Rise of the Robots tainted nearly everything it touched. This absolute car crash of a beat ‘em up ruined many a Christmas, as kids who’d looked forward to it all year, whipped into a froth by breathless magazine coverage, fired up the game on a snowy morning only to discover... it was awful. The game destroyed the reputation of its developer, Mirage, which went bankrupt not too long afterwards. And the reputation the game had acquired prior to release led everyone to wonder... had these magazines even played it?
It all began in 1993, when screenshots and videos of Rise of the Robots first began to appear in the wild. The game graced issue three of EDGE in November 1993 with the cover line “Graphics to die for,” and inside was an eight-page feature on its development. Time Warner Interactive swooped in to scoop up the publishing rights, and decided to launch Rise of the Robots on as many formats as possible. The game was originally going to come out for just the Amiga and PC, but now it would also appear on SNES, Mega Drive, 3DO, Amiga CD32, Philips CD-i, Mega CD and even the humble Game Gear.
The hype train had left the station, and there was talk of tie-in comics, toys, a novel, even a movie. And Brian May from Queen was going to do the soundtrack. Brian May!
Rise of the Robots made its initial impact thanks to its then-unbelievable graphics. Bear in mind that, at this time, the vast majority of console games were still pixelly 16-bit affairs, so ROR’s shiny, rendered robots looked like something beamed in from the future. “How is this possible?” gasped teenagers up and down the country, gripping the magazine more tightly in their hands, nose almost touching the page, drinking in those gorgeous visuals.
Most memorably, for me at least, the ITV video game show Bad Influence gave over a big chunk of its Christmas 1993 episode to explaining how the graphics in ROR were created, using new-fangled things like wireframe models and procedurally generated animation (OK: wireframe models weren’t exactly new, but at a time when most games featured 2D sprites, it was still fairly unusual to see them. And particularly unusual to see them covered in lovely shiny robot skin.)
Violet Berlin! Andy Crane! Those were the days. Wonder what they’re doing now?
To give a bit of context to the anticipation for Rise of the Robots, we have to remember that this was the peak of the 2D beat ‘em up craze. The SNES version of Street Fighter II had been released to universal acclaim the year before (1992), and Mortal Kombat had just hit consoles and was selling like hot cakes. It was a bit like the current craze for battle royale: every publisher was working on a beat ‘em up of their own to try and cash in.
At the same time, computer graphics had been advancing at a phenomenal rate. Feature films were starting to embrace CGI in place of practical effects, and the computer-generated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, released in 1993, absolutely blew people’s minds. People talked in awed whispers about the phenomenally powerful Silicon Graphics workstations that could generate effects like the T-1000 melting in Terminator 2. And then along came Rise of the Robots with its fancy shiny graphics, promising that gamers could soon have a game with movie-quality visuals ON THEIR AMIGA! It all seemed too good to be true.
And, of course, it was.
Amiga Power set the first alarm bells ringing back in their December 1993 issue, which featured a preview of ROR. At the time the game was set for release in February 1994, and AP writer Cam Winstanley thought it a little suspicious that there wasn’t a playable build of the game: “The thing is though, either Mirage are keeping the game close to their chests by not showing us any playable demos, or they’re going to have to get their skates on to finish it by early next year.”
Jonathan Davies, who was editor of Amiga Power in 1994, recalls being invited to Mirage’s offices to see the game. “There was much excited talk of the vast amount of painstaking work going into the graphics — it was billed as one of the first games to use sprites rendered on a computer rather than drawn by hand — and also the AI, which was going to cunningly learn from your playing style. I don’t recall any mention of how all this was going to make the game fun to play. But, hey, surely they wouldn’t have forgotten that, would they?”
The game was being developed by a tiny five-person team at Mirage, led by ex-Bitmap Brother Sean Griffiths. They had never made a fighting game before. Indeed, as far as I can ascertain, the majority of the team — coders Andy Clark and Gary Leach, and artists Sean Naden and Kwan Lee — had never even worked on a commercial game before. In hindsight, it would have been a tall order for them to come up with a Street Fighter II-beater, let alone one using next-generation graphics.
Regardless the hype train rumbled on even after the game missed its February 1994 release date, and it would be delayed all the way through the year. Eventually it was scheduled for release on Amiga in November 1994, with other formats to follow a few months later.
Jonathan Davies recalls that a review copy of Rise of the Robots arrived in the Amiga Power office just a couple of days before the game’s commercial release. “This was unusual,” he says. “Normally we’d receive finished code for review as early as a game’s publisher could manage it, usually on pre-production disks, so AP’s verdict could be on newsagent shelves at roughly the same time as the game went on sale. Last-minute boxed review copies were a rare sight in the AP office. Our suspicions were duly aroused.”
That's 5%, not 5/10
“And, sure enough, after we’d finally finished slogging through the five floppy disk intro sequence, our heads sank in despair. Banal, repetitive combat. Embarrassing limitations — only six opponents, which couldn’t be jumped over to escape their attacks. In two-player battles, one player always had to be the same character. Zero atmosphere or excitement. And, worst of all, shocking playtest oversights – for example, you could defeat pretty much any opponent just by holding up, right and fire while you filed your nails or something.”
The game was abysmal. And not only that, it came on 13 floppy disks, which had to be swapped every time you fought a different character. The game’s much talked-about AI system turned out to be all talk, because every opponent was left utterly helpless against repeated flying kicks. The Brian May soundtrack amounted to a snippet of one track playing on the menu screen, and even that was taken from a previous album. The tie-in novel finally appeared in February 1995, long after the hype bubble had burst — and the toys, comics and film never materialised at all.
Kim Justice has done an excellent video on the history of ROR that’s well worth a watch.
“It wasn’t ‘so bad it was funny’, it was just depressing,” says Jonathan Davies. “It cast a cloud over our whole Christmas. We gave Rise of the Robots 5 per cent, one of AP’s lowest ever scores. But it was too late: by the time our review appeared, Rise of the Robots was already soaring up the sales charts, spurred on by bafflingly high scores in the handful of magazines that had been given early access to review copies.”
Indeed, despite its awfulness, Rise of the Robots was a smash hit on its release — presumably because gamers had bought into the hype and were pre-ordering it in their droves. Just my opinion, but this is an early example of why you should never pre-order a game.
And it might also be that buyers were mislead by some bafflingly flattering reviews of the game that appeared around the release. Here’s a quick rundown of some ROR review scores to give you the gist:
- CVG — 91%
- Amiga Joker — 91%
- CU Amiga Magazine — 80%
- Amiga Concept — 73%
- The One Amiga — 59%
- Electronic Gaming Monthly — 44%
- Computer Gaming World — 40%
- Amiga Power — 5%
Quite the spread, huh? Stuart Campbell, former Amiga Power writer, gave his own view on the discrepancy in an ‘Open letter to the Games Industry’ dated December 1994. Do prepare yourself for some strong language:
“...how come this slimy turd from a dead dog's arse managed to score more than one 90% review? Didn't any of the reviewers notice either? Or has the single word 'Exclusive' really come to represent the entire text of the reviewers' Holy Bible? How, in 1994, can a game score 3%, 5%, 19%, 20%, 33% and 35% in six reviews in very different magazines covering five different formats, and 90% and 92% in two other ones? 'Personal opinion' really doesn't cover it in this instance, does it? I won't name the reviewer who, when I quizzed him about the surprising nature of his high score, gave the response "Arms were twisted... let's leave it at that," but perhaps the practice of reviewing games at the publisher's office with the entire PR department looking over the reviewer's shoulder is becoming a little, shall we say, unreliable? Or is it just paranoia on my part to think that there's maybe something a little sinister going on when the supposed release of the year isn't shown to any magazines before it hits the shelves, save for one or two "arm-twisted" exclusives, coincidentally generating scores five to 30 times those of most other reliable reviews? Scared of something, are we?”
Needless to say, the whole episode brought into question the reliability of reviews from certain magazines, particularly when associated with the word ‘exclusive’. Jonathan Davies muses that thankfully a few things have changed since 1994 — and even the ROR farrago had a tiny silver lining. “I take solace from two things. First, it could never happen these days. Instant online reviews, forums and social media mean there’s no hiding place for crap games. And second, a couple of weeks after we’d dropped our thirteen Rise of the Robots floppy discs into the AP bin, another beat-’em-up turned up in the postbag. It arrived with no fanfare whatsoever, developed on a tiny budget by an Italian studio we’d never heard of. But Shadow Fighter was some of the best fun we’d ever had — a million miles from Rise of the Robots — earning a well-deserved 91% and restoring our faith in Amiga beat-’em-ups.”
There was no happy ending for Mirage though. It followed up ROR with a sequel, Rise 2: Resurrection that marginally improved on the original. But gamers wouldn’t be fooled twice, and it bombed at retail. After a couple more low-key releases, the developer folded in 1997.
And never again would consumers be fooled into buying a game based on graphics alone. Right?