Why isn’t every game like… Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters?

Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters_Front

From an era of gaming where you had to rely on imagination to make up for shitty graphics and you could get away with even shittier box-art, Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters embraced both of these, yet presented a remarkably enjoyable game!

Developed by Atari and Tengen, published by Domark, the game started out life – as most games did back then – as a coin-operated arcade machine before gravitating towards home computers. The game came to Amstrad, Spectrum and Commodore 64, but looked and played its best on the Amiga and Atari ST (apart from the original arcade, obviously).

Not entirely sure what the 'ray' in the ray-gun was made of, but it cast a lovely shadow!
Not entirely sure what the ‘ray’ in the ray-gun was made of, but it cast a lovely shadow!

Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters was released in 1989 and was an instant hit in the arcade. Unlike today’s shooters that deal with mundane realities of war and global terror, Escape had a much bigger, scarier premise. Jake and Duke (if you played 2-player) were members of an intergalactic SWAT team who are selected to touch down on Planet X (a ‘synthetic industrial planetoid’)to rescue stranded scientist Dr. Sarah Bellum and the rest of the humans on the planet who have been forced into slavery by the evil Reptilons.

It was awesome Sci-Fi, B-Movie stuff that played out in a 3rd person, isometric view that was unusual at the time. Most action games adopted either a ‘top-down’ or ‘side view’, making Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters really stand out.

The plot, such as it was, played out in comic book-esque screen shots that gave you the most basic of outlines, then let you get stuck into the action.

Levels were simple enough. You had to fight your way through a short labyrinth of walkways, sometimes split onto different levels of elevation that you access via ladders. You had to destroy the Reptilons and rescue the humans held hostage on each level, flipping switches, opening new pathways and destroying big baddies to remove barriers to the next level. All the while making your way towards the end game and locating Dr. Bellum! The difficulty curve was pretty fair (for the time – steep by today’s standards), but did get very challenging toward the end of the game. Even when you discovered the ‘quick’ method through the end of level showdowns (you could spam the barriers with bombs until the game glitched and let you through… I think they call this ‘cheating’? My brother and I called it ‘initiative’).

These 'Weetabix' with arms and legs were my favourite baddie!
These ‘Weetabix’ with arms and legs were my favourite baddie!

On the way, you used a ray gun to annihilate robots, they would drop gems that could be used to upgrade your gun – and give you points! Remember back in 1989, an achievement on a game meant having the hi-score – no gold awards or platinum trophies. Of course, to a 7 year old playing the game with his big brother, hi-score was irrelevant – stopping Reptilons from invading Planet Earth with a human built robot army – and pointing out that one of them looked like a walking Weetabix every time we played – was reward enough.

The structure of the levels was very simple, graphically speaking, it always looked as though a rough maze had been drawn out and then populated with ‘science’ looking objects, but it did have an enticing charm and a great sense of humour!

This was a long time before artificial intelligence was seen as particularly necessary in video games, so all the baddies just sort of juddered in your direction as though Jake were a walking magnet. You almost HAD to play 2 player to stand much of a chance in the later levels as the robot monsters would soon overwhelm in single player!

My brother an I played it mostly on the Atari ST, but the game was mercilessly difficult to complete in the arcades. If you only visited the arcade occasionally with a set amount of coins in your pocket – it did NOT represent value for money! However, the home version was the barer of untold hours of fun and frustration!

As is well documented on Twinstick, remakes are a personal irritation of mine. Games that get remade are either too recent and not worthy of a remake or are just approached in a lazy fashion. Some truly old and classic games ARE starting to creep back up through the annals of history. The Chaos Engine was recently ‘restored’ and released on Steam. Just for its camp, B-Movie charm, I might make an exception for Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters. This is a game I think is worthy of shining a light upon. The vision of the future of the 50s via the 80s meets the modern day. There would be a hilarious, and no-doubt disastrous result!

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