exception to all that “kids only” fun was our Atari. It only happened very occasionally that my parents played with us, but it did happen. We’d gather round the TV to play a few round of tennis, baseball, Pole Position, or E. T. (which one didn’t play as much as admire for it’s unplaybility). But above all, the one game I remember us playing the most was Robotron 2084.
Funny thing that, because Robotron was also the most “violent” game we owned and my folks hated violent TV, movies, etc.
Robotron 2084 was a fixed shooter similar to Asteroids that took place 100 years from 1984 (get it…1984??) in a dystopian future (see…1984?? Orwellian overtones and…oh never mind). The Earth had been overrun by Robotrons who couldn’t have cared less about humanity. You, a human that was in all ways superior due to some sort of genetic thingy, set out in your space suit, armed with a mere laser gun, to save the last family on the planet, because why the hell not.
As a wide-eyed pre-teen with bad hand-eye coordination, I didn’t have much of a shot at getting anywhere near beating Robotron, but I happily played nonetheless, passing the joystick between family members as we each died our inevitable deaths. Upon starting a level (or wave), your character materialized on screen in that special 8-bit-rainbow sorta way, usually but not always around the center of the playing field. Your little pixelated self was equipped with the aforementioned laser gun in order to kill all the bad guys — the main goal of each wave — and you could also, optionally and for extra points, save the family people jotting about, who were, miraculously, immune to all enemies. You, however, were not, despite being a human that was in all ways superior due to some sort of genetic thingy. But the game gave you a fighting chance with five lives.
Besides being one of our early “family game night” games, Robotron taught me the importance of movement and method in video games. That sounds kinda silly, but gamers know that staying still is as much a part of gaming as moving around an environment – and having the right timing and knowing when to do each is not quite as simple as it sounds. In Robotron, the “simple” act of dodging projectiles and enemies was made all the more complicated by their sheer numbers and erratic movements. As much fun as it was to place your character in the middle of the screen and furiously rotate him while shooting, it was a very inefficient way to play and a great way to quickly ruin a joystick. And just moving randomly around the screen while shooting wasn’t a good plan either. Running into a projectile or an enemy meant instant death. You really had to pay attention to how and where you moved your character. Sometimes it paid to wait until a projectile got really close — it was easier to dodge at the last minute because you were acutely aware of what space was open around you. Sometimes it was easier to let (or hope, more like) the enemies or projectiles “clump” together in order to take out a group at a time.
And sometimes, because it was a old-school game, it was just goddamned hard and unfair.
Thinking about Robotron now, I still kinda hate it for being so hard, but it was also fun and mindless entertainment. Beating each wave brought on a true sense of accomplishment, because it really did seem like the levels got exponentially harder after wave 7 or 8 or so. One time, I manage to make it to wave 12 — that was a good day. (I ended up failing a vocabulary test the next day, but it was worth it. Or maybe it wasn’t. I can never think of a good synonym for “information,” and I bet one was on that test.)
Robotron motherfucker, indeed.