Thursday, 30 June 2011

Doctor Robotnik: An appreciation of Old Skool of Evil

Sonic The Hedgehog celebrated his 20th birthday this week. As a child I was very much a Sega convert, though I think even then I knew Mario was much better. But the fast and direct, simplistic gameplay was what made the series such a success and the deviation from it what made later Sonic games completely suck (along with the 3rd Dimension).

Having recently played through the original run (Sonic 1-3 + Sonic & Knuckles) once more on the Xbox Arcade the thing that struck me most was Sonic’s arch nemesis; Dr Robotnik. Sonic now seems very much of his time, not quite a ‘Poochie’

but very much a constructed mascot with irritating early 90’s ‘cool’ and ‘attitude’. Whereas Dr Robotnik is a villain in the classic sense – stupendously ambitious and bombastic and laughably flawed. Much as it is fun to deconstruct 80’s action films, so it goes with Robotnik; as you travel deeper into the world he so desperately wants to conquer, we see the massive contradictions in his approach to defeat Sonic. No, I’m not taking this too seriously.

Whilst Sonic, upon its release in 1991, revolutionised what could be done with a 16bit console, the games are unsurprisingly simple now. But therein lies the charm and the first game in particular still stands up to scrutiny. Simple characters, with obvious motivation placed in imaginative environments – that is what made these early games great and why Nintendo still rules with its run of Mario titles. Despite leaps and bounds in technology, a lot of games still deal with the same simplistic characters and stories – but with the pretension of being proper art. I’m playing GTA IV at the moment and though whilst it is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, I’m not feeling engaged at all. If you just ‘copy’ the real world, is that being creative? And if all your stories are taken from popular film… and shown via cut scene, is that a step forward?
So there is an appeal to the old skool villain, with simple wants and ridiculously complex ways to get them. It’s overblown and laughable and that’s what makes it fun. So in homage to simpler times I’m going to take a look at the major contradiction at the heart of Robotnik and what makes him fun; his massive intellect and the scale of his achievements against the fact he can’t stop a hedgehog that can run quite fast.

First up: Dr Robotnik is smart. With an IQ of 300 you would expect him to have no trouble defeating Sonic. The origin goes that he was the kindly Doctor Kintobor who actually helped develop the shoes that allow Sonic the run so fast. But after a nasty incident he became utterly evil and intent on destroying… everything. His skills with mechanics in particular are a feature of the Sonic games. He has managed to enslave the entire population of Mobius in metallic robots. He has built huge flying warships and even a space station called the ‘Death Egg’. He built a Metal version of Sonic that was even faster than Sonic himself. Some of the zones Sonic visits are factories the size of cities built with the aim of producing robots to destroy sonic. He has even developed TIME TRAVEL. This guy is really, really smart.

So it’s odd that when you actually meet him in the games he can seem, well – a bit stupid. With all that knowledge and experience you would perhaps expect him to have some pretty dastardly schemes up his sleeve. Or at least be a bit more prepared. But no, on playing through the series again, it becomes apparent he’s not quite as smart as we’re led to believe. Here are my favourite appearances, as end of level boss, naturally.

The Car of Death !
Emerald Hill Zone – Sonic 2

After suffering embarrassing defeat in Sonic 1, you would expect Robotnik to come out fighting. Just to show whose boss, y’know. So, in the 12 months he had to plot, what does he dream up? A Car with a spike on the front. And how does he employ this mischievous vehicle? He drives… side to side… very slowly. One of the things about Sonic, other than being fast is that he can jump. Robotnik has clearly forgotten this and has to suffer the embarrassment of getting bopped on the head over and over again. Almost half heartedly, with one hit left he will fire off the spike from the front of the car, but it’s too late. What a waste of time

Spikey Balls of Death!
Starlight Zone – Sonic 1

Here, in classic villain style, Robotnik supplies the tools of his own demise. He clearly didn’t think this through. The basic idea is ok – drop exploding spike balls onto Sonic’s head. That’s a good starting point. Also, fly the ship at a height Sonic cannot reach. Awesome. Now where to hold this battle? How about by some see-saws? And instead of trying to hit Sonic, why not load the spike balls onto the seesaws, thus enabling them to be sprung back up towards the ship? Hmmm, what was that IQ again? What was basically a sound and despicable idea has become and accident waiting to happen, and once again, with little effort, Robotnik is defeated. Back to the drawing board!

Hill Top Zone – Sonic 2

It’s fair to say that constant defeat will damage your confidence. In The Hill Top Zone Robotnik has done a lot right. He’s picked a perilous environment for Sonic, who has to negotiate sheer drops and volatile lava. By the end, Sonic will undoubtedly be pretty knackered – the perfect time to strike. And Robotnik may have a real bastard of a contraption to take him down – but no-one has ever found out. Because, due to what can only be apprehension, Robotnik starts the encounter by popping his head out of the lava for a little look around. No weapons, no movement, just a cheeky nosey round. What was he expecting to see?! Result: another piece of machinery obliterated.

Laser (of death!)
Flying Battery Zone – Sonic & Knuckles

By the 4th game Robotnik had improved. Here was a fool proof plan. Simply trap Sonic (or Tails…) between 2 impenetrable force fields. Then have a laser shoot at him, whilst the gap closes in. Even better, Robotnik gets to stand at the side, chuckling manically. Simple and to the point. Only he is let down by shoddy workmanship (as is often the case). After 6 or 7 blasts the laser, intended to take out Sonic actually ends up blowing up the room and letting him escape. It’s TOO POWERFUL. Oh Robotnik!

Oil Ocean Zone – Sonic 2

The great villains never learn. They never sit down, evaluate what went wrong and build on those lessons learnt. They run on pure instinct, manic enthusiasm. So, sadly, only 2 zones after making himself a sitting duck at Hill Top, Robotnik designs another ship that lies in wait, this time in the oil ocean. Ok, he sends up a shooty laser thing. But, perhaps due to the fact he is hiding in jet black oil, he has to pop his head up and see what’s going on. Hey, maybe Sonic is dead this time?! He has to check. Only to find, no he’s not and, oh dear and now Robotnik is defenceless. Isn’t there an easier way to do this?

Routines (Death by Boredom)
Launch Pad Zone – Sonic 3

I remember being very disappointed as a child with Sonic 3 as I completed it in one day. Playing through again made me realise it wasn’t completely because I was a freakishly good games player for a 10 year old, but that it was perhaps due to the rubbish ‘last’ boss, Robotniks final stand. Perhaps it was due to Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles being designed as one game then split later in development, but the last boss is pants.

After battling through the launch base of Robotniks latest ‘Death Egg’, Sonic manages to grab hold as it takes off, ending up on a small platform underneath the ship. Robotnik appears in a strange ship that fires – you guessed it – LASERS. He’s not put much thought in as they are piss easy to avoid. He also follows the same routine over and over. Left, Right, Left Right. Use your imagination man! After you defeat that contraption he comes back at you with… a giant pair of grabbing hands! Wow. He is easily dispatched, and inexplicably, defeating his tiny ship ends up destroying the entire Death Egg, which Sonic & Knuckles shows us to be the size of city or a planet or something. How did that happen?! To be fair, makes about as much sense as a lucky shot down an exhaust port taking out a space station the size of a moon, so maybe it’s homage.

Robotnik has wildly insane ideas – the majority of which actually come together. But he constantly bottles it at the last moment. Perhaps he’s more a behind the scenes type guy. Perhaps confrontation troubles him. In fairness, later in the series he did actually succeed in killing Sonic – as a franchise that is – with the insane scheme of trapping sonic inside a massive pinball machine. Thus Sonic Spinball was born. And when things couldn’t get any worse – Sonic 3D. It’s crazy to think that Sonic 3D and Goldeneye on the N64 were released less than a year apart.

So there you go, a stupid trip down memory lane in memory of old skool evil. Robotnik, we salute you.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite is where he links past and present together to defeat you like in the Aquatic Ruin zone. The work he had to have done to make those pillars come up out of the ground and then automatically fire arrows when he smashes them with a ginat mallet must've been immense.