Wednesday, December 26, 2012

At Random: Robocop (NES, 1989)

Paul Verhoeven's 1987 movie Robocop remains a classic of its type -- low-budget production values boosted by sardonic dark humor, interesting sci-fi concepts and shamelessly over-the-top violence.  The UK home computer software company Ocean Software Limited snagged the game license early on, subletting the rights to Data East for a coin-op arcade game, which was then in turn hybridized with Ocean's home versions to produce Data East's cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

The arcade game was a straightforward late-80s shoot-'em-up -- as Robocop, the player generally had to walk from left to right, shooting various thugs and mechanical enemies including the famous ED-209 attack droid.  It was a short experience, about 20 minutes judging from available YouTube videos, designed to suck quarters with its detailed sprites and animation.

The home version took a different tack -- while it borrowed numerous visual elements from the coin-op, it spread them out across multiple levels and added a degree of exploration and treasure hunting.  It also sacrificed some elements beyond the capabilities of the NES, and made some odd design choices of its own.

The game is standard NES platforming action fare, aside from the 250 lb. cybernetic law enforcement officer's inability to jump.  And the controls are a little bit odd -- the arcade game equipped Robocop with a gun at all times, but the home version limits our access to firepower.  The very beginning of the game plays like a beat-'em-up, as Robocop strolls along the street facing various punching and kicking enemies, punching them in return; we can (awkwardly) use the Select button to block enemy attacks if our punches aren't doing the job.  The AI is also strange, as some enemies seem to be thrown into a situation they don't want to be in.  On occasion we see kicking thugs run in from the right side, leap over Robocop's metal-encased head, and run off on the left side, making no serious attempt to attack.

Eventually, at a point that's completely arbitratry except in the designer's vision, Robocop is able to stop and take out his sidearm from the holster built into his right leg.  I'd guess he's trying to avoid doing any damage with friendly fire, except that Robocop's prime directive #2,"Protect the Innocent," is almost immediately violated when the next batch of enemies we encounter include a number of dogs to shoot:

The arcade game's first level ends with a street confrontation with the famous ED-209 Enforcement Droid that ends in a standoff, but the NES version pits Officer Murphy against a bizarrely dressed tough in a warehouse.  Our bullets are apparently no good against his somewhat haphazardly applied erotic body armor, so we have to take a more humane approach to law enforcement, i.e., punching him in the face until he dies:

The second level feels more like a home video game, as we enter a mansion where we can explore offices and spare rooms to find additional weapons.  We also have to figure out how to climb stairs -- the controls aren't much help here, and I usually ended up wandering back and forth on the bottom landing, trying to hit an upward/diagonal combination on the D-pad until finally I got somewhere.  It can be done!

Unfortunately, it seems like most of the imagination and cartridge space invested in this design went into the first level -- it's colorful and arcade-like, with plenty of challenge.  As we get into the next section, we start seeing the same enemies again.  And the graphics become repetitive and dull-looking, with lots of grays and blues that we're already seeing a lot of in our hero.  And with the NES' spare horsepower running low, the challenge starts to depend on the clock more than the enemies -- I wrapped up this second or third attempt by exploring too many nooks and crannies and thus running out of time, though I had plenty of health left over:

Robocop falls pathetically to his knees, keeling halfway over as his systems apparently seize up, presumably to keep his hard drive intact, and the bad guys are free to run rampant in Old Detroit.

I'd had enough fun at this point, so while I was not seriously discouraged either, I opted not to challenge again.  Data East's Robocop is one of those 8-bit licensed platformers that we're not likely to see re-released, due to licensing considerations, but it's not a major loss either -- I wouldn't mind seeing its arcade progenitor show up on a compilation somewhere, but this version hasn't aged well.

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