Being an incredibly nerdy kid, I spent a lot of time in bookstores. And being that I was a kid that lived way out in the sticks, the best the local mall had to offer at the time was a B. Dalton. Do they still have those? If I remember correctly, I was wandering amongst the shelves without any particular agenda, probably hunting around for anything by Piers Anthony or Madeleine L'Engle or maybe a guide on how to not get called a girl for wearing an oversized shirt in PE class.
This particular Dalton had a Software Etc. We had a Colecovision console at the house, but actual computer games were still a thing of mystery to me. So I really didn't have much of an idea what to expect when I pulled a white and green box off of the shelf, with "The Learning Company" featured prominently on it, and a simple-looking premise involving an "Escape from Robotropolis." It reminded me a little bit of Asimov, and it was dull and inoffensive-looking enough for my folks to cough up the cash for it. Once at home, boxy two-button joystick in hand, I loaded the 5 1/4" floppy into the disk drive and fired up the hardest game I would ever play, though I didn't realize it yet.
That game was Robot Odyssey
Apple IIe graphics. Awwww yeah.
You start with a rockin' cutscene in which the lead character wakes up in the middle of the night, from a prophetic dream of enslavement at the hands of octagonal metal overlords. In desperate need of a warm glass of milk, a cookie and a hug, he puts one foot over the edge of his bed, and falls through a surprise hole in the ground that has somehow appeared in his room. Oops! After tumbling head over heels into the bowels of the earth, he finds himself in the sewer system of a robot city. The terror is real!
In the next room are three robots, your tools for surviving this mad mechanical hell. You can walk inside them, and see that they're wired up in a way that is exactly like an actual blueprint for a circuit. Not "like," in fact -- it IS a blueprint for a working circuit. The robots each have batteries, thrusters for moving in the four cardinal directions, antennae that can generate (and receive) signals from the other robots, sensors that can tell when they're hitting a wall, and a grabber arm. In order to get them to help you out, you have to actually wire them up yourself, using a virtual soldering iron and a selection of logic gates, nodes, and flip-flops. wut
Needless to say, this blew my head right the hell open. It'd be awesome if that was the story of how I grew up to be some badass electrical engineer, but in truth I can barely remember how to jump start my car. I never did win this game, and I figure it'd be quite a challenge even today. But I still remember the way the possibilities unfolded for me with each new challenge I encountered. Using this humble toolset, you were basically coming up with programs for simple A.I. You'd have to get one robot to navigate a maze, maybe pick up a key at the end of it, then send a signal to another robot to start moving towards a switch that would open a gate to get a third robot moving... and so on.
Let me be honest. I never made it past the third level of this game, though I came back to it now and again over a period of years. But although I failed technically at a lot of the circuit-building exercises, I credit this game with helping me develop the lateral-thinking skills I have used throughout my gaming career to figure out exploits and such. I spent a lot of time trying to "cheat" by forcing objects through walls, or riding a robot through half of a puzzle and then attempting to jump out and get across the screen before I got caught. Every once in a blue moon one of those half-baked plans would actually work, and those were some sweet, sweet victories.
In some ways, this is pretty dreamy from a design point of view -- you've got all the tools you need at the outset, but as you travel, the puzzles you encounter force you to use them in increasingly intricate ways. At ten years of age this level of logic was way beyond me, but it had the capacity to do some pretty complicated things. I mean, check out this page of advanced circuits
that I never used. You gotta be kidding me.
Decades later, I still think about this game from time to time. As an example of how a game can actually be an educational tool, this one set a high water mark that not many other games have come close to. Robot Odyssey isn't here to baby you, or provide you with an auto-assisted victory after you fail a few times, or make sure you don't get frustrated. Robot Odyssey is here to tell you that, if you are ever sucked deep into a nightmare world populated only by silent, ghostly droids who live a life completely alien to our experience, then by god you had better learn to solder together a single pulse flip-flop input into a nested delay chip if you expect to ever see the light of day again. And if you finish the game, you will actually have learned to do that. I think that's kind of a more important lesson than "Everybody wins!" But maybe that's just me.
If you're crazy enough to try it yourself, you can find it here at Abandonia
. May take some effort to get this sucker to run on your machine.
I can't in good conscience recommend Robot Odyssey to you as "fun" in the strictest sense. But you might want to check it out nonetheless. The reason it's important to me is that it reminds me of a time when I had no preconceived notions about games -- what they could be, what they could do, what you could get out of them. In a box in the bookstore, I found a tool that wanted to teach me how to build robots. How sweet is that? Can you program me to love?
It wouldn't be long before I discovered Ultima 4 and started learning about meditation, virtues, and strategic unit placement. Super Mario Bros. would follow that up with a purely mechanical, unique, and addictive challenge, as well as being the gateway to the whole wondrous world of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then, I wasn't thinking about games in terms of genres, or franchises, or review scores. Rather, they were like the books I spent so much time with - I'd pull one down from the shelf and sometimes, every once in a while, I'd get a glimpse of a world that I didn't even know was possible.
Links Opening sequence and some gameplay footage This game
is based on the puzzles in the original.
is trying to build a working version on the Nintendo DS.
And this other guy put together a functioning version in Java