Saturday, 22 December 2012

RoboCop on the Sinclair Spectrum

It's autumn 1988. My cousins have handed down to me my first computer, a ZX Spectrum 48K. I have a little bit of money in my pocket and fancied something more current than the BombJack, JetPac and Deathchase fare that's had me bashing those infamous rubber keys. What to get? Rifling through the latest Speccy releases, I pick RoboCop up from the shelf. It all looks rather nice - the review in a recent C+VG saw the legendary Jazza Rignall award it 95%. Who was I to argue with such provenance?

RoboCop, published by the late and very much lamented Ocean was that rarest of gaming beasts - a film licence realised as a half-decent game. Released across the UK's big five computer formats - the Amiga, Atari ST, C64, CPC464/6128 and, of course, the Spectrum, the 16 bit efforts were conversions of the fun but unoriginal Data East coin-op. The 8 bit versions were also side-scrolling affairs, but were significantly different games from their technologically sophisticated brethren. These three formats were essentially the same game (though, for some inexplicable reason, you could jump in the C64 version). They mashed together levels inspired by the arcade and mini-games based around set-pieces from the film.

I assume most readers are familiar with the 1987 RoboCop movie. It was a low-budget but well-polished sci-fi action flick with a heavy dose of satire. And it was set in Detroit, so what's not to like? As films go, the points it makes about privatisation, violent culture, masculinity, cyborg bodies, and identity could and probably did fill several special issues of Screen. Unfortunately, the narrative depth and clever intellectual nods were always going to be difficult to realise in a video game, so Ocean didn't even try.

Basically, Spectrum RoboCop is an excuse for a jolly good blast. The levels consist of you as the eponymous hero strolling through a variety of monochrome locations shooting gun-toting, bike-riding and chainsaw-wielding thugs. Power ups are available in the form of a weedy three-way shot, a powerful laser gun, and an awesomely awesome Red Dwarf-style bazookoid. Unlike the film, RoboCop is far from invulnerable and hails of enemy bullets can drain the life meter, fast. Thankfully energy can be replenished by the jars of baby food scattered here and there.

Stitching the side-ways scrolling levels together are the aforementioned mini-games. The first recreates RoboCop's confrontation with a couple of would-be rapists (pictured). However, on this occasion you cannot shoot through her skirt. The second sees you emulate the facial-recognition scene by matching the face of a suspect with felons known to Detroit's Police Department. And the climax of the game is basically a rerun of the earlier level, albeit with the evil Dick Jones holding hostage OCP's 'Old Man'. Special mention has to go to ED 209. While it is a total push over in this iteration of RoboCop (I mean, only three punches to take it out? C'mon), this marked the first video game appearance of a villain who was "borrowed" extensively by many other game designers in subsequent years.

For the Speccy 48K it was relatively impressive. The graphics were very well drawn and the animation and scrolling was as smooth as the hardware allows. There was no awful colour clash nor bleeding of sprites into one another. The gameplay was solid and the loading time wasn't too bad. However, it was afflicted with a three-stage multi-load. If you were unfortunate enough to succumb on levels four through nine, to play again you had to flip the tape to reload the first three stages. It was a nightmare. Thankfully, there was none of this nonsense once I had upgraded to a Spectrum 128K +2a. You popped RoboCop into the tape deck and it loaded in one go. But it took such ... a ... long ... time. In fact, you had to put up with the Speccy's infamous whining and screeching for almost as long as it took you to complete the game.

But for 128K owners, it was well worth it. While visually no different from its 48K sibling, the soundtrack really knocked Speccy owners' socks off. For folk used to the feeble beeps 'n' bleeps of the 48K sound chip, the in-game music was almost up to C64 standards. And the title music was probably one of the best Speccy sound tracks ever. This original composition had something of an oriental flavour - a nod perhaps to the new Japanese consoles starting to menace the British computer scene? And it had sampled speech. Speech!

While RoboCop is a fun if brief slice of retro shooting fun, in many ways it exemplifies the difficulty writing about video games, and early games in particular. It is basically an utterly depthless experience. It is a simple shooting cum puzzle game sprinkled with the gold dust of a hot, licensed property. Only the rudiments of RoboCop's plot make the transition from celluloid to machine code. What was a funny, intelligent and subversive movie is rendered as an entertaining but forgettable computer game - pretty much like most of the 80s action films RoboCop subtly sends up. There are no secrets to discover, no alternate routes through the levels.

Like many film licenses of the 8 and 16 bit era, and this applies to computers and consoles, the plot of the franchise can be entirely incidental to the game. If you removed the RoboCop and ED 209 sprites, and dropped the facial recognition mini-game from the Speccy version, they could have easily been substituted for intellectual property from another licence, or form the basis for a completely original game. And here lies the crucial difference between what was the 'cultural dominant' in premium video game products then (the platformer/shooter) and now (the first-person shooter) - narrative was previously a bolt-on extra incidental to single-player video game experiences. Now, story lines are engineered in as a key part of a game's appeal. They are crucial to establishing the intellectual properties that compete for attention in the present action-oriented market place. It would be hard to write about the single player campaigns in Gears of War, Resistance: Fall of Man, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Killzone without the fictional worlds they explore. As for RobCop on the Spectrum, a narrative-driven analysis is utterly pointless. It was designed to cash-in on a popular flick, nothing more. But still, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

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