Released in 1990 for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System console, Deathbots represents the sole effort of developer Odyssey Digital Entertainment, as published by American Video Entertainment, who produced a number of other unlicensed cartridges for the NES console.
Deathbots is a top-down action game that scrolls in multiple directions, spanning multiple rooms per stage, of which there are eight. According to the plot for this title, machines have taken over the planet and given the world’s governments an ultimatum: Destroy all your weapons and submit to our leadership, or we will drop continent-devastating gamma bombs all over Earth. As a show of force, they have already obliterated Australia. Sorry, Australia.
Humankind’s last hope is a suit of armor, much like from Iron Man, in which one lone warrior has been bolted into. This champion must now descend the eight floors of the death-robot base in order to find the stock of gamma bombs and disintegrate them.
Towards this end, the player is given five lives (“recharges”) and three continues. The player also has a meter of hit points, which can be partially regenerated through the use of batteries gathered throughout the gameplay. Every new floor presents a new color-themed environment, complete with its own requisite deathbots in varying styles of differing strength. The floor ends with a boss fight, usually featuring a giant robot variant or big alien thingy.
But what hope does the player have, fending against hundreds of enemy robots across massive levels, even with so many extra lives and health-restoring opportunities? The answer: A nifty inventory system, that allows the character to carry up to 15 items, a mix of batteries, guns, grenades, etc. Guns are assigned to the A button, and vary in their range and power; the B button, in the meantime, is used to toss grenades.
The player, then, is charged with the strategic maintenance of 15 ideal items, and knowing when to switch to the most powerful guns, or when to rely on the trusty blaster pistol. Since the stages are designed with optional paths, such as a hall that leads to grenades but has bots guarding it, the player is often free to make tactical choices, weighing the consequence of damage against the benefit of added firepower.
This player empowerment, along with generous item grabs and customization, could make for a fantastic game concept. However, unfortunately, Deathbots is hopelessly bogged down with technical weight and brokenness.
Doors open and close at arbitrary times, regardless of any player input. Both the player and the enemy characters can sometimes walk through walls, usually close to doors that have opened at least once. The floor teleporters sometimes malfunction, or are too sensitive, or are placed in really stupid spots. Guns have limited ammo, but no signal when that ammo runs out. Collision detection seems random, difficult to discern. Batteries are more scarce than they should be, since they restory only about a fifth of the player-character’s health.
The in-game universe size, weapon variety, inventory system, and at-its-core idea speak to Deathbots having wonderful potential. But, in actually playing it, one gets the sense that a small team was ultimately unable to overtake their 8-bit technical boundaries, figure out effective workarounds for tough coding, or come up with better lay-outs for the levels. Because, seriously, it is not much fun to have to walk down yet another narrow corridor with a half-dozen robots spraying lasers at you.
The visuals are actually not terrible. Some of the robot designs are kinda neat, like the giant face types in level 5 that turn into an eerie orange-red skull just before they die. That is cool. What is not cool, though, are the recycled boss designs, the tile-based repetitiveness some of the larger levels feel sterile and stifled because of, and the piddly projectiles. While Deathbots can be commended for its lack of slowdown and flickering, given how many sprites it handles on-screen at once, it is not gone altogether, and can flare up at rather inconvenient moments. The between-stages elevator “cutscene” is… an interesting touch.
The sound effects are awful. Pausing the game brings a tinny, whiny, grindy high-pitched noise better suited for a Color Dreams title. The gunshots do not feel satisfying, largely because of their crappy noise effects. Even the music, although a step up from the sound department, is still mired in mediocrity and basicness.
Again: Some of the foundational concepts under Deathbots are good, solid places to start. Even some of the quirks, like the occasional computer station that grants an additional weapon to grab, offer intriguing possibilities. At least, that is, in a conceptual sense – in terms of actual execution, Deathbots exhibits too much half-assery and not enough full-assery. The team that made this game needed a better level designer and a better programmer or two, to say the very least, before they even had a chance to make something great. What we got is simply that is not quite as terrible as some make it out to be, but would have to be forgiven for many sins in order to be considered much good.
Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars.