Effectively, Robomaze II was the first Robomaze game. It takes place in a massive building called the Tower. Robomaze I was set in the basement, and it never saw release outside a bundle collection. That doesn’t matter too much because this one jumps right in.
In Robomaze II, the player controls a robot under the command of freedom fighters from the Resistance taking down a repressive dictator by battling through his tower, one floor at a time. The setup is ripe for potential for interesting level designs. Each floor is on a single screen, which lends itself to rapid-fire progression as you scale up the Tower, climbing over office furniture as you lay waste to the dictator’s army of killer robots.
This is a very particular game though, and that doesn’t always lend itself well to the high-rise platforming in Robomaze II.
The rooms in the tower are sharply and realistically adorned like an 80s office building with water coolers, filing cabinets, desks, hanging plants, and windows. They’ll react as you shoot them or pass by them. My favorite interactive object is the office water cooler exploding when shot through. Between those animations, the killer robots, and the fluorescent EGA color palette, the Tower feels brisk and lively (and even cute!) as you power through it.
The catch is that as lively as the game is, it isn’t built in mind for a robot to run and jump through. The collisions can be too sensitive. In one common example, moving elevator platforms will start and stop with barely enough clearance to get on or off them. If you miss boarding the elevator, you’ll get crushed, taking damage.
A bigger problem that exacerbates this (though it has an entertaining solution) is the the controls. Robomaze II has support for both keyboards and joysticks, but the keyboard controls were clearly secondary. The game uses separate key to stop and start your movement, like recentering a joystick, so you have to get used to pressing the down arrow key to stop moving. Additionally – and this may be the most aggravating part of the game – touching any wall will stop you in your tracks. If you’re jumping across a gap and tap the ceiling, you fall to your doom. Heading up stairs? Be prepared to restart your movement every time. If you need to hop up in a hallway with a low ceiling, you’ll have to press jump and move buttons at the exact right moment to pass through.
The hilarious way around this is to repeatedly jam on the movement keys, like you’re firing a machine gun for your legs. It could feel so satisfying to do this on a big chunky old keyboard that makes a heavy clicking noise, but it certainly didn’t have to be this way.
The unfortunate result of this combination of issues with the controls, the movement physics, the slightly misproportioned level design is that your robot can bump into a wall and fall down a pit, or you’ll barely miss getting off an elevator and be crushed to death. If you die, you go back to the nearest checkpoint. These usually come every five rooms. That’s a forgiving frequency, but when you hit a room with a particularly poorly laid-out obstacle, elevator, or pit, that creates a bottleneck that sends you back… over and over.
As you can imagine, this becomes frustrating. Especially when the rest of the three episodes of Robomaze II are cleverly constructed and breezy to run through. The water cooler is actually a great symbol for Robomaze II – fun to interact with on your way through, annoying to jump over.
(This post was substantially revised on June 5, 2019.)