Feb 3, 2015

Game Review: Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1985)

After searching for years, I finally found a downloadable copy of Voltron: Defender of the Universe for Commodore 64. It's not the most entertaining or most polished but, for a child of the Eighties and a retro-gamer, this poorly-marketed game was quite a find.

Voltron was developed by Activision, the same studio that released Transformers: Battle to Save the Earth a year later. It was supposedly the Voltron game that landed them the Transformers contract instead of Denton Studio, which had already done one Transformers game already. But enough history for now.

The story is pretty simple. You're Keith, leader of the Voltron Force and pilot of the Black Lion, the center piece in the combined Voltron robot. You're fighting against King Zarkon's latest barrage of robeasts, which are coming hard and fast at the planet Arus, home of Princess Allura and the Voltron Force. And…

That's it. There's nothing more to the story than there is in any given episode of the show. It's as run-of-the-mill as it ever got. There's no precious ore or new power source or secret weapon at stake. Just Zarkon, his crazy son Lotor, and Hagar, who comes on scream to shout a bunch of @#*&$ at you every time you kill a robeast.

Gameplay is tied to the transforming nature of Voltron itself, and maybe too much so. Every time the lions are summoned, there's a scene of each leaving its lair that can be interrupted by the robeast. If that happens, you pilot whatever lion and shoot at the robeast until it allows you to pass, taking some of its hit points out along the way. Each lion's weapon is a laser beams that matches the lion's color, which is kind of disappointing. Fire or water or sand or whatever would have been a nice touch, but I digress.

If you get beat during this round, the game re-starts the scenes of the lions flying out of their lairs, meaning that there's another chance the robeast could interrupt the transformation process again. As you can imagine, this can get tedious. Thankfully, most of these random rounds come down to whether you can mash the fire buttons quickly enough and are hard to lose.

Once the lions come together, you're treated to a really blocky but shot-for-shot version of the lions forming Voltron. You can tell that this game was before a lot of studios really started taking advantage of the C64's awesome sound capabilities, as the voicing is, at best, odd. Keith sounds like a profoundly obese man with a learning disability:


Honestly, it makes you wonder if some people from a nearby care facility escaped and took the lions on a joy ride.

Anyway, once formed, Voltron engages the robeast mano a mano. The left ⅓ of the screens is your control panel, and shows your current hit points and a silhouette of Voltron with different dots representing all of his weapons. Once you complete a round of button-mashing, the fight pauses and you can choose a different weapon to button-mash with.

Most of the weapons from the show are represented: spinning lasers, flying lion heads, foot missiles, eye beams, weird chest cross thing. The blazing sword is only available once the robeast's life falls to 25% and, as with all the other weapons, you have to mash the fire button in order to land it. None of the weapons look all that different from one another and they all sound more or less alike: a really muddy shooting sound and a rumbling explosion if it hits. Good god, did these guys know the C64 had awesome sound capabilities at all?

Winning the game is still a mystery. The text file included in the download, supposedly a transcription of the paper manual that came with the game, says you'll end up confronting Zarkon and Lotor after beating a series of robeasts. But I played for over an hour and never saw anything but more and more robeasts, sometimes with different colors or names, like “Super Cyberclops” for “Cyberclops” or “Ultra Leo” for “Evil Leo.” It was almost like it had a bank of names and bodies and color schemes that it could mix or match, but I know that's way beyond the technology of the time.

In any case, the game was boring. The greatest value is in the nostalgia. It's easy to see both why this game was never marketed widely and how this studio, a year later, released the Transformers game to disappointing reviews and sluggish sales.

If you're a fan of anime or giant robots, this game is worth checking out. Since it's free, there's really no downside to downloading it and giving it a spin. But don't count on it to keep your curiosity piqued or give you something to do for a any length of time. It's the opposite of engaging.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe
Rating: ★★
Genre: FPS, single-player
Platform: Commodore 64
Format: 5.25" floppy disks
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Release Year: 1985
Ages 8 and up

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