In an alternate universe, I’m currently writing what might still become either a tech-infused book or series of articles on a fascinating but not widely known piece of cryptozoology, and it’s as fascinating for what people think they saw long after the event as the alleged unknown beast itself! I won’t go into detail, but there’s a definite hint of mass memory insertion, where a lot of people are remembering something that didn’t happen – in this case, seeing a photo in a newspaper that can easily be proven to have never existed…
And something similar seems to be happening with Robocop on ZX Spectrum! I remember buying it and playing it but there’s not a sniff of it in my Spectrum stuff. Of course, there’s a chance it was lost to the years, although it’s unlikely as everything has always been in the same 1980s cardboard box that everything else still seems to be in. However, my theory is further compounded by playing it again now and it not quite being what’s in my head… Which I think is the Atari ST version in a Spectrum skin – and I definitely owned that version because I’m looking at its two disks as I write! And I’ve also definitely played a ton of the arcade version, and we’ll come back to Ocean Software’s huge gamble behind all of those!
Back in February 1988, I was approaching sixteen but it would be at least another decade before I’d pass for anything like eighteen, so while some of my friends had no such problems, there was no way I was buying a ticket to see Robocop! What I could do, though, was buy a ticket for The Last Emperor, for example, instead, and have them open one of the exits to let me in, or watch one film then sneak into the other. We’d regularly do both, so either is possible here; it was easy to lose yourself in a cinema back then, when its lack of screens was made up for by its scale and 1930s character, as was the case with Bedford’s Granada Cinema, now tragically lost, first to a waste-ground car park then the waste-ground of a Lidl supermarket.
It still had a couple of years in it at this point though, and that’s the splendid (when the lights were down at least!) Renaissance-themed backdrop that Robocop arrived into… The place is Detroit, it’s the near-future, and crime is out of control. Actually, none of the three Robocop films (not that the later remake shouldn’t and therefore doesn’t exist) were filmed in Detroit – the first is Dallas and the second Houston because of their futuristic skyscrapers, and the third wanted a bit more history and went for Atlanta instead! Anyway, the story is the same regardless, with the police powerless in an increasingly corrupt and violent society, so they turn to technology, and part-man, part-machine law enforcement. The mechanical efficiency and indestructibility are eventually matched by allegories about the indestructibility of the human soul and the spirit of justice, and we all know what happens when you let stuff like that get into the way of the action…
Despite the pretty extreme violence, general nastiness and resulting 18-certificate that characterised the first movie, an interesting thing happened that would increasingly define the evolution of the series, both creatively and to the outside world, and that was Robocop’s appeal to kids. The video games that we’ll get to in a minute were a no-brainer, but there was a self-fulfilling demand for toys, comics, lunchboxes, pyjamas, posters, dress-up outfits (which I think my youngest brother might have had) and so on that quickly led to the 1988 animated series that eventually led to what Robocop 3 was. In fact, 1990’s Robocop 2 was meant to be for younger audiences too, but that concept was delayed and shelved and it ended up being even more violent than the first, but a bit of a mess at the same time and apparently a bit of a financial flop too… But not as much as the PG-rated mess of The Goonies meets Robocop when the third instalment finally released in 1994, when all those Robocop kids from the late eighties were now also looking for more adult themes.
The existence of the utterly pointless 2014 reboot sickens me as much as an art critic would be sickened by a reboot of the Mona Lisa, but I will give a quick shoutout to the animated series, which is pretty easy to track down and worth a watch. There’s twelve episodes, which is interesting in itself because at the time there were generally thirteen in a cartoon series, but Marvel decided to use the money for the last one on an animated X-Men pilot! It’s totally kid-friendly, with a more sci-fi setting allowing for lasers instead of bullets, but it does get a bit dark from time to time as Robocop searches for his lost humanity.
And then there were the games. By now, Hollywood wanted in on games, and everyone wanted a bit of Hollywood in their games, but Ocean had spotted an opportunity with these things to go in early – even before there was a script – and this paid off big-time when they picked up Platoon in 1987, made a great game and film studios started to pay attention to them above other software suitors. That approach also meant they had a chance of getting a game out with the cinema release, which could be a massive boost to sales as long as the film wasn’t a stinker!
They picked up the still non-existent Robocop for virtually nothing (reportedly about $20,000), and in an unusual role reversal for a home computer company, licensed the arcade game and pinball rights to Data East, then took their core game design and adapted it for home conversions. As an aside, Robocop the game didn’t quite make it in time for the movie release, but that paid off too… Ocean span a new deal for the home video release, where they advertised that on the game box, and in return there was a thirty-second advert for the game when you fired up the VHS cassette. And that became one of the biggest selling videos of all time, and that put Ocean on the global map leading to all those Batmans, Cobras, Jurassic Parks, Transformers, Hudson Hawks and Highlanders that we’d forever associate with them. Poor old Highlander…
Let’s not dwell on that horror show though, because Robocop was a winner everywhere! In the arcades it was one of the highest grossing games of 1988 and into 1989, and at home it was quite possibly the first million selling game, despite various compilations that might have stated otherwise; in fact, at home here in the UK I believe it was the biggest selling game of the eighties, and was certainly the Spectrum’s biggest selling game of 1989 after it had launched just in time for Christmas the previous year. On the basis that I probably didn’t own that version after all though, I think we’ll start looking at the game itself with the arcade version.
My first experience of that was definitely not in the arcades, but in Computer & Video Games’ December 1988 Arcade Action section, where in all honesty I was probably more impressed by the screenshots of Power Drift that shared its double page spread! In retrospect, do I prefer playing one over the other though? You know, I’m really not sure – different games, I suppose, but I do love both! While Power Drift was building on Out Run (although there’s still only one winner there!) then Robocop was building on Data East’s previous release, Bad Dudes or Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja or just plain old DragonNinja depending on where you lived! We’re talking big sprite, side-scrolling beat ‘em and shoot ‘em up that kind of follows the plot of the film, and kind of very quickly becomes very brutal!
It’s a simple premise though – you’re Robocop, mostly moving left to right with a bit of up and down later on, shooting enemies from the evil OCP Corporation in eight directions unless they get up close, in which case your robot fist comes into play. Your regular gun has infinite ammo, but you’ll also come across occasional crates containing one of three limited powered-up guns – a three-way shot, a dual laser and the totally insane Cobra Gun. There’s seven levels to fight through with a couple of timed first-person shooting gallery bonus levels to spice things up on the way. And right from the outset it feels great!
Before we get to the outset though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome chip-tune that greets us on the title screen and accompanies us through the picture-book attract mode! It’s a simple, haunting electronic piano melody, backed by an equally haunting wobbling synth, and provides an unexpected moment of serenity… at least until we see Robocop getting tooled-up, when we hear the sampled crunch of his mechanical holster preceding sampled machine gun fire. And I’m dwelling on sound here a bit because it’s one of the highlights of the game for me! You’re going to get more of the same throughout, with more complex takes on the movie’s incidental music providing a backing track to a load of sampled speech and sound effects that bring the game to life before we even think about playing it!
Now we’re all set to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law… We begin along the sleazy shopfronts of Main Street, dealing with a riot, which initially involves punching a parade of identikit goons coming from both directions, then a jumping motorbike and then the guns come out on all sides! The action picks up with enemies attacking from the windows as well as on foot, and there’s grenades being thrown and by the end of this first level it’s all getting a bit frantic even before your nemesis and rogue robot-cop ED-209 appears. As intimidating as it is at first, this is a pretty easy boss fight, though there’s nothing especially creative about the rest of them (as far as I’ve got at least!), mostly involving dealing with bullet-sponge violent construction vehicles! To their credit, they’re huge and detailed if not quite as intimidating, and you’ll find just as much attention has gone into regular character sprites too. They’re all big and full of detail, right down to muscle definition on the sleeveless gunmen you’re up against and individual metallic plates in Robocop’s armour. I love the way he moves as well, with his robotic trudge just like in the film, and there’s loads of little animated flourishes to appreciate all over the place. My only criticism here would be a lack of variety in the enemies, especially when there’s a ton of identical ones having a go at you all at once, but I reckon the number of them all on screen at times probably makes up for that.
The level designs are very simple, even when you start going up and down stairs or lifts later on, but the more immediate backgrounds somehow manage to convey a moodiness whilst still being really vibrant and colourful, and they’re all as full of detail as the character sprites, with things like menus in the windows of chicken restaurants or crumbling walls in abandoned warehouses or the broken gutters in dingy Old Town, or just the different kinds of brickwork you see across neighbouring building designs. Mostly very impressive, but a bit less so when there’s more distant backgrounds, for example city skylines, and things get a bit more washed out; even more so when there’s actual sky visible, and it’s just solid pale blue and a bit uninspiring.
Who cares about the blandness of the sky when you’ve got this level of blockbuster violence at your fingertips though? Robocop is a joy to control – he has the heft of a cyborg while remaining perfectly responsive, and changing direction of attack is instant and seamless. Diagonal aiming (and evasion) does take a little getting used to, but you won’t be thinking about that for long. Which is fortunate, because you’ll need that thinking time when you’re three or four levels in and you’re being blitzed from all directions! The first couple of levels are straightforward after a few goes, but once you’ve shot your various targets in the first bonus level, things start mixing up in the junkyard, with environmental hazards as well as more enemies. The same on the next level, as you start travelling upwards into a warehouse that’s falling to bits on you while its shadows hide a seriously armed horde. And then after the second bonus level we’re approaching the extent of my abilities! I’ve got past this high-tech industrial compound once, but there’s so many enemies shooting out of so many of its windows or coming at you in jet-packs that I generally get overwhelmed and seek the relative calm of the first levels again! The next level is nuts though – a series of lifts guarded by a ton of robots and evil video cameras shooting lasers from everywhere. I believe there’s more of the same after that and then a fancy high-rise office building between you and driving off into the sunset (which would have made the sky far more interesting if they’d thought of that earlier!) but there’s very little chance I’ll ever see that, so let’s have a look at some of those home computer versions now instead!
Ocean might have remixed the Spectrum version a bit to compensate for anticipating the loss of some of the arcade version’s bombastic scope, but what we have there is a very impressive adaptation all the same! As we touched on earlier, the plan was to get all versions out at once, so armed with the film’s script and some early impressions of the arcade game, we got part conversion and part its own thing based on the film. It all starts out very familiar, with you taking out baddies on Main Street, but rather than a boss fight, when you get to the end you’re ducking into an alleyway to be confronted by a first-person hostage situation! You need to delicately control your crosshair as the armed assailant moves around the screen, shooting at him rather than the girl he’s all over like a nun sandwich. Kill him and you’re back to side-scrolling your way through more familiar junk yard and nefarious factory settings, and you’ll definitely be familiar with the huge numbers of enemies coming at you too – it’s gets more brutal way faster than the arcade game does, especially as all of your ammo is now limited here! Get to the end of the next level and this version’s doing its own thing again, this time with a photo-fit puzzle, where you need to take pieces of different faces and match them with the one on the screen in a panic-inducing time limit.
This is without doubt one of the best movie licenses on the Spectrum, especially when you’re treated to all the music and sampled speech in the 128K version. That one also benefits from being single load, where the 48K version involves a lot of messing about with the tape player! Apart from being monochrome it looks a lot like the arcade version, missing a bit of the swagger but maintaining the gritty detail as well as the feel of Robocop himself, and the scrolling is a miracle given everything going on! It certainly deserved its success, sitting in the Spectrum sales charts for a full year and a half despite me apparently never buying it after all!
Let’s move to the home version I did buy… Robocop on the Atari ST arrived a bit later, and as a result is almost the best of all worlds, with a pretty much as good as it gets conversion of the arcade game spliced with the 8-bit versions’ hostage minigame and a very fancy upgrade on the photofit bonus stage (which actually features the digitised face of one of the Ocean development team). Speaking of which (literally), apparently the sampled speech on the loading screen is also one of the Ocean guys put through an effects unit because they struggled to get decent quality out of the VHS tape of the movie they were working with! The game looks a little more cartoon-like than the arcade version, making it vibrant if a little less atmospheric, but apart from that everything looks and sounds spot-on. It’s not quite as free-flowing to control, mainly down to jump being exclusively on diagonal up, and in a boss fight or even an engagement with enemies both above ground and standing on it, you can get a frustrating diagonal shot instead of jump or vice-versa if your corresponding button presses are fractionally out of sync. When you played it as much as I did though, it becomes second nature regardless, and this is one again one hell of a license for the ST as well!
I’ve not played the Commodore 64 version, but I do know that behind the slightly over-ambitious (but thankfully not massively blocky or brown) graphics it’s got a hell of a soundtrack all of its own! As has another version that I have played, which was in 1990 on the Game Boy; in fact, it even made an appearance in my Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems a while back (as well as an old home appliance advert), where I bemoaned its melancholic (completely at odds with Robocop) composition being hidden away on the title screen where you’ll have generally pressed Start before you’ve even heard its opening salvo! The game itself is very impressive in all other respects too, and unsurprisingly very similar to the Spectrum version we looked at earlier. I think I still prefer Contra’s outing on there, Operation C, for my handheld running and gunning, but all the same it’s an incredible port! Less so the only other version I’ve played, on the NES, which isn’t so good – I’d even say it’s lacklustre instead, as you fight off either dogs and what looks like children or hobbits with your comical rapid punch. Not keen on that one!
Like the movie, the game got a bunch of sequels and spin-offs on everything. Robocop 2 started trickling out in 1990, and I remember playing it on my friend’s Amiga and enjoying it, but apart from a bit more polish and some new minigames it was more of the same and I never got it for myself. Robocop 3 made a bit more of an impression in 1992 though, in particular on the SNES, and in particular for its music, composed by Jonathan Dunn who also did that Game Boy tune for Robocop that we just discussed. Apart from that (which also features in my gaming anthems countdown), the game itself is a bit of a mess though – it’s way, way too hard, which is okay in of itself, but every time you come a cropper you’re sent right back to the beginning, and half the time that’s because of dubious collision detection too! That came out on everything, and I understand the Spectrum version in particular is worth a look but I’ve not done that yet so maybe we’ll come back to it here one day. Just to conclude on sequels (but ignoring some later crappy mobile games), I have had a go at 1994’s Robocop Versus The Terminator on Mega Drive, which is a bit more nonsensical sci-fi and a bit more platforming focussed, and it looks great and plays alright, but apart from a good machine gun and Robocop leaping like a ballerina, it’s never made a big impression.
Let’s conclude, though, by heading back to plain old Robocop… I reckon if it looks like Robocop, sounds like Robocop and feels like Robocop, then it probably is Robocop, and you can’t ask for any more of your movie tie-in game than that, whether 8-bit, 16-bit or arcade! Favourite movie tie-in game ever in that case, then? Well, I’ve got Ocean’s Batman the Movie nagging away in my head for its spectacle and variety, but I’m probably going to stick with Ghostbusters on Commodore 64 for my vote, so we’ll split the difference and call it top three!