[Mr Creosote] The years going by is often a pretty well-working filter when it comes to the value of cultural products. Important things are kept alive, but those which are not noteworthy disappear into obscurity. This makes looking back at a past time so much easier!
But it does not always work as intended. There is another major factor which can also lead to history forgetting about something, regardless of quality, and that is obscurity in its basic sense: If the target audience is small in the first place, standing the test of time is much, much harder. Which is a trap the game we will be discussing today fell into.
[Wandrell] When you hear for the first time about this game, you would think it's clear what the problem with the game was. Programming robots? The few games that attempted this, such as Origin's Omega or the nearly unknown HR2 by Artdink, which didn't even leave Japan, met a fatal destiny. But actually once you get into the game, things are completely different from what you would expect.
Because “programming” in this case doesn't mean learning some kind of language and correctly using it, but creating sets of clear and easy to understand orders.
[Mr Creosote] So, what we can gather from the title alone (since there is preciously little information available about the game on the oh-so-omnicious Internet) is that this one will be about robots and sports. I.e. a league of robot teams fighting each other. Each player takes over control of one team.
[Wandrell] Each team is made from a set of four kinds of robots, each with a different kind of weapon: a rifle, an automatic gun, a “burst” gun and a missile launcher. Of course you can change the number of robots of each kind to use, and all the teams will use that configuration.
[Mr Creosote] The arenas in which the battles will take place are also always symmetric, i.e. fair towards everybody.
[Wandrell] In the end, the games manages to be very balanced. But still it offers a bit more, the game is expected to be a strategy one, but just throwing you on an arena to kill all your enemies ends being boring, so they added several “sports” as they call them.
Each has one objective: kill everybody, capture objects, steal the enemy flag, rescue a hostage, or take and keep set points.
[Mr Creosote] So, after defining the teams themselves, the arena and the objectives, each of the (up to four) players places her robots in a dedicated starting area on the map. This is where the actual fun begins: The game is played turn-based, but with simultanous execution of everyone's orders.
[Wandrell] Each turn consists of a given amount of seconds, fifteen being the default, with each order consuming part of this time. Which are the orders you can give? Well, that's simple: moving, shooting or waiting for the enemy to appear and then shooting it. Along, of course, choosing the way your robot is facing and also a nice feature, which is telling your robot to reduce its height, so it's harder to hit, in exchange of losing mobility. There are a few other orders, but as they are mission specific you don't have to worry about them much.
[Mr Creosote] The basic idea of using a limited resource (in this case time) per turn per figure is not unheard of. Many games of the Rebelstar Raiders variety have used it successfully, usually in the form of 'action points'. The major difference is the simultanous execution, though. This brings a totally different challenge to the game, i.e. the attempt to foresee what the other teams will do.
[Wandrell] Having to predict the enemy's actions forces you to move cautiously, covering important movement routes and using suppression fire. Nothing better than seeing the enemy hole up, and just as the next turn starts blowing the best exit they have.
And yes, you know the last place the enemy was. That and nothing else, as you can't know what kind of weapon the robot that hid behind that corner has, or how much damage it has received, forcing you to always pay attention if you want to survive.
[Mr Creosote] After everyone has planned their moves, the computer displays the results in a short real-time 'movie'. There is a big element of schadenfreude seeing the enemies' efforts going off into a completely wrong direction when your own moves turn out to have been unpredictable and similarly, a lot of (positive) frustration when your own plans fail.
[Wandrell] And after talking so much, there is one thing we have not made clear. You have to program the robots each turn, but how exactly? Well, it's surprisingly easy. Take a robot, choose a deployment point and then move it around to the place you want it to be. Once there, just choose the next action you want it to take. How? Well, all this is done through a set of clear buttons, and only special actions, such as capturing points, are selected through the menu.
[Mr Creosote] We really have to stress this: It's all done by a very intuitive point & click interface which never gets in the way. The player can fully concentrate on working on her strategy.
It's not just that the controls are easy, though, but the whole presentation is very light-weight and fun. The robots and the arenas look like little toys and when they are hit, the robots will let out little cartoon screams (or laughs when they have hit another).
For a better overview in planning, the game can be run in high-resolution mode which allows to see much more of the arena at once. Unfortunately, I had some problems with that as it seems to be very memory hungry. However, when too little memory is left, the game will at least not crash, but simply fall back to regular resolution again.
[Wandrell] The way the game works it reminds me a lot of tabletop games. Back then, it wasn't so rare that a game would be influenced by tabletop, miniature and roleplaying games, so it's not surprising that the general mechanics of “deployment, movement and shooting or leaving in 'overwatch' mode” would be taken into a videogame.
Actually, here we can find influences going both sides. I'm not sure, because I was too young to know much about tabletop games back then, if 'overwatch' mode or reaction fire was common on these games. But what I can say is that according to some sources this game, using tabletop mechanics, influenced games such as one called RoboRally.
[Mr Creosote] I have played a couple of tabletop games with mechanics like reactive fire. BattleTech, Space Crusade and Space Hulk, for instance, have similar features, as have various WW2 games. Line-of-sight calculations, as found in RoboSport, have been part of strategical war-themed tabletop games at least since the 1950s and parallel execution of orders is a famously integral part of Diplomacy, for example.
RoboRally is an interesting case, though. According to Wikipedia, it was already designed in 1985, which would make it older than RoboSport. However, it was not released until 1994, i.e. after RoboSport came out. So you'd have to wonder who influenced whom there.
[Wandrell] Also, the idea of using missions of some kind as an alternative to just killing all your opponents is very common in tabletops. While nowadays videogames changed the idea and missions are an addition to killing as many of the enemies as possible, which is not surprising. In this same game you can see that it ends being easier to just kill the enemies than fulfilling the objective.
But I suppose the idea behind missions is keeping big multiplayer battles from becoming a chaotic carnage.
[Mr Creosote] Not that the completely innocent, chaotic carnage isn't fun also. In general, I would have to say that the fun increases significantly the more human players take part.
[Wandrell] Sadly, I have only played against the AI, which ends being very predictable and easy to surround with your robots. But this clearly is meant to be played against humans, offering even modem connection for it.
[Mr Creosote] Modem, serial connection, hotseat and even TCP/IP (i.e. even playing via Internet is possible) are the options to get other human players involved. This also works cross-platform, regardless of which version your opponent uses. This was hardly standard 20 years ago and it indeed shows how important the multiplayer aspect is for the game.
[Wandrell] Of course you can always just play the hot seat mode, taking turns to plan your own turns.
[Mr Creosote] Which also doesn't turn into a huge time investment. Actually, a complete battle rarely takes longer than 20 minutes, even on the largest maps.
[Wandrell] The game is very lethal, no doubt, and a wrong turn can make a clear difference between the teams. But as usual in these games, that's the fun of multiplayer, knowing that the choices you make (or more commonly the mistakes your opponent makes), will mean a lot to the end result.
[Mr Creosote] The short battle length also means that even losing is never a big deal. Just play again and maybe you'll have more luck. It's not like one of these ultra-complex games in which countless hours of careful buildup are destroyed in a (negatively) frustrating final battle – it's always quick fun without any negative feelings.
[Wandrell] And also the fact that you are playing with a pre-defined amount of resources, the robots, from the beginning makes the game more tactical when you have to contemplate the risks to take.
[Mr Creosote] The strong multiplayer aspect makes RoboSport another one of those games which are very hard to pin down on a rating. I will go with the way I believe the game is intended to be played, i.e. with a group of friends. That way, it is truly impressive fun! It's easy to pick up, but nevertheless contains aspects of tactics, psychology (knowing your enemy) and intuition which should not be taken too lightly.
[Wandrell] That same multiplayer part is no doubt what made it fail. Without other people to play, you have to face the AI, which as usual is not very intelligent and will quickly make the games monotonous.
[Mr Creosote] Nobody had TCP/IP networks back then and playing via modem was very much unaffordable in those days. So the only option would have been hotseat (the least desirable) or bringing a second computer over to use a serial connection. The game's failure is really unfortunate, because it is actually very good! To get back to the beginning of this review, now it basically faces total oblivion as nobody remembers it anymore. This goes so far that some version seem to have more or less disappeared from the face of the earth. If any of our readers has one we don't – drop us a line!
[Wandrell] And the manuals, as we do have floppies for the MS-Windows version, but it's copy protected.
[Mr Creosote] Preservation of past culture is never really a problem for the popular hits; since they still have value both for the makers as well as for the customers, they are pretty safe. It's less popular things like this game which are struggling.
[Wandrell] Sadly, because in this case it was a game ahead of its time, should they have made it when Internet connections became common it would have fared differently.
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