I'm guilty of doing this, but it seems unfair to always describe side-scrolling beat-em-ups as "walk to the right and punch things." What about all the other facets of their gameplay experiences, such as walking to the left and punching things, punching things while hanging from ropes and occasionally turning into a cyber-car and crashing into things, which is about as close as a car can get to punching given that it doesn't have arms? Well, today's game has all that and very little else: it's SNK's 1991 Neo Geo brawler Robo Army!
SNK do little to get the player into a fightin' mood by serving up an aggressively dull title screen that looks as though it's been run over by a truck or constructed from leftover sheet-metal roofing.
That's more like it. Colonel Cyber-Sanders leers out from a crystal ball, surveying his death-dealing mechanical legions. Safe in the knowledge that no-one would ever again dare to try stealing the secret of his eleven herbs and spices, the Colonel turns his attention on conquering "a city". I guess he's not really bothered which city. So, his robo army marches forth, but this robo-army is not the Robo Army of the game's title. No, that would be these two.
That's P1 character Maxima in the red and his bluer, bulkier comrade Rocky, who fills the 2P slot. Both are members of Robo Army #64. Rocky may look by far the most robotic of the two but trust me, Maxima is just as much of a machine, albeit one with a human head. Presumably Maxima's human head was retained so that his supply of berets did not go to waste.
Maxima is not to be confused with the King of Fighters character of the same name, although the KoF Maxima does look a bit like Rocky, and Rocky appeared as an assist character in King of Fighters 2000 so there's some overlap there. I assume the only reason they were never fully playable in a King of Fighters game was that they couldn't find the requisite third team member, because despite there being at least 64 divisions the Robo Army for consists of these two chumps alone.
Welcome to the jungle, we've got robot trees. This city also has a very poorly thought-out highway system.
The game begins, and Maxima punches a robot. If I were feeling less generous I could argue that I might as well end the article here because by punching one robot I've experienced a good ninety percent of Robo Army's gameplay, but no, I'm going to stick with it. Robo Army is definitely on the more simplistic end of the beat-em-up spectrum, mind you. The basic punching combo is your main attack, a simple set of attacks enlivened by the loud metallic CLANG sounds you get whenever your big metal fist connects with an enemy's big metal face. You've also got the usual jumping kick to work with, although you probably won't use it as much as you would in other beat-em-ups because there's a noticeable delay between pressing jump and Maxima getting airborne. It makes sense given that each of his arms must weigh roughly same as a fridge-freezer, and it gives him a convincing feeling of heft, but it's not much fun to actually work with. Pressing jump and attack together doesn't activate the typical health-draining desperation attack but rather a makes Maxima flick out a kick behind himself. I think I made use of this back attack precisely one time during the game.
Sure, it's a basic control system that leaves little scope for interesting combos or creative tactics, but Robo Army sometimes lets you pick up the severed arm of a defeated robotrooper and use it to bash your foes to death so that evens things out a little in the enjoyability stakes. Of course, the robot arm was little use against these motorcycle troopers, because you'd have to stand right in front of them to hit them with the arm and they'd just run you down. Asimov's laws of robotics do not include traffic laws, it seems. Not that you need to hit them, if you ignore the bikers for long enough they'll just drive away. It's nice to see a laid-back robot invasion for a change.
More robots. Robo Army contains lots of robots, in case you hadn't guessed by now. Good old robots, one-third of the triptych of things you can kill without remorse in videogames. The other two are zombies and Nazis, obviously. That's why you can feel an intense sense of spiritual wellbeing when you're shooting your way through a Wolfenstein game.
Then there are oil drums, the holy receptacle from which all beat-em-ups flow. A beat-em-up without oil drums is like the kind of person who enjoys Fifty Shades of Grey without irony: difficult to imagine, but they do exist. Well, these robots are about to get some oil drum in their lives. They're made of metal and this oil drum is clearly empty, so you'd think the oil drum would just bounce off the bad guys but the oil drum is a divine tool for punishing the wicked and hang on, I don't think I've ever seen an oil drum in a videogame that wasn't empty. Huh, weird.
Robo Army's first miniboss is a dog. Yes, a robot dog, naturally. Everything's a robot in this one, folks. That's probably why all the oil drums are empty, there are a lot of moving parts to lubricate. Anyway, fighting F-1DO the Cyber-Hound is a simple matter of not standing right in front of it while it coughs... plasma shurikens? Let's go with plasma shurikens - at you. Slap it a couple of times when it gets close enough, or...
Use your special robot powers! Yes, being an ungodly amalgamation of flesh and steel has advantages beyond making it easier to get the lids off jars, and Maxima has a range of special moves at his disposal. The coloured orbs under you health bar show you what moves you've got available, with the moves changing as you use orbs and empty the POW gauge. The two red orbs allow Maxima to open his torso and fire screen-clearing waves of energy around the playfield, as you can see above. Once you've used those two orbs, the orange orbs let you fire a single energy bolt horizontally across the screen, then the two green orbs produce a powerful, electricity-covered punch. If you press the special attack button with no orbs, Maxima just kicks the enemy, which I thought was a nice alternative to just having him do nothing even if it does make him look as though he doesn't really know what he's doing..
It turned out that a couple of punches and one full-screen super was enough to destroy the robo-dog. Sadly there was no Schwarzenegger-style quip afterwards, no "play dead!" or even "my bite was worse than his bark," just Maxima waddling off towards the next robot that needs punching.
As mentioned, Maxima can also turn into a car sometimes. Why doesn't he stay in car form all the time when being a car means that he can drive straight through all the enemies, destroying them much faster than through hand-to-hand combat and being impervious to damage while he does so? I have no idea. What do I look like, a robotologist? It's probably something to do with there being no oil around.
At the end of the first stage you have to fight a large robot ape who's guarding a cage full of hostages. The villain is taking hostages because he wants to "use their human brains to clone ourselves," a phrase that leaves me unsure whether the human brain is a vital ingredient in the cloning process, or if these are the world's top geneticists and the villain needs their "human brains" in a metaphorical sense.
As for Clanky Kong here, well, I don't really remember much of the fight. It jumps from one side of the screen to the other, occasionally trying to punch you. It's not the most exciting battle, which is frankly embarrassing on SNK's part because it's against a giant robot ape, but a couple of things about the fight stand out. For starters, the fight begins with a bunch of normal-sized robot monkeys jumping into a big pile which somehow becomes the boss. Secondly, the boss keeps on fighting once you've knocked its head off. It's not an amazing fact or anything but keeping the robot ape's main CPU in its body rather than its head shows a sensible approach to mechanical combat gorilla design. Thirdly, I'm going to assume that this is an early prototype for Cyber Woo from the King of the Monsters games.
Oh noooo, not the wrath of Jeed! I'm quaking in my boots over here, "Jeed" just sounds so terribly powerful and evil and no it doesn't, it sounds like the name of a hillbilly who runs the creepy petrol station that the teens stop at on their way to Camp Murder Lake. When Shadaloo - a name containing another word for "toilet," no less - sounds more menacing than your organization's title then it's time to consider rebranding.
Now that we're into the second stage, Robo Army has revealed almost everything that it has to offer the player - very simple brawler action, stages with a mid-boss and an end boss, typically impressive Neo Geo graphics and more robots than all the Star Wars spin-offs ever written combined. These robots are wearing sleeveless yellow shirts, with little skirts to hide their robot shame. Why are the robots wearing clothes at all? Honestly, the only answer I have is "fashion". Belted jerkins and mustardy hues are in this year.
I know I said it was a shame there were no action-movie one-liners in Robo Army, but maybe I'm looking at it wrong, and their absence simply gives the player the change to exercise their creativity by coming up with their own post-battle zingers. Here's your chance, then - what do you think would be a mildly amusing thing to say to these robots after dropping a car on them? I'd go with "I'll display, but you will pay!" but then I am a terrible person.
If it wasn't for the fact it was trying to kill me by throwing a car exhaust at my head, I'd swear this cheerful endoskeleton was setting up a three-card monte stall. There's just something about his face, a look that says he's both capable and willing to make a living on the gullibility of others. Sorry, my robot friend, but I don't have time for your petty magic tricks. I've got an end-of-stage boss to find. Erm, you haven't seen it around here anywhere, have you?
Never mind, it was here all along. A car on robotic legs? How quaint, how almost Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque, I thought to myself just before the car unhinged its "mouth" and started grinding Maxima to dust with its powerful mechanical jaws. I was not expecting that. Does this count as cannibalism? Either way, I'd feel more comfortable about the fight if that endoskeleton wasn't hanging around in the background. You just know he's going to be off telling his robot friends about how Maxima, a trained soldier, was eaten by a convertible, all of them laughing behind my partially-digested back.
This is different: the first half of stage three sees Maxima sliding down a pair of ropes, punching any upside-down ninja robots or mechanical birds that see fit to harass him. Robot birds? That's fine, nothing unusual there, but take a closer look at the robot ninjas. Look where they're pulling their ropes from. No wonder their eyes are so wide.
Robo Army really needed something to mix the gameplay up a little, and the abseiling section does an okay job of that: the auto-scrolling moves at a decent speed and jumping between the ropes is accurate and simple, changing the gameplay to be more about accurate positioning.
For example, here you can get below the robots with the big balls - for hands, big balls for hands - and punch them in the ankles until they explode, completely safe from retaliation because they can't attack downwards for some reason. You'd think attacking downwards would be easier for them, they could just use gravity to let their, erm, balls drop. Okay, let's move on to something else.
Here's the bottom of the tunnel, where scubabots launch a surprise ambush attack by jumping out of the water. It's a surprise attack because surprisingly they managed to completely immerse themselves in water that's clearly only ankle deep. At least the scubabots have a suitably mournful expression for something created solely to swim around in sewer water. Joking aside, I do actually really like the designs in Robo Army: they've got that chunky-yet-smooth look that so much of 90's cyberpunk design, especially stuff from Japan, seemed to share. It's a personal preference, sure, but the graphics are definitely the part of Robo Army I'm enjoying the most.
Jeed may be your standard mad scientist bent on crushing his enemies, but he has retained something of a sense of whimsy when it comes to robot design. Nothing so simple as "metal man with a gun" for Jeed, oh no, it's all robot apes and bipedal cars and this thing, this nightmare version of Pac-Man, a Pac-Man who might appear in a Hollywood version of his pellet-munching adventures only now the pellets are radioactive fuel cells and the ghosts represent the psychological weight of all those he has slain in battle.
The boss also has a gimmick - aside from "big mouth," I mean - in that it can chew up some scrap metal from the bin at the bottom of the screen and then spit out a couple of enemies. It's a neat trick, and when combined with the boss' ability to vomit up laser beams I had trouble getting in close for the kill... until the boss decided to stop attacking and just let me punch it until it exploded, which was kinda weird. Maybe I was timing my punches accurately enough to interrupt all the boss' attacks, maybe the boss realised the futility of its own existence and stopped fighting back, but all I know is I made it to stage four.
Stage four is a lot like stages one and two, as well as the non-rope sections of stage three. Many robots attack, usually slight variations on the same basic robot, like the ones pictured about that have the power of extendable legs. There's not much else I can say about them, but I will give you some gameplay advice and that's to never attack an enemy straight on in Robo Army. It might seem like you're fast enough and have long enough range to hit the enemies before they hit you, but they are extremely good at predicting your moves and almost any frontal assault will see them counter your attacks. Instead, just get slightly above or below them and wait for the bad guys to come to you. I know, waiting around for the enemies to move into position takes some of the dynamism out of Robo Army's already relatively sluggish gameplay, but at least it features lots of quickly-dispatched troops with small health bars rather than fewer targets with loads of HP. Even the bosses tend to die fairly quickly, like these mechanical spiders.
I wasn't going to kill them, I was trying to trap them under this oil drum and then set them free in the garden. They help keep the robo-flies down, after all.
I thought this was fun - you can punch the beam to make rubble fall from the ceiling, and if you're lucky it might just fall on the heads of your enemies. More of this kind of background interaction would have gone a long way towards shunting Robo Army up from "a new definition of the word generic" to "mildly interesting," but that was not to be and Maxima's all-too brief moment spent punching a steel girder is the only hint we have of what could have been.
The boss is some kind of Robot Cop. I think now would be a good time to mention that Robo Army takes place in Neo Detroit. Ahem.
As for the boss, I think he's probably my favourite in the game. The actual fight is the same as almost all the other boss battles - your opponent spits out a few projectiles, dashes to the other side of the screen and tries to hit you if you happen to be nearby - but I just like the way this thing looks. The shoulder-mounted sirens are a nice touch, and I think the police's relationship with the general public would be a lot more relaxed if they all had to wear uniforms in a soothing shade of lilac rather than militaristic black. Jeed even gave Robot Cop robot lapels on his robot uniform, bless him. All in all, I think I like this boss because it reminds me of ultra-obscure Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character REX-1. REX-1 is also a robot policeman. REX-1's first appearance ends with him going on a date with April O'Neil's friend Irma, which even as a I kid I thought was deeply weird.
Stage five is apparently the Devil's Factory, but Satan is renting it out to Jeed so he can make more robots and floating female crystal torsos. Of course, now that I've just mentioned the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon I can help but read "floating female crystal torsos" to the tune of the TMNT theme song. I don't really get the crystal torsos, either. Not as durable as the robots, their lack of limbs preventing them from accomplishing tasks more complicated than "fire eye-beams," they just seem like something of an oversight. Maybe Jeed was trying for a more elegant look to his legions of death, a bit of classical sculpture to contrast with the boxy robots. Or maybe SNK just wanted to get some crystal boobs in there somehow, I dunno.
Halfway through the stage, Maxima must face his most dangerous foe... himself! Ha, no, I'm kidding. Maxima's kind of a chump and this green clone, this Luigi to my Mario, has no special powers up his non-existent sleeves to threaten me with. He doesn't even have regular Maxima's super moves, so a few those were enough to finish the fight. I had more trouble dealing with the cyberbats, but that was just because I kept trying to jump-kick them instead of standing still and punching them when they fluttered close enough.
The boss of the stage is definitely a boss. It's bigger and takes longer to kill than everything else in the stage. Beyond that, I don't have much in the way of supplemental information offer you about what this thing is. All the other bosses have followed the clear pattern of being a normal thing - spider, dog, police officer - turned into a robot, but this boss doesn't really have any identifiable features to mentally grab hold of. A robotic foetus carrying caulk guns and riding a giant ball bearing? That's the best I've got, but whatever it's supposed to be this boss poses the biggest threat in the game so far thanks to its pathological hatred of Maxima's ankles. Hoping to exploit our hero's lack of vertical mobility, the boss fires missile after missile along the water's surface, and it's a bloody good strategy too. Maxima is not great at dodging things, but at least he makes up for it with the special plasma wave cannon he keeps in his chest.
The final stage approaches: the assault on Jeed Tower! Nope, I still can't take Jeed seriously, I don't care how many robots they have. Shoulda called it Robot Tower, then I might be able to summon up some drama. So, how am I going to get into Jeed Tower?
It's better than walking up to the front door, I suppose. Also, I took a closer look at Maxima and now I can't not see him as wearing red Converse.
Oh, goody gumdrops, it's a boss rush. My favourite. SNK obviously realised that Robo Army was like my CV, in that it's distressingly thin and in need of some serious padding, and so us lucky players get to fight most of the game's bosses all over again. I wouldn't mind so much if Robo Army's bosses hadn't been a bland and forgettable bunch who mostly fight in a very similar way. I still wouldn't have enjoyed it, because mandatory boss rushes are always dull and frustrating, but it would have been slightly less aggravating. At least they mixed things up a little by pairing Robot Cop with the cyberdog, and the backgrounds are still very nice. Mind you, if you're having more fun staring out of the in-game windows than fighting your foes, that's a pretty damning indictment of the gameplay.
Jeed's not happy. You're coming across as kinda whiny there, pal. Maybe you should have concentrated on giving your robots proper weaponry instead of Inspector Gadget-style extending limbs. A bazooka or two could have really swung things in your favour, you know?
Thus the final battle begins, and all those cutscenes featuring Jeed were not meant to represent the villain using some kind of communication device, he really is just a head suspended in a crystal orb. You can see the orb set in the front of this battle robot. That explains Jeed's hostility, it must be difficult going through life as an unappealing paperweight.
The battle against Jeed is typical of many low-end brawlers - he's got just enough health to be tedious, and just enough projectiles and temporary spells of invincibility to be annoying, the only useful tactics being to try to take as little damage as possible. Okay, that's a lie: the most useful tactic is to let yourself die and come back with a full set of special moves.
Jeed also has a second form, naturally. The fusion of German World War II helmet and space shuttle booster rocket is a combination I'd hesitate to call "cool" but it is at least unique, bouncing around the screen like a demented dodgem, the crystal orb of Jeed buried deep inside and presumably wondering where it all went wrong as he aimlessly pirouettes around his laboratory.
Jeed is destroyed, Nazi helmets and space rockets not being a good combination for melee combat, and a scientist lady has been rescued. "Thank You", she says. You're welcome, lady, but, um, who are you?
It turns out she's Jeed's daughter - conceived before he became a head in an orb, one presumes - and she swears she "will reverse all the evil that my sadistic dad has brought you." Google informs me there are no bands out there called Sadistic Dad, but I'm not sure I believe it.
Robo Army signs off with a Pinocchio ending, as Maxima and Rocky are turned into real boys. Turned back into real boys, I should say, because I looked it up and apparently Maxima and Rocky used to be humans before Jeed turned them into robots... but he forgot to include the chip that removed their free will, and they escaped. Good work, Jeed. So, our heroes get un-roboticized, the city of Neo Detroit is safe and Robo Army ends.
That was certainly a beat-em-up, wasn't it? Robo Army does what it does with a basic level of competence but not nearly enough polish to compete with the classics of the genre. The combat is okay aside from Maxima's jumping speed occasionally being a liability, and while the enemies (and all the game's graphics in general) look great they're not much fun to fight against. It's very much a "you've seen one, you've seen 'em all" kind of experience, this game, and while there were enough flashes of quality that meant I don't regret playing Robo Army - things like stage five's musical theme, or Maxima's grab attack where he karate chops enemies in half - it's not something I'd suggest you rush out and play right now, either. A solid five out of ten, then. I'd have given it six if the announcer didn't say "ouch!" out loud every time you take damage. It does sound terribly patronising.