With the reimagined Voltron Force returning to the airwaves earlier this year, it was probably only a matter of time before a video game followed suit. Nerd nostalgia is a powerful marketing force, and few 1980s cartoons are as fondly remembered as Voltron, which captivated young audiences with its transforming lions and super robot sensibilities. But even longtime Voltron fans are apt to be turned off by the game's complete lack of imagination, clumsy mechanics, and repetition. It's not a complete disaster, but it sure isn't much fun to play.
Thegame follows the titular robot through four episodes of the original 1980s television series, with each episode being split into four levels bracketed by vintage clips from the show. The plot loosely follows that of the original show and includes familiar moments (such as the climactic battle with the "evil" Voltron). On a superficial level, it's absolutely true to the spirit of the original series. It helps that the material is still pretty strong. The original show remains obscure in Japan because of the proliferation of super robot anime at that time, but the dub really did a great job of mixing in components that should be familiar to Americans without losing the original's distinctly Japanese flavor. As such, Voltron really managed to stand out and shine among its contemporaries, and its original charm has hardly diminished.
But once the game actually starts, the charm and nostalgia is immediately replaced with cheap-looking cel-shaded graphics and average twin-stick-shooting mechanics. The first three missions of each episode are played from the perspective of one of the lions, all of which have one normal attack, one leaping melee attack, and one special attack. They differ in such particulars as speed, durability, and special attack types, but the overall feel remains much the same from machine to machine. It's different enough that you'll find yourself gravitating toward one particular lion, but not enough that you'll want to replay the game with each robot in turn. Right off the bat, the lion missions get a few things wrong, and the biggest is that the attacks really aren't punchy enough. The best shoot-'em-ups combine powerful sound effects with big explosions to create the sense that you're a one-person army. By contrast, Voltron's sound effects are flaccid and uninteresting, and the various beam attacks don't feel particularly powerful. Although enemies explode all over the place, it doesn't feel like you're doing a ton of damage.
The other problem is that the camera sits much too far away from the action, so the lions look less like giant robots and more like Micro Machines. The lack of contrast in the colors also means that these tiny characters occasionally blend into the terrain, making it that much easier to get blindsided. Enemy troopers are particularly annoying in that regard because they really aren't much more than tiny gnats with guns. Sometimes it's actually hard to tell whether the troopers are enemies to be killed or flack to be avoided.
The actual missions are serviceable, but they're all a grind. Typical objectives include "travel to this waypoint" and "kill all these enemies," culminating in a battle with an elite trooper of some sort. Part of the problem is that the enemy mix never really changes from mission to mission, so they all start to blend together after a while, regardless of terrain. Better games introduce new enemy types over time to constantly alter the dynamic of the combat with different moves and special attacks; Voltron's combat is repetitive in comparison. The issue of repetition could have been alleviated by including a wide array of weapon power-ups. Something as simple as picking up a spread attack or an explosive area-of-effect attack would not only help to add a sense of progression through the levels, but it would also make the lions feel more powerful. Such power-ups are as old as the shoot-'em-up genre itself, so it's disappointing that Voltron doesn't show a bit of imagination and stretch beyond the bounds of its canon.
And speaking of a lack of imagination, it's unbelievable that a game starring Voltron doesn't let you actually take control of the titular robot. Instead, each episode's climax is a simple set of timed button presses on offense and defense. You get to choose from one of four attacks, but otherwise, the process is almost entirely automatic. It's a shame because a lot of people are apt to expect an opportunity to actually drive Voltron. What they get is little more than an interactive movie. On top of that, the lack of additional challenges or collectibles means that Voltron is basically a one and done unless you want to try for a high score on the leaderboards. Again, this is a missed opportunity because even simple touches, like the addition of a rating system, can keep the obsessive-compulsive among us playing for an extended period of time. As it is, the only real reason to come back is if you want to play with your friends.
On that note, Voltron does a competent job with its suite of multiplayer options, which includes online quick match functionality, as well as local co-op. Another positive is that the experience is relatively comparable from the multiplayer to single-player modes. In the later levels, the sheer number of bullets that must be avoided makes for a nice challenge in solo mode, while the mania of having four lions onscreen at once helps reduce some of the repetition in multiplayer.
Voltron's main issues are that it's repetitive and it does too little to capitalize on the classic license. It's not broken, but there's very little to actually recommend it beyond some old clips that can be accessed on YouTube. It says something when a Voltron game can't even get the giant robot battles right. It all comes down to the fact that this is the sort of game a dedicated fan will buy on a whim, play for 20 minutes, and put aside forever. Hopefully, that fan isn't you.