Pinnacle of Robotron:2084 Emulation

Here’s something fun.

Robotron 2084 Welcome Screen

My second favorite arcade game ever is Robotron:2084. This was a frenetically paced game, with dozens of onscreen targets and enemies converging on you first inevitably, then instantly. You got two joysticks for this, one controlling move, one controlling fire… so you can fire backwards at things chasing behind you. As is common in the genre, you are saving the last human family while taking out as many of the evil machines as possible. Here you see mommy in her pink dress and daddy in his blue business suit… and where you should see little mikey in his red t-shirt and shorts you will instead see a skull and cross-bones indicating a tank already ran the poor lil guy over.

Robotron:2084 Save the human family

Harder waves send more and different enemies at you… and apparently this family was a particularly fecund bunch, so they had that going for them, anyway.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave

What did it take to get that screenshot? Everything, as they say… here’s the screenshot timestamped one one-hundredth of a second later.

Robotron:2084 Brain Wave Death

I also caught the brain’s “breathing” in that one. But, still dead. So many women left un-picked-up.

As you can see, I can play a pixel-perfect representation of the original arcade machine on my current main computer, a MacBook Pro, using OpenEmu software. This is an amazing (to me, anyway) jump in technology during my lifetime, even considering how popular Robotron was in its day and how often (and how well) it was reproduced. I own copies of Robotron:2084 for the Atari 8-bits, for the Atari 5200, Atari 7800, and the Atari ST… and along the way, I’ve played the versions for DOS, Apple ][, and Commodore 64. They all do a pretty good job… I mean considering the various hardware limitations in each case, the game always seemed to look good enough and play fast enough compared to other games available for that system. Yes, I like my statements well qualified.

But there has always been something missing. For the vast majority of those playing a Robotron port, they were playing with one joystick to move… and a button that shot in the direction you were running.

Completely unplayable.

Okay, that’s a bit far, but it was really hard to do well on the ports. And even with the few ports that allowed you to connect two joysticks to use as God and Williams intended… have you ever tried to control two separate lightweight joysticks, one in each hand? Think about those 2600 joysticks slamming over when you move in any direction… think about those 7800 controllers just sliding everywhere. I have two Wico sticks that it took me years to scrape off the duck tape residue where I taped them to a plank to make a Robotron setup. And that has been about the height of my Robotron play for years.

New day, new tech, new take on retrogaming, and I’m back at Robotron:2084. OpenEmu is showing me the most precise image from the original that we are going to get. And OpenEmu allows us to personalize the controller setup. I invested in a couple Logitech F310s, Sony-style controllers with dual thumbsticks.

Logitech F310

Once the joystick is connected, OpenEmu identifies it and allows you to determine how OpenEmu will use the different buttons, sticks, and pads in the game. The thing that’s a little quirky about setting up Robotron’s controls is that there is no obvious “map to second joystick” function. This is because “second joystick” just isn’t something that gets used much, so it’s not present in the standard format for the programs emulating the systems. OpenEmu happens to use MAME as the engine for arcade emulation, in particular MAME 0.149. MAME knows about the four-directional firing, but, there being no “second joystick” to map to in the format, those functions get mapped to buttons.

It only took a couple games of trial and error (with a couple face palming backslides along the way) before I found the secret of mapping Robotron’s fire controls the the Logitech F310.

OpenEmu Robotron 2084 right joystick configuration

With that set up, my scores jumped significantly.

Robotron_highscore

I happen to know my high score on the arcade original is over 1,000,000. Know this because I’ve been cleaning out the garage, and I found my Bronze and Silver Joystick Awards issued from The Endless Challenge arcade sometime in the eighties. So I know I still have a ways to go. But this is the best version of Robotron:2084 that I’ve been able to play without a quarter or a token handy.

There are actually two more options to possibly take this further. Already on my list of Things To Buy Next is a pair of 2600-dapters, little hardware interfaces that allow you to plug in old-school 9-pin joysticks to USB ports to use with emulators. The issue here will be the same as it was with the 7800, though… Wicos and duck tape as the best alternative.

And finally, I could build or buy a custom heavy duty controller. X-Arcade has a model with 2 joysticks and a trackball, which would cover almost all my retrogaming needs.

Almost all. Yes, Robotron:2084 is my second favorite game, despite the odd controls that make decently emulating it’s gameplay such a difficult task.

My favorite game is Tempest.

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