Robots and B-movies from the arcade’s past – Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters

Escape’s flyer was a great, illustrated piece of marketing. Done up as a cartoon strip, it laid out everything that the game was about in one page showing our heroes, their mission, and the B-movie monsters (and apparently requisite scantily clad prisoners) that they’ll encounter in their quest to free Planet X!

Atari’s golden years may have been behind it by the time 1989 rolled around. Their focus had shifted towards their PC offerings and near the end of 1989, would come out with the Atari Lynx which is notable for being the first handheld gaming device with a color LCD screen. The downside to both approaches was the rise of Microsoft and Intel-based PCs and the Nintendo Gameboy — both of which challenged their ambitious push into either channel.

Atari was doing its best to keep its name alive in the arcades, too, with a number of graphically impressive titles such as Cyberball 2072, Badlands, or Hard Drivin’, all three of which also showed up in 1989. And joining them was another game — one that didn’t take itself quite as seriously — called Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters.

Escape is an isometric action game that was surprisingly sophisticated for an arcade title. The basic plot was that Planet X, an kind of factory planet, has been taken over by the evil Reptilons. They’ve captured Dr. Sarah Bellum and have enslaved the rest of the population to build an army of robots with the eventual goal of conquering the Earth. It’s up to Jake and Duke, members of an intergalactic SWAT team, to retake the planet and stop the Reptilons.

The game supported co-op with two players and a limited number of continues though those were kind that pick up right where you died. Players did have a nice bag of tricks to improve their odds of survival, on the other hand.

The game was played on an isometric play field and controlled with what the reverse side of the flyer above called a “hall-effect” joystick. If you’re wondering what that is, so was I when I read it, but after doing a little digging and stumbling across articles like this from a company called CTI Electronics, it sounds pretty awesome.

From what I’ve been able to gather, it’s a joystick that uses an electromagnetic effect to pick up user input which has the advantage of “no moving parts that will become worn over time”. At the same time, it does have its own shortcomings such as the magnetic fields changing over time affecting its accuracy causing “drift”.

At the same time, it technically allowed the joystick a greater range of rotation since it didn’t rely overmuch on physical parts that could be restricting. And given the game’s other controls, it was a welcome feature. Players could also duck below enemy shots and jump over things like electrified floors, up onto ledges, or past robots which was a good thing because as to be expected, there’s a lot of robots.

The hardware for the game was also relatively advanced and according to the archive over at System 16, only ran two of Atari’s games – this, and ThunderJaws. It used dual Motorola 680000 CPUS and had a Yamaha YM2151 providing the sound.

Gameplay is pretty simple — players have to rescue as many ragged prisoners as they can (for points and a bonus at the end) while trying to find the switch to activate the escalator to take them to the next floor in a factory level. Reaching the end, they’re zoomed to the next factory or a boss fight depending on the path they’ve chosen.

The robots vary from the cannon fodder that stumbles about in the first “factory” or two (levels) to cyberbots that shoot high (so you have to kneel and shoot low), punching robots, and orbs that spawn when you don’t move often enough as the game’s “anti-camping” solution. You can also update the energy levels of your ray gun by collecting power gems dropped by the robots (and disappear after a few moments so you have to act fast in grabbing them). Also feeding the need to collect gems is that the power level also slowly drops over time adding another layer of urgency. There’s also a “bomb” special weapon that can destroy everything in a small (very small) area when you set it off. The good news is that you get to carry more than a few of these.

The later factories spewed a variety of robots and death traps for our intrepid duo Here, you can see the ray power for your gun. This one's powered up two levels. The yellow blocks represent Jake's health.

The later factories spewed a variety of robots and death traps for our intrepid duo Here, you can see the ray power for your gun. This one’s powered up two levels. The yellow blocks represent Jake’s health.

One of the more gruesome deaths in the game skewered heroes against spikes which continued to extend and retract with their pinned body.

Probably the most gruesome death in the game skewered heroes against spikes which continued to extend and retract with their pinned body.

Cabinets with extra bomb specials, food for life segments (every time you get zapped by a trap, for example, you lose one of three blocks you start with), and prisoners are scattered everywhere on each level. Some prisoners in later areas are even encapsulated in glass tubes where destroying a control panel has to be done first to free them — just be careful not to shoot any of the people you’re supposed to rescue. There are also big “?” marked crates that may contain prisoners, food, or enemy orb bots.

The game map shows several branches with boss encounters and factory levels to fight through. Deciding which one to follow is handled by the end of a particular branch where you fly through a “maze”. If you pick a dead end, you can still hit reverse and try another route though that wastes valuable seconds. Failing this just allows the game to pick which area you’ll be dropped into. What this does is add an element of replayability by giving the player a chance to pick a new batch of factory levels to fight through versus the last time they were down this road.

Lots of bosses and factories to fight through and not all of them the same.

Lots of bosses and factories to fight through and not all of them the same.

The Reptilon bosses are more threatening due to their size and power than their fighting patterns — these are big critters but not too unpredictable — and the player will meet them again at the end in a boss rush before rescuing the doctor.

Atari’s designers went for a cartoonish style with the game’s sprites and, for the most part, it works. Goofy animations from the characters bring them to life when they walk over (and then catch) the edge of a floor, jump, or get shocked by traps. Cut scenes at certain points also help promote the atmosphere of the game with a wrist-mounted communicator barking last second orders. The voice synthesis still sounds pretty robotic but the special sound effects of exploding consoles, robots, and pew pew action polish out the production. There’s even an ending screen for finishing the game.

Reptilon bosses...

Reptilon bosses…

...came in a variety of precision engineered forms.

…came in a variety of precision engineered forms.

Escape isn’t a bad game though the limited continues can be something of a rude surprise to players used to feeding a machine quarter after quarter to keep fighting. A “hall effect” joystick sounds like a great idea yet the actual handling in the game’s isometric playing field can feel a bit rough around the edges with some of the hit boxes on the props and the sometimes wonky movement between what’s on the tilted screen and what your reflexes want to do. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the flying vehicle in the maze sections, in particular, feels like it’s sliding all over the place on glass.

Action! Suspense! A smartwatch!

Action! Suspense! A smartwatch!

But the game’s daring push to be more than just a sci-fi B-movie Gauntlet was impressive for the time. The controls attempted to give the player more than a means to scratch that itchy trigger finger. Ducking, jumping, rescuing hostages, and finding switches, blasting open cabinets for goodies on a large, isometric playing field were concepts that created a granular experience in offering the player more than just targets to explode, concepts that a game like Bally Midway’s side-scrolling Xenophobe also touched on in 1987.

It was also ported over to a wide number of platforms at the time — the Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, C64, Amstrad, and MS-DOS machines, though not every port was regarded equally.

Escape was a bold step by Atari to re-assert both its technical know-how and design chops in an arcade environment that was increasingly dominated by names like Capcom, Konami, Taito, and scores of others. Unfortunately, as smart a game as Escape was, slightly dodgy controls, limited continues, and choppy movement didn’t quite hold up to what a number of other games were wowing audiences with. It was a technical marvel probably better suited at home, but in the arcade, its robot monsters may have had a hard time competing with the company they kept on the floor.

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