Everybody deserves a second chance, right? Well, maybe not. I suppose it depends on how badly you fucked up the first time - I mean no-one's going to let Hitler have another crack at running Germany, are they? Videogames are much different than genocidal dictators, though, and maybe when you slated that one game, you got swept up in a blizzard of bad review scores or the bitter put-downs of your friends. Maybe that game you decried as an unplayable piece of shit in your callow youth is, in fact, a deeply flawed but still interesting title, maybe with some innovative features or excellent music or something to recommend it. That could well be the case with many games. Mirage's 1994 beat-em-up Rise of the Robots is not one of those games.
When I started replaying Rise of the Robots, (or as we call it here in Yorkshire, Rise uh t' Robots,) I thought hey, this'll be easy to describe - everyone remembers RotR. It was infamous, a gaming horror story to be relayed to your friends in the same way you might tell the tale of a hook-handed cannibal around a campfire. You think you're tough because you played Mario is Missing? Well, I suffered through Rise of the goddamn Robots. Cue sharp gasps from all present, followed by the consoling looks of those who are sympathetic but also glad they'll never share your pain.
But then I realised that isn't the case anymore. RotR is nearly eighteen years old. A whole generation of people has grown up playing videogames since then, and they/you probably won't have a clue about gaming's most traumatic example of why you shouldn't put graphics before gameplay. Consider this article an educational tool, then - a warning from the past that's still relevant today.
RotR is a one-on-one fighter in the Street Fighter 2 mould, if the "Street Fighter 2 mould" is that black goo that surrounds the showers in student accommodation. Rather than a cast of expert martial artists gathered from across the globe, Rise promised to deliver what every young boy really wanted: fighting robots. I know I wanted a game about fighting robots, raised as I had been on a steady diet of Transformers and Voltron. There was no way this could fail, right? As long as there were robots and they punched each other, this was going to be the game that made SF2 look like Mortal Kombat and made Mortal Kombat look like a Punch and Judy show performed by two syphilitic tramps.
The prospect of gladiatorial cyborg carnage was merely a bonus, however. Rise of the Robots' real K.O. punch, the thing that would assure its place at the top of videogaming's Mount Olympus, the thousand-carat diamond in the game's already jewel-encrusted crown, was the graphics. These weren't just any graphics though, oh no: these were graphics so futuristic that Nostradamus once saw them in a vision and said "fuck me, there's no way anyone will believe these graphics. I'd better not write this one down." You know how Mortal Kombat used digitised "actors", filming real people performing martial arts moves and then using that digitised footage as the in-game sprites? That's how RotR worked, but instead of using inferior human meatsacks they created full CGI models of each robot and then digitised them.
That's, like, twice as futuristic as any other game, right? And to Mirage's credit, they graphics do look pretty good. For this article I played the SNES version, that being the version I was (unfortunately) most familiar with during my childhood. The sprites themselves aren't bad at all, and apparently it looks even better in the Amiga versions. They might look a little grainy in the screenshots, but when they're in motion they glide about quite nicely. They've got a lot of animation frames, they're smooth, what more do you want? Here's the thing, though - and this is a personal opinion about aesthetics, so feel free to disagree with me - digitised graphics look bloody awful, on the whole. They always did. I don't know if this is a widely-held opinion or if it's just me but I cannot stand digitised graphics. So, RotR looks pretty sharp for a game with digitised graphics, but that's like saying it's pretty handsome for someone who just french-kissed a hornet's nest.
Unfortunately, the above-average graphics are the game's sole redeeming feature. Things start looking bad with the appearance of the plot. These robots must have some reason to rise, after all, so Mirage did what all lazy videogame developers do: they got out their scrapers and set to work on the big barrel of sci-fi clichés. They came out with a real fistful over over-used plot-points, too: if it's about computers and it's bad, then it's in this game. Out-of-control nanomachines? Check! Artificial Intelligence reaches sentience, initiates Operation Kill All Humans? Check! Computer virus that can reprogram anything even tangentially related to a microchip? Check! The only thing that's missing is a robot being reprogrammed by lightning strike.
The overall gist, then - the "Supervisor" AI has gone mad. You are a cyborg, or rather you are Cyborg, and you're immune to the virus because you're got a squishy human brain encased in your crunchy metal shell. Defeat the Supervisor, save humanity, receive free chassis waxings for all eternity from a grateful populace. To save the world, you must defeat the six robots that stand in your way. Sounds simple, right?
Well, yes - RotR is a very simple game. It's extremely simple, in fact. This is because the developers looked at all the advances that had been brought to the flourishing beat-em-up genre through games like Street Fighter 2 and said "fuck that, we don't want any of those gimmicks spoiling our pure and unsullied fighting experience!” What you end up with is one of the most barren, empty videogames I've ever had the displeasure of playing.
The first problem is that you can only play as Cyborg.
He doesn't look great up-close, does he? As he's your only playable character, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Cyborg comes packed with combat techniques, or possibly the downloaded memories of history's greatest warriors, or at least some kind of cyber-truncheon for clobbering his enemies. Of course, he has none of these things. He can punch, he can kick, and that's your lot. No particle cannons or energy swords here, just the kind of generic melee attacks that you'd learn on your first day at Kickboxer School. Honestly, there's no evidence that Cyborg is actually a cyborg at all. I mean, just calling yourself "Cyborg" doesn't make you a cyborg, otherwise I'd have changed my name to Godzilla years ago. For all we know, he could just be a passing member of the Blue Man Group who happens to have lost all his clothes.
Sadly, Cyborg is all we have, so let's begin the "Arcade" mode and meet our first opponent.
It's a Loader robot, for loading things. Not for fighting. This should be easy.
And so it proves to be, because RotR's gameplay is even more horribly broken than the rest of the game. You'll immediately notice that the controls are slow and leaden; judging by the amount of time that passes between you pressing the button and a punch or kick occurring, Cyborg must have the computational power of a goddamn potato. There are no special moves at all, and as the punch has a much shorter range than the kick you'll quickly realise that the punch is functionally useless. By this point, you're down to three moves, total: kick, jumping kick, crouching kick. The bulk of the game consists deciding of which of these three attacks to perform repeatedly, and then doing so.
You see, the computer is monumentally stupid. Pretty much every fight can be won by simply walking forwards and pressing kick repeatedly. Your opponent will just keep walking into your foot, over and over again, the virus that turned them evil also having apparently disabled all of their senses and any combat programming they might have had.
If "walk forward and kick" doesn't work, why not try "crouch down and kick" like I did on the second opponent?
Not only does it keep the gorilla-shaped Builder at bay, it also affords you plenty of time to gaze at Cyborg's lovingly-rendered, ray-traced buttocks.
Next up is the insectile Crusher, although "Pincers" might have been a more apt name. Or "Snippy Harold". Jesus, something, anything to make this game more interesting. All of the robots in the game have the same set of moves, so you'll know what to expect already. He uses a lot of jumping kicks, and you might be tempted to try to block them, but don't bother. While you can block, you still take damage. So much damage, in fact, that blocking is rendered utterly pointless. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the reason for this is that Mirage supposedly thought that their computer AI was so incredible that the CPU would be able to block every attack you could throw at it. The ability to hurt your opponent through their block was added to give you, a mere human, a chance of victory.
Or maybe the battle will pan out for you like it did for me - I hit the Crusher twice and then stood still. The Crusher also stood still. We both stood still, until the time ran out and I won by virtue of having more health. I've just noticed that health is called "NRG" in RotR. That alone is reason enough to never, ever play this game.
Having destroyed all the industrial robots we could find, we're finally faced with an actual fighting robot in the form of Military. I've got nothing to say about Military, really. He's very similar to Cyborg, except he'd got claws on his hands. We all know how long the military has been trying to come up with the ultimate delivery system for fingernail-based death, and this robot just might be it. Personally, if I'd spent hundreds of billions of dollars on an indestructible war machine I'd expect it to be able to eliminate targets from a distance of more than seven inches.
Forget this prick, though: look what is promised to us on the intro screen!
Music by Brian May, guitar maestro of rock legends Queen and Doctor of Astrophysics? Incredible! Maybe RotR can yet redeem itself with some tracks from a true great of classic rock!
No, of course it fucking can't. Despite the neon-green promises of the opening screen, Brian May's music does not appear in this game. Sorry, I tell a lie, there's a roughly ten-second long clip at the start of the game, but all the actual in-game music was composed by Mirage. Apparently issues with May's record label meant that RotR would have been delayed had they waited for May's soundtrack, so Mirage decided to just plow ahead without it.
I honestly think that this is the one element of the game that pisses me off above all others, more than the shitty, repetitive gameplay or the host of baffling design decisions. They couldn't even manage to get the bloody soundtrack into the game correctly! It seems frankly amazing that this game runs at all.
Comin' up next is the Sentry. Look at him, trying to impress us with his Tai Chi moves. Kicking his nickel-alloy ass will be a great pleasure and might also help relieve some of my frustrations about the whole Brian May debacle.
Ah. Maybe I spoke too soon. Sentry looks pretty big and he probably oh no wait I've just jump-kicked over and over until he's defeated. It's all just so tedious. Everything is syrupy-slow and loose, with no real sense of contact. There's nothing to learn, no skills to master, absolutely nothing to engage the brain (except to ponder the awfulness of this game). I'd rather be letting a robotic arm from a car factory chase me around with its welding attachment than be playing this - at least then I'd be getting some exercise... and then, just as I've given up all hope, RotR manages to make me crack a smile.
Between stages, RotR manages the admittedly impressive trick of playing some FMVs. Getting any kind of video onto a SNES cart, even the short, shrunken scenes in this game, is a real achievement and it shows that the only thing in this game that's handled in a less-than-ghastly fashion are the graphics. Mostly these clips show your opponent before and after the fight, with nothing particularly special about them, but the one that plays when you beat Sentry... I dunno, there's just something about it that makes me laugh every time.
He's just so casual about it. I'm not sure it's supposed to be funny, but Cyborg's nonchalant (and rather un-robotic) reaction to defeating Sentry is the one bright spot in this game, and by god I'm going to cling onto it like society's mocking laughter clings to a trainspotter.
After you've disposed of Sentry's remains, it's time for the final confrontation with the Supervisor. It's taken all of five minutes to get here, but it feels like an eternity. The Supervisor is a completely shameless copy of the T-1000 from Terminator 2, except she's sort of lady-shaped. Not that the T-1000 couldn't be a lady if it wanted to, it just decided that being Robert Patrick was a better bet. One thing the Supervisor has over the T-1000 is the ability to suddenly transform into whatever this is. A head massager? Lemon zester?
Terrifying, I'm sure you'll agree. Just kick her to death and get it over with. That's Rise of the Robots completed. Thank Christ for that. Do you get anything for completing the game? Well, it repeats all the cutscenes you've already watched under the guise of a "replay", does that count? The answer is no, it does not count.
It's rather telling that there are no credits at the end. I completely understand, guys - I wouldn't want my name to be even loosely associated with this. We'll just let Brian May take the fall, alright?
What you do get during the "ending" is a code to fight against the Supervisor in two-player mode. Did I mention there's a two player mode? Because there is, and it's even worse than the single-player game.
Player one can still only play as the Cyborg, while player two can choose his robot. However, no attempt at balancing the characters has been made. Player two could be the much more powerful Sentry and absolutely destroy the Cyborg every time, which is bound to get a little frustrating for the oversized synthetic Smurf.
There are also "Special" moves that can be enabled at the options screen. They're activated by tapping a direction four times followed by attack, and they grant you such game-breaking powers as invisibility, reversal of your opponent’s controls and complete fucking invincibility. Amazing. Here's a tip: never ask your friends to play RotR with you. Either you'll kill them, they'll kill you or you'll both leap off the nearest tall building in a double suicide bid.
If you've been paying attention, you'll have realised that Rise of the Robots is a truly atrocious game. Don't forget that this is the SNES version, though. This might blow your mind, but the SNES version is one of the better ones. The game was ported to many different consoles (including the 3DO and the Game Gear, of all things) and there were some differences between them. The SNES version, like I say, is one of the better ones. If you wondering how it could be worse, just ponder the Amiga version.
In the Amiga version, you can literally (and I do mean literally) complete the game by holding the joystick in the up-right position and holding down attack. The Cyborg performs flying kicks over and over again, and the enemies will eventually just crouch there and take it. Here's a video showing just that.
It gets better - in the Amiga version, you can't turn around. Cyborg is trapped, forever facing to the right, and if the enemy traps you in a corner you can kiss your ass goodbye because jumping over them isn't an option. Honestly, you can't turn around? The mind boggles. Amiga Power magazine famously gave this version of RotR a review score of 5% and frankly that's a display of generosity that makes Santa Claus look like Ebenezer Scrooge.
So what went wrong? How did a product so fundamentally broken manage to get a full-scale release? The answer is, I fear, down to money. Too much of it was spent on graphics, and by "too much" I mean "all of it". Actually, that's not true - the other thing that RotR had on its side was a gargantuan advertising campaign that pummeled gamers from all sides in the year or so leading up to the games release. There were magazine ads, TV ads, cinema ads, a constant steam of information leaked from the developers. There was even a RotR novel, for Christ's sake - if it's anything like the game, it'll be six pages covered with the ink-smeared imprints of a baboon's testicles.
So, between the graphics - this was a time when CGI was the big, expensive thing - and the advertising, there was nothing left for anything else. The graphics will have taken so much room on the cartridge (or disk - the Amiga version ran to 13 disks) that everything else had to be left out to make space. You know, things like options and game modes and fun. Terrible clunky gameplay, an utter lack of imagination, the same old videogame clichés recycled over and over again, the fact that the music isn't by Brian May - it all adds up to something especially terrible. The lesson we can take from all this? Never, ever put more emphasis on graphics than on gameplay unless you're making some kind of art-gallery-visiting-simulator.
As I said at the start of this article, some games deserve a second chance... but not Rise of the Robots. It really is as bad as everyone says it is.
The worst thing? It sold well enough to receive a sequel. Think on that as you lie in bed tonight, pondering the uncaring nature of the chaotic universe we live in.