A few years ago I stumbled onto an unlicensed game for the NES. By now you’re probably familiar with the concept of unlicensed NES games. They’ve been covered by all of the greatest gaming personalities over the years. Several vendors back in the days of the NES opted out of Nintendo’s licensing program. At the time, Nintendo had an ironclad list of demands for anyone looking to get their software on its console. Publishers could only publish a limited number of titles a year. Cartridges (called Game Paks) had to be manufactured by Nintendo, and Nintendo was paid for doing so handsomely. To ensure that publishers had to meet their demands, the NES had a chipset that checked to see if the cartridge inside was a legitimate Game Pak. So a number of companies tried to go on their own by circumventing Nintendo’s lockout technology. Some, like Tengen reverse engineered the lockout chip in the console to find a way to get their titles running. American Video Entertainment followed the path of others, using a voltage spike to temporarily disable it. Speaking of voltage spikes, here’s Deathbots.
PROS: The cover art is on par with big box VHS B movie covers.
CONS: Nearly everything else.
WEIRD: The disembodied heads that first appear in stage five.
Originally, an Amiga game, Deathbots is a terrible three-way blend. Combining elements of Berserk, Gauntlet, and Alien Syndrome. You move a robot around in an isometric set of levels. Each of the stages operates in a maze-like fashion, as a vast amount of enemies spawn in to come, and get you. You might not think combining three arcade classics would result in something this terrible. Oh but it is terrible. But how is it terrible? Oh let us count the ways. Let us count the ways indeed.
For starters, the visuals are atrocious. Absolutely atrocious. Sprites are chunky, with muted colors. Some of which are indecipherable. Deathbots looks barely better than games on some of the Golden Age consoles did. One wouldn’t be faulted for thinking this was running on a Colecovision. Backgrounds sometimes blend in with the sprites making it difficult to see them. This becomes problematic because you can’t always see when you are being shot at. Compound that problem, with the fact that there are often times hundreds of things attacking you. Right away things start to feel less, and less playable.
But that’s just the beginning of how horrific this game is. The game continues to fall apart when you realize there are no visual ways to tell that there are finite shots your weapon can fire. Or which weapon you are using. There isn’t a bar listed anywhere while you are playing. Except your health meter of course. But you won’t even realize it is your health meter at first because there are zero words or symbols indicating it. The meter is made of relatively thin rectangles that slowly or quickly turn into periods or hyphens before disappearing. When all of them disappear you’ll see a black screen with a cut scene depicting you clutching your stomach, and keeling over. If this happens four times, you lose. The game gives you three continues, for a total of twelve lives.
It won’t be until you have to pause the game, and accidentally press SELECT that you’ll even realize there is an inventory for ammo. Unless you are one of the few who has a manual. When you do enter the menu, you can cycle through whatever guns you’ve picked up, and whatever explosives you’ve picked up. This is also where you can go through your medical kits to regain some health. You use the D-pad to move, up, and down through the various icons of items you’ve gained while playing. Keep in mind, the game doesn’t simply give you a number of any given item next to the icon. So that means if you’ve picked up five medical kits, you actually have to scroll through five medical kits. The game also doesn’t group these icons together. So if you have five medical kits you need to use, you may find yourself starting from a medical kit. From there, scrolling through fifteen different weapons before you get to the next one. Plus, because during game play you can’t really see any of this, you will be pausing it every thirty seconds. That isn’t hyperbole either. You will chew through ammo, and health like a hot knife through butter.
But it still gets worse from here. Weapon pick ups also vary. There are boxes on the ground with initials, and icons representing them. There is also a second way you can find new weapons. Occasionally you may see a monitor on the wall. Walking up to a monitor will sometimes give you a weapon, other times they will give you an ACCESS DENIED message. If you luck out, and find the former, you can add the weapon to your arsenal. If you forget to go into the inventory menu, there is one other way to tell you’ve run dry. You’ll stop shooting. Which again, is why you’ll be checking the menu every thirty seconds in the first place. But wait! It gets so much worse folks. So much worse.
You see, Deathbots has another huge problem. Collision detection. Or rather the lack thereof. As you run through the stages you will find doors that will open that you won’t be able to walk through. But surprisingly, you will be able to clip through a chunk of wall next to that open door. You’ll be able to run past an enemy with ease. But then one of its clones on the same line of pixels will trip you up. One laser will go through you but count as a hit. Another laser will hit you without visually showing up on the screen. Sometimes you’ll walk over a pick up only to have the game not register that you’ve picked it up. Taking damage feels absolutely arbitrary, as if the game is making up the percentages on the fly. This is where the game becomes nearly unplayable. Worse yet, all of these problems sprout up within the first few minutes of game play.
As for the soundtrack? The music is dreadful. The annoying loop of buzzing, beeps, and screeches almost never stops. In fact, the only time you will experience a brief reprieve, is when you go into your inventory menu. Or if you pause the game. The same awful soundtrack plays in the background of every moment of every stage. The other sound effects aren’t much better. Killing enemies gives off a sound synonymous with early Atari 2600 games. Weapons do have different sound effects to try to differentiate them from each other to some degree. But frankly, it really isn’t much help, as you’ll still be going into the menu to figure it all out. Listening to any sound coming out of this game for more than a few moments will have you muting your television.
Deathbots goes on like this for six stages. There is a very minimalistic storyline about a base built on Alcatraz you need to infiltrate to destroy a robot. But beyond that there really isn’t much of a narrative. Most of it isn’t told through screen text, or cinema screens but rather the box, and manual. Unless you count the elevator doors that show up between stages. But even if you do, you still aren’t going to care. All of the six stages follow a similar pattern. You have to move through the beginning of the area, to get to an exit. The exit is drawn almost like an inverse D-pad. In any case, getting to this exit brings you to the next area of the stage. Each area works the same way. Try to find a path to the tile of floor fitting the description of the exit.
For what little credit I can throw its way, Deathbots does try to add a puzzle element with teleportation devices. In some areas, there are huge chunks of tiles with black outlines on them. Running onto them will place you on another huge chunk of tiles with black outlines on them. Most of these teleport between two specific areas. So in the stages that use them, you’ll need to figure out which teleporters are synchronized. This quickly becomes a case of trial, and error. The problem with this mechanic is that the bad hit detection often can’t tell you’re on a teleporter properly. While you are trying to bounce to the next one, you’ll also be fighting off enemies. Bottom line, if you’re lucky you’ll teleport. If the game doesn’t detect it properly, you’ll be dead from 1000 bad guys surrounding you.
Most of the earlier levels don’t have very many areas. Quickly running through them, and past enemies is a fairly sound strategy. But if you manage to survive the first half of the game, you’ll find the developers at Odyssey shoehorned in a lot of areas. The last few stages go on for eons. Being an action game, each of the stages ends with a giant boss battle. Each of which are poorly designed, and take a ton of punishment before they go down. Not only that, but much like the rest of the game, they give no indication of how injured they are. They don’t flash red. They display no health meter. It’s an entire crapshoot. A couple of the bosses are even cheap palette swaps of earlier bosses. There is a giant robot that does a march. There are blob monsters, there are a couple of electric blasting bell-shaped robots, in addition to the final bosses.
As for the regular enemies that swarm you throughout the game, there are actually a large variety. But, much like the bosses, they are uninspired, and drawn terribly. There are androids that resemble stick figures. There are robots with giant spheres in lieu of legs. There are small bots with tank treads. There are some helicopter robots. Grey boxes that are supposed to resemble robots. But strangest of all, are the weird, floating, disembodied heads. They’re not threatening, or imposing. They’re not well detailed or visually impressive. But they are fascinatingly odd, almost guaranteed to make you wonder what went wrong. If by some miracle you can get through to the game’s end you’ll contend with not one, but two final bosses. If you manage to defeat them, you’ll experience one of the more sub par endings to ever grace the NES. Deathbots is horrible. It’s one of the worst games ever released thanks to its myriad of glitches, and numerous other problems.
Nevertheless, as of this writing it seems to be following the trend of some other notoriously bad games. In that it’s a collector’s item. That is, a certain version of Deathbots is a collector’s item. Before going belly up, American Video Entertainment released the Maxi 15 cartridge. It’s essentially a multicart compiling fifteen of the company’s games on it. Deathbots is one of them. I won’t be going over the Maxi 15 as I don’t have one. But it can fetch a couple of hundred dollars in online auctions. As for the game I do have? Well that’s Deathbots. It isn’t very good. It isn’t worth a lot of money. If you’re morbidly curious, and like collecting fairly esoteric cartridges for your Nintendo Entertainment System you might pick it up. On the other hand, there are so many other things one could better adorn their shelving unit with.
Final Score: 2 out of 10