The RoboCop franchise has struck a fine mix between the emotional conflicts that arise when a person gives up (both voluntarily and involuntarily in RoboCop's case) part of his humanity in the name of duty and the thrilling action afforded by a more-than-human protagonist who is more than eager to bust the backsides of crime-committing punks.
As a result, it enjoyed tremendous commercial success, with products ranging from (more) (mostly-)live-action movies and comic books to, of course, video games.
One of these video games happen to be (simply called) RoboCop, ported from the arcades to the NES in 1989.
However, if a player approaches this game with the intention of looking for the drama of the RoboCop franchise, namely RoboCop's internal conflicts with balancing compromises and strict interpretations of his assigned duties, then he/she is looking at the wrong place. This game is concerned with the thrill and danger inherent in RoboCop's line of work, and little else.
The game doesn't even offer a proper introduction to the setting of the game; after selecting the choice of either starting a new game or "continuing" one where the player has left off after having suffered a game-over, the player is treated to some 8-bit stills of Robocop gearing himself up for the next raid, but that is it.
RoboCop is then inserted into the first level, which seems like the slums district of Detroit - the kind of place that RoboCop would patrol everyday looking for punks to beat up and teach a lesson to.
Part of the screen consists of indicators that show how much time that RoboCop has left before his mission ends in the typical "time-over", his structural integrity (that is, his hitpoints) and the current weapon equipped (and available ammunition, if applicable).
The rest of the indicators does not seem to do much and appear to have just been placed there just to make the rest of the display look cool.
In every level of this game, RoboCop is required to move from left to right, while being accosted by all manner of jerks, stray animals and the occasional machine programmed with evil intentions. Oddly enough, RoboCop does not need to take down all of them, and any one that does get taken down does not be rendered under arrest (despite the intro 'cutscene' suggesting that he is supposed to arrest some perpetrators of crime).
In fact, he can even move past most of them and let them disappear off the edge of the screen behind him.
Furthermore, despite canonically having an armored body that has plenty of reinforced titanium and other kinds of exotic alloys that have been shown (on TV) to be able to drive a furrow through a fast-moving multi-ton truck by simply standing in its way, RoboCop is susceptible to kicks and punches from fully human punks and even the pounces of attack dogs.
Fans of the RoboCop franchise are going to have a hard time not expressing their disbelief at how pathetic this video game RoboCop is compared to the film version. If it is not apparent already, Data East, which is the developer, could not care less about staying true to RoboCop's character design.
What Data East did follow diligently is how clunky and slow RoboCop is. He moves very, very slowly if compared to most enemies in the game, who can leap and pounce into his face and whom he just cannot evade at all. He has to either punch/shoot them down or assume a guarding posture (which will cause enemy attacks to move past him harmlessly).
At least Data East had bothered to faithfully recreate his likeness for his 2-D sprite in this game. RoboCop is definitely recognizable as the cyborg cop that he is, and he animates quite well (if rather slowly).
RoboCop has a quick and rapid punching animation (surprisingly enough), but the part of his sprite that is his fist must connect with enemies' sprites. RoboCop tends to be mobbed by more than one enemy at a time, and he can ever only defend against or attack one of them at a time. This can lead to a lot of hits on RoboCop that would feel very cheap.
RoboCop does have an auto-pistol and access to other weapons, but he can only use this at certain moments in the game. These moments do appear appropriate enough for him to resort to this greater application of violent force, e.g. increased presence of enemy forces and armed criminals, and the moments when he cannot also do appear well-timed, e.g. he holsters his weapon when entering private property and in places where using a fire-arm just goes against logic and safety concerns. (The holstering animation has also been created quite well, thankfully.)
While this game doesn't have much in the way of efficient controls, they do work as expected when performed and there are no severe glitches to be had.
As mentioned earlier, enemies in the game are mostly human, with the bulk of them being punks who run up to RoboCop attempting to attack with punches and kicks. They would be easy to handle if not for the fact that there tends to be too many of them coming at RoboCop.
Other rarer enemies are armed perpetrators, often appearing out of windows that RoboCop can shoot at. (Fortunately, RoboCop's guarding posture can block most projectiles, and even the occasional burst of flames.)
There are a lot of repeated sprites in this game, as can be expected from a game that tries to be a beat-'em-up-cum-shoot-'em-up. It can be a bit tiresome to have to fight the same kind of enemies level after level (e.g. there are a LOT of goons who run up to RoboCop to be either by-passed with a guarding posture or getting punched down), but at least the game designers have designed their sprites to have significant contrast with the rest of the screen. (On the other hand, a lot of perpetrators happen to be wearing orange and purple singlets for some reason.)
The bosses are perhaps the more interesting of the fights that RoboCop gets into. For example, one of the boss fights involve a hostage stand-off, in which a perpetrator is using a hostage as cover and the player has to time RoboCop's shots together with that of the boss's own.
The first boss fight is an exception, however, as it highlights how cheaply easy certain hostile encounters can be. RoboCop's punches may not be able to take out droves of enemies at once, but each punch, if it doesn't knock out the enemy outright, apparently stuns him/it long enough for RoboCop to throw another. In other words, if RoboCop can get close enough, that opponent is pretty much doomed to a beat-down unless he has been scripted to evade after a certain amount of damage has been dealt.
This skew in the range of difficulty of hostile encounters can be jarring to a player who is not experienced in playing this game.
The missions that occur outdoors tend to be straightforward affairs of going from "point A" to "point B". These sequences can be dull, and they are made more so as backgrounds tend to repeat a lot while outdoors. Thankfully, for the most part, they do look appropriate to the theme of the level in play: slum areas will have buildings that are dilapidated or half-constructed, for example.
Yet, the bulk of the game occurs indoors. Some of them are the usual sort that require the protagonist to simply go from one end of the level to the other. Some others are more labyrinthine, hiding collectibles that the player has to work to reach.
For better or worse, an early indoors level in the game is the highlight of such a level design. In this one, going into the wrong door can lead to RoboCop being caught in a death-trap that, if it doesn't kill RoboCop outright, saps away time and health from RoboCop. Yet, there are other minor rooms that hide all sorts of goodies.
Generally, indoor levels lack any clear indication of where RoboCop should go to in order to get to the end. For levels with more bewildering layouts, the player will have to resort to several playthroughs of that level to figure out where to go, which can be frustrating to those who lack the perseverance to do so.
The indoor levels compensate by having much better looking textures and backgrounds, though it can be hard to recognize places such as a warehouse without having watched the cutscenes that occur in between levels.
There are a limited number of collectibles in the game that are intended to aid the player in completing RoboCop's missions.
Time bonuses extends the time that RoboCop has remaining to complete the current level. (It is worth noting here that Data East had intended to mask this timer as his remaining energy charges and had designed these power-ups to look like batteries, but for all purposes, they really have no other function as timer boosters.)
Health pick-ups apparently appear as bottles of the organic paste that RoboCop canonically has to eat to sustain his internal organs. There are two variants, which have been conveniently coloured differently for contrast, one of which offers more health than the other. For most of the game, these health pick-ups appear satisfactorily frequently for a careful player to recover and continue playing without a hitch.
As mentioned earlier, RoboCop's default weapon is his fists. In addition to punching the lights out of perpetrators, he can use it to punch through false walls whenever he detects them or other obstacles. However, for more serious damage, he will have to resort to his fire-arms.
His default gun, which is the auto-pistol, merely fires in short bursts, making it quite useless to compensate for RoboCop's fists when there are lot of enemies that have to be taken down. On the other hand, it is the most economical weapon to use against regular goons, or when an enemy has an attack pattern that can be exploited efficiently without resorting to other weapons.
Other guns include an assault rifle that has a substantially greater rate of fire (which happens to be convenient for static enemies) and an anti-armour rifle that is useful for delivering a quick, powerful hit. Ammunition for these weapons are scarce, so the player has to make do with the much less potent auto-pistol (which has unlimited ammunition).
These items would be handy to collect, if not for the apparent difficulty in getting RoboCop into the right spot to duck and trigger their collection; they require RoboCop's sprite to be very much centered over them.
This difficulty also extends to how RoboCop interacts with staircases. Going up staircases is not much of a problem, but going down one from a platform above it is a huge pain. RoboCop's sprite has to be centered over some unclear portion of the top of the model for the staircase, leading to a lot of wasted time as the player attempts to figure out the right place for RoboCop to stand over.
Enemies, much like those in other NES games of the time, tend to respawn if the player character backtracks and returns to a location that had been reached earlier. Considering that most of them are a waste of time and effort to take down, it is often easier to just move on to the next part of the level as quickly as possible as this removes the presence of any enemies on-screen while the transition animations play. This is expedient, yet it does detract from the themes of the RoboCop franchise; he is not one to simply ignore criminals.
There are target training sessions in between every two levels that give opportunities to the player to earn "extra lives" by shooting targets that appear on-screen. The cursor here has to be controlled with the NES controller, and while this isn't a very good control scheme (at the time), RoboCop auto-pistol does fire bursts that can be hovered across targets to hit them.
Yet, these "extra lives" are not clearly indicated on-screen. Players will have to keep their own tally of these "extra lives". On the other hand, these extra lives do not work like those in other NES games, where the player character typically gets booted back to a previously passed checkpoint.
Whenever RoboCop loses all of his health or runs out of time, he appears to falls to his knees, falter and then gets back up again like the very determined cop that we know and admire. An "extra life" gets expended behind the scenes, and RoboCop returns with full health and time.
The game makes use of the theme song of RoboCop's first film - for every level. While catchy (especially more so after having been strained through 8-bit filters), it won't be long before the sense of repetition sets in. Boss battles have a separate soundtrack, but again this uses a filtered version of one of the soundtracks from the film.
The sound effects in the game are much more satisfying to listen to, however. Gun-fire is particularly beefy and distinct, even for an 8-bit game. RoboCop's punches have some weird, rasping sound effect for it, but having them connect with goons result in sound effects that would provide cause for a little glee.
As for the story of the game, it follows the events in the first RoboCop film somewhat loosely. Developments in the story are told through sparsely animated cutscenes and more often than not, close-ups of RoboCop's head. This reviewer does not find them to pay good tribute to the film.
It should be clear by now that this game is really only intended for those who just adore RoboCop and cannot get enough of him. It is a functional game, but the more cynical of players would likely brush it off as a deficient combination of Contra and Double Dragon.