A Rare Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters is Added to the Arcade
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
In the late 1980's to early 1990's Atari Games started making some wild and innovative titles. Not all of them caught arcades on fire, and the dedicated cabinet versions of some of these games can be tough to find today. This renaissance of Atari designers arcade imaginations (Hard Drivin', STUN Runner, Klax) would eventually die out into a blaze of boring fighters (Pit Fighter, Primal Rage) and racing games (Rush) but the sweet spot to me is from 1988-1992. This is when the true innovative odd balls like Rampart, Cyberball, and Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters were brought to life.
My wife declared her interest in Robot Monsters about 2 years ago, and once I showed her photos of the rare dedicated unit she was fairly smitten with the idea of tracking one down. Atari Games only made 371 of the dedicated machines for Robot Monsters. Housed in a cabinet design Atari Games would reuse for many machines during this time frame (Relief Pitcher, Pit Fighter, and many others), the dedicated Robot Monsters has a unique oversized and dramatically shaped marquee that only 2 other very low production games share (The 2 player Cyberball 2072 with only 250 dedicated units manufactured, and the dedicated Skull and Crossbones with only 65 units). Most Robot Monsters games were sold as conversion kits to populate older arcade game cabinets which did not include the amazing oversized marquee. These dedicated versions don't come up for sale very often, and it's hard to say how many of the 371 dedicated versions still exist in a complete fashion.
Adding to its rarity, Robot Monsters uses the legendary and often impossible to find Atari Hall Effect Joysticks. These joysticks allow for 360 degree movement and can be tricky to rebuild. They are analog in nature, and use magnetic fields instead of traditional sensors. Prices for used Hall Effect sticks have become a bit eye watering over the years.
Robot Monsters also included Sanyo 19 EZ model inch monitor (the same ones found in many early 80's Nintendo arcade games), and have a unique slide out drawer for control panel and pcb access. Later games released in this style of cabinet usually came with a 25 inch monitor compared to the 19 inch one here. Our copy of the game comes from a high end collector in Florida, and sports the impossibly low serial number of #17. The coin counter is under 1100 plays (it seems it was vended at some point however), and everything in the game matches the serial number including the Sanyo/Nintendo monitor.
Not able to just leave things alone (HA!) I felt the game needed a little TLC before it could become part of the clan. First the marquee holder needed some mending, it appears at a point it was broken off its bracket and simply screwed in place to the game cabinet. The wood top bracket is a unique two tier design, and we ended up just making a new one since the original was so badly broken. With the rebuilt bracket the marquee will sit correctly flush against the cabinet. The cabinet does have some bruises and bumps but overall is in fairly nice shape.
The control panel overlay has faded from a vivid blue to what can only be described as baby poop green. For some reason this oxidation discolorization (sometimes caused by cigarette smoke) is very common for these Atari Games cabinets. I have ordered a new repo overlay from the fine folks at This Old Game, and once it arrives we will replace the overlay. The side art is in pretty good shape for a 31 year old arcade game, the joysticks have been recently rebuilt, and there are no hardware issues to speak of. Despite a slight bit of burn in, the monitor is bright and vivid. You would be hard pressed to find a better example of this rare game.
The game itself is a fun take on run and gun gameplay much like the Atari classic from 1985 Gauntlet, but with isometric graphics and with fun B-Movie sci-fi themes. There are also some basic RPG elements at work with leveling up your ray gun, collecting items, finding hidden collectables, and rescuing hostages. The game play is very similar to Sega's Alien Syndrome but has much more depth and personality. At several points in the game, you can choose which path to go down adding variety to the levels and traps. These sections include a maze inside a small jet car. Playing with a friend can be more fun, but can also make it easy to trap someone who is on the edge of the screen. The comic book styling really looks great in this game, capturing a vibe that our previous project (Atari's Liberator) couldn't quite pull off in 1982. The hardware design uses two 68000 processors and shares much with another obscure Atari arcade game Thunder Jaws.
One aspect of this game I always thought was odd, was the lack of home video game system conversions. Many Atari Games releases from this era can be found for these systems, even the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System would receive a release of Skull & Crossbones. Released during the 16 bit console wave (Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Atari Lynx) the only home versions of the game would be for home computers. Even the woefully out of date (by 1990-ish) Commodore 64 would get a watered down version of the game.
I personally owned (and still do) the decent Atari ST version of the game which does suffer from a bit of scrolling lag (a common issue with the ST). There have been rumors that an Atari Lynx version was in the works "back in the day" (many of Atari Games arcade titles would make appearances on the Lynx), but so far no prototypes have surfaced.
With my Junior term starting at UW in three weeks, I don't foresee a ton of major projects getting started for the rest of the year. I am hopeful I can finish up my Donkey Kong restoration however. Since the fall term is mostly remote learning thanks to the COVID crisis, I wail also attempt not to get distracted by the projects in waiting and concentrate on my school work. We are also desperately out of room in the arcade upstairs, so this might be the last new arrival for quite sometime. Still it's a fantastic game and a welcome addition to the collection.