Like many early-80s arcade games, my first memories of Robotron: 2084 are fuzzy. It looked old and difficult and, nestled between games a decade younger, probably wasn’t something I put many quarters in. It wasn’t until many years later that I took notice again. Whenever an arcade had a classics row I’d search for it, and when retro arcades started appearing it was one of the first games I’d play. While MAME in recent years has emulated it quite closely, you’re usually missing the dual-stick controls, and that’s obviously a huge part of the game’s appeal. I got used to a PS3 controller and put in many hours in front of my iMac, then later tried Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits for the PS1 but there the control scheme was even worse.
Created by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar as Vid Kidz and released by Williams in 1982, Robotron had for the time an unusual dual-stick setup: one for moving your character to both rescue your family and avoid being killed, and the other for shooting. You start in the center of the screen surrounded by enemies, then shoot and dance your way to the next level, or wave. There’s something very pure about the experience. It’s immediate and relentless, forcing you to learn some of the strategies in dealing with its patterns in order to survive. “It was vicious and it was mean. I guess maybe the arcade is just a microcosm. Kind of like in the human brain, we have this thing called the reptilian complex. Somewhere deep down in our brain is a guy that says, I want to eat. I want to have sex. I want to kill.” The minimal graphics have kept the game play relevant, and its indelible sound effects still penetrate.
Hoping to one day own the PCB, I eventually gave up when I realized it’s a 6-board stack notorious for failures, not to mention how tough it is to find an original cabinet. One last real option remained. In 2008 the UK engineer JROK began creating his own Williams multigame board, an entirely self contained jamma PCB running on the original 6809 CPU. No emulation, FPGA-fueled, and a spot on match for first generation Williams hardware. Well received, JROK released a couple revisions, most recently this summer which added Robotron’s 2014 Tie-Die roms. Also included on the board is Defender, Stargate, Joust, Bubbles, Splat, Blaster and Sinistar (vertical only).
Robotron on Astro City’s 29″ monitor is very roomy, making the game a little less claustrophobic. While the player one and two sticks aren’t the same height or in the same location as the original, they feel uncompromised. I tried adding some round gates to the Sanwa sticks but somehow the square gates played better. Despite these differences the experience feels authentically Robotron to me, but an old school baller may balk. Like most arcade games, having it in an actual arcade cab has made it even more enjoyable. I sit down, play a few credits, then do something else and come back later when the frustration’s wore off. My score started improving within the first few days, but then I realized it was defaulted to difficulty 3 rather than 5. Boy, to have had 30 years worth of its brutality must be something.