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Atari's I, Robot
Coin-Op Arcade Game

by Michael Thomasson

In the year 1983, the Cold War was still in the minds of American citizens and tensions between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were elevated. Brewing since 1945, the fear of Communist invasion, espionage and the threat of nuclear Armageddon made for many great stories from Hollywood. Cobbled together with domestic paranoia, I, Robot combines both and propel the amalgamation into videogame culture.

In the game, the player controls an unhappy Interface Service Robot, designated as number 1984. It becomes self-aware despite being under complete surveillance and revolts against the propaganda machine of the all-controlling Big Brother and his ever-watchful Evil Eye through 126 levels.

To clear a level, the player must avoid flying objects such as bombs, birds and flying sharks moving from the background to the foreground, and eliminate the shield protecting the Evil Eye with an equipped laser. To do so, the player must bravely enter the “Red Zone,” in reference to the Red Army of the Communist Party, and maneuver over the red tiled polygon blocks converting them to blue.

To traverse all the surfaces, Interface Robot #1984 must jump across platforms, an action strictly prohibited by Big Brother. If the Evil Eye spies the robot jumping, he is immediately executed so all such action must be enacted while the Evil Eye is closed. Upon completing the task, Interface Robot #1984 destroys the Evil Eye perched upon the pyramid.


This article was
originally published
in the summer 2012
issue of
Video Game
Trader Magazine.

During such times of paranoia and conspiracy, one wonders if there were links between the pyramid, the eye in the triangle and the all-seeing Eye of Providence encountered within the game. It is doubtful that the freemasons or any shadow society, including the Illuminati, were involved with the game. I suppose that only the game designer, Dave Theurer, knows for sure… and he is sworn to secrecy and isn't talking! Dave has stated that when he was programming his other nuclear war game, Missile Command, he suffered multiple nightmares of six U.S. cities being destroyed by ballistic missiles.

After destroying the Evil Eye, Interface Robot #1984 launches himself into space from the pyramid's peak and hurls through the black of space avoiding or destroying stars and other space debris such as tetras, tankers, meteors, saucers and tetrahedrons.

Every five levels, the space sequence is replaced with an epic battle with a disembodied three-dimensional floating red head. The cranium proceeds to fires cone-shaped missiles at the actual “real world” player and must be destroyed or the projectiles will circle back around and destroy Robot #1984. If you can survive for twenty seconds, then you return to a conventional playfield level.

Occasionally, Interface Robot #1984 enters a pyramid to collect jewels. The player must blast through walls towards the Evil Eye before the encroaching buzz saws chew you up.

Technically, Atari's I, Robot was well ahead of its time, being the first commercial video game with filled 3-D polygonal graphics. Prior to I, Robot only a handful of 3D games, such as Atari's own Battlezone and Star Wars titles, had been released and were only presented via wireframe rendering. In fact, another 3D polygon game didn't appear on the scene for another four years, when Namco released Winning Run .

Another first was the ability to select camera angles during game play. Pressing either of the “start” buttons would change the viewing angle. Such an action would obstruct the player's view and even allow the player to receive score multipliers rewarding the player for playing a level with limited visibility. During advanced levels, enemy “viewer killers” ignore the Robot #1984 and attacks the actual player, forcing the player to change camera views or perish!

In addition to the multi-directional shooter, the coin-op also included an alternate experience entitled “Doodle City.” This mild and non-combative mode allowed individuals that donated a quarter to draw on the screen utilizing the three-dimensional models scaling, rotating and placing in-game 3D models to their heart's fancy for a three-minute period.

If the upright I, Robot cabinet looks familiar, then perhaps you've played Atari's Firefox which shared the same design. The coin-op also employed a rather unique 'Hall Effect' joystick that amazingly worked off of magnetic fields.

While I, Robot was a technical milestone and earned its place in history, the game was a commercial disaster. Initially, it sold only approximately half of the thousand-plus units manufactured. Similar to Atari burying unsold VCS E.T. cartridges in the desert, the rumor of dumping five-hundred I, Robot machines into the Pacific Ocean in transit to Japan still persists. A simplified home version of I, Robot was slated for the Atari 2600 but was ultimately cancelled.

Regardless of I, Robot's failures and accomplishments, it has become a curious snapshot of a time when the fear of war, military occupation and Orwellian totalitarianism weighed heavy in the minds of citizens… even those visiting the local arcade!


Copyright © 2012, GOOD DEAL GAMES