Thursday, 22 January 2015

Atomic Robo-Kid for the MegaDrive/Genesis

In the annals of video games, titles pop into existence that quickly fade into the background and are doomed to an eternity of obscurity. One such title for Sega's black beastie is Atomic Robo-Kid. It hit the arcades in 1988 to absolutely no fanfare, and drifted its way over to the PC Engine, MegaDrive, and a few home computer formats. Contemporary coverage in the mags had it down as a reasonably competent blaster and it got decent marks, but it lacked that certain something - which probably explains why the MegaDrive version came out in Japan and North America only.

Atomic Robo-Kid is not a hidden gem by any means. The reviews of the day got it spot on, but that isn't to say it's not without importance. Of which more shortly. Anyway, hitting the MegaDrive in 1990 it had a dull plot that just about rode the zeitgeist. There are human colonies on this planet innit until hit by a blast of radiation from space. The people make it to their protective suspended animation pods in time and ride out the storm. However, as radiation was responsible for a lot of things in the late 80s (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, urm ...) the native fauna mutated into psychotic killing machines. To make matters worse, some jolly bad chaps also move in wresting control of the colony from the computer. Yikes! This is where the titular hero comes in to clean up the mess.

Not the most arresting premise in video game history, but it serves as a pretext for flying through six levels and blasting everything that moves. Presenting as a horizontally scrolling blaster, Atomic Robo-Kid can move in eight directions and double back on himself - the first major departure from other games of this ilk. With four different weapons to collect one can (and must) play the game strategically. There's no way of charging in all cannons blazing a la UN Squadron. Sometimes you have to take cover, shoot, and take cover again. Most of the enemies are stupid dumb but the occasional bad 'un will lob homing weapons at you. Sometimes these can be outpaced if one decides to flee in the opposite direction. Problem is enemies are on automatic respawn and will face you again in areas you've previously battled through. Annoying. And, as you reach the end of the level, you can look forward to the customary face-off with the boss.

Doesn't sound very special does it? Yet the best way to treat Atomic Robo-Kid is not as an alright, but unmemorable shooter but as an evolutionary road not (then) taken. The direction and strategic approach mirrored the contemporaneous 8-bit British classic Cybernoid and the much earlier NOMAD. Unfortunately, this was out of step with the arcade experiences the PC Engine and MegaDrive sought to capture, of being loud, flashy, fast, frenetic. Strike one against that attempt at speciation. The second thing Atomic Robo-Kid did as introduce a duel between the kid and a ne'er do well in between levels. This might have worked in the context of a fighting game where players test their move-pulling proficiency, but here you're firing lasers through a field of destructible but infinitely renewing obstructions. Sound idea, but the execution didn't work. Small wonder duels in shooters stuck with the player vs boss combo.

Most interestingly, however, is the moment it occupied in a niche but slowly emergent sub-genre: the cute 'em up. Keep the blasting action, but replace the usual sci-fi premises with cutesy things. By 1990 the basics had been established by Konami's TwinBee and Sega's Fantasy Zone, and were carried into the future by the likes of Parodius. Atomic Robo-Kid sits awkwardly here because the main character is supposed to be cutesy and loveable, while showing a bit of Californian 'tude. And when you clear the game you are united with the computer programme EVE who's a boring blonde, blue-eyed space babe done in the typical anime style. Yet the rest of the game isn't at all. The mutants you're offing range from non-descript molluscs to spiky robot things to sinister Orco looky-likeys. And the bosses, though they're very big there's not a great deal to write home about. In this respect Atomic Robo-Kid is a missing link, a cute 'em up that wasn't cute enough and a character-driven title that previewed the shape of things to come in 90s gaming, but didn't have enough umph for take off - a fate that befell many a software house mascot. Lastly, the game was too hard and too frustrating to create the fond vibes new directions and new video game characters required.

Some nice ideas here, but the patient game play was not suited to the shooter genre of that time. Such gameplay may have appealed to an older audience looking for something new, but the game aesthetic was unsuited to attract that market, and it was too tricky and, sadly, boring for younger players to get much out of it. As such Atomic Robo-Kid is perhaps left for the completionist collectors, or those looking for evolutionary curios and video game dead ends.

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