In 1983, Dave Theurer created the groundbreaking game, “I, Robot” for Atari, which was released in 1984 after extensive development, testing and troubleshooting delayed its release. Heralded as being the first commercially produced arcade game to have filled 3D polygonal graphics, this game was revolutionary, as it’s predecessors – games which used vector graphics to simulate 3D, such as Tempest and Star Wars – all had unfilled geometric shapes to achieve the three dimensional effect.
In the game, the Player controls “Unhappy Interface Robot #1984”, (referred to as “Robot” in the game’s hint screens) who becomes self-aware, and chooses to rebel against the game’s antagonist – “Big Brother”. An obvious shout-out to George Orwell’s famous novel, “1984”, this is where the similarities seem to end.
As the game starts, Big Brother – currently characterized as giant ‘floating head’ – tells the Player, “THE LAW” and “NO JUMPING”, to which our little hero responds with “OH YEAH”… …possibly the first example of verbalized dissension against authority in a video game. The giant floating head floats back, turns into a giant Eye (yes, a giant Eye) which promptly closes, and leaves our protagonist to navigate a maze floating in space.
Robot must hover ahead, turning any red blocks in the section blue, and then, traverse expanses by jumping across open space. If the Player jumps while the Eye is open, he is promptly blasted with a projectile. The first time this happens, and our friendly little Robot asks “WHY NOT”, Big Brother responds with a very condescending “THATS WHY”, and our little buddy is forced to restart the level.
A shield displaying the number of red blocks guards little Robot from attacking Big Brother directly until all of the blocks are converted. Completing the maze, our protagonist is brought to the end of the path, where it gets to confront Big Brother (still an Eye) and blow him up, ending with a triumphant backflip in space.
Celebration is short-lived, however, as Robot now has to fight a projectile-firing, reconstituted Big Brother floating head in space… Will these indignities ever end?
Armed with only a projectile weapon that fires when Robot is on a red block, and having to deal with jumping only when the Eye is closed isn’t the only challenge in the game. Birds, sharks and other projectiles, such as ones that look like meteors (and one that resembles a soccer ball!) fly at Robot constantly, adding an additional complexity to the game. As the sharks ‘swim’ back and forth through space, a digital representation of the “Jaws” theme can be heard, adding to the amusing nature of the game. Letters from the title, “I, Robot” are also floating through space, and if you shoot all of them, you earn yourself an extra life. Extra bonuses are awarded for acquiring all of the jewels that appear inside red pyramids, shooting all of the ‘tetras’ that fly in space, and for achieving the land-speed record for completing the level.
There are twenty-six unique levels, and once the Player completes these, they repeat with increased difficulty and a different colour palette. After completing 126 levels of game play, the levels are served randomly, and the game ends when the Player runs out of lives.
I, Robot is not considered to be a commercial success due to its radically different game play and mechanics. As such, only 750 to 1,000 arcade machines were ever created. The International Arcade Museum acknowledges that only 32 of the game are known to exist. Billing itself as “The first video game with real time computer generated mathematically perfect solid 3 dimensional graphics and no hidden surfaces” and including an “un-game” called “Doodle City” – where the Player can burn a quarter for three minutes of time drawing using the game’s sprites – it simply may have been too unique for its time.
Overall, I, Robot provides a unique experience and, in my opinion, is a game that shouldn’t be missed, if for no other reason than to play an important piece of history. So, if you can find one of the 32 ‘known’ arcade machines, I would definitely say it’s time to pop in a quarter, and give Unhappy Interface Robot #1984 a chance to poke ol’ Big Brother right in the Eye!
Special thanks to capnjack78, from his reply on Reddit, for recommending “I, Robot” for our Retro Review Friday. If you have a game that you would like to see Gameroom Designs review, Submit a game for Retro Review Friday!