You can’t download Robotron on XBLA anymore. I fired my copy up the other day and the online leaderboards seem to have been turned off too, which has left a hole in my heart where my 1200th worldwide ranking position should be (I was in the top 500 for a while). Why write about it as a modern classic, then? Because it was once available, I guess. Oh, yeah: and because it’s the single greatest videogame ever made.
I’ve come to terms with that now, I think. I’ll never lose my faith that new games will delight and amaze me, and will possibly even show me things I didn’t think were possible in the medium. I no longer believe they’re ever going to top Robotron, though: it’s too twitchy, too pure, too deep, too gloriously self-contained. It’s the ultimate action game: move, shoot, survive. It covers every one of those bases with a mixture of exuberance and economy: no upgrades, no jump button, no smart bombs – just move with one stick, shoot with another. Survive by putting these two things together.
And look at what you’re shooting: a handful of different AIs, all of which are easy to understand on their own, and dazzlingly complex to beat when thrown at you in combination. Every time I write about Robotron I come back to the same things: the grunts all end up in a bait ball when they’re chasing you; the spheroids always work their ways out to the corners and then fire off enforcers. The game’s an emergent masterpiece – it feels like you’re playing against living bacteria – and while you can have a strategy for each wave (I have a definite strategy for all of them up to 12, at least), each wave is still endlessly capable of surprising you, wrong-footing you, utterly ruining you.
Best sound effects, best bugs (that first Brain level is an absolute classic), best easter eggs, best origin story (Eugene Jarvis is probably my greatest video game hero). Why write about games when you can just sit at home and play Robotron all day?
I don’t really want this cropping up on iOS, BTW, although I wouldn’t complain if they added it to the Midway Arcade. What I’m truly after, I guess, is a re-appearance on XBLA or PSN for new purchasers, or a version for Vita and its twin thumbsticks. (I think Warner owns the game now, but I’m not completely sure. Anyone else know?)