Rise of the Robots and Journalistic Corruption

This morning, I woke to find, amongst other people, my friend Veerender Jubbal being subjected to the typical hate and abuse that somehow passes me by because, I don’t know, I sleep through a lot of it? Either way, one recurring claim I saw in the twitter feed was that Social Justice folk were bringing with them a corrupting influence, that was causing unethical journalism.

I engaged a few of these people but my patience grows very thin for arguing with fifteen year olds about history and reality. Here, then, is a crash course in a little shard of videogame history.

Back in the early 90s, we dabbled with videogames that used the superior storage of the CD, but it was always being bottlenecked by what a computer could display quickly. You could have fast, fluid animation, or you could have detailed, polished graphics. This meant that the earliest CD-ROM games were point-and-click adventures, or rail shooters – games that didn’t put a lot of strain on the system, didn’t require much fast action or animation. Slowly, we were hitting a point where those games weren’t going to use disks at all – games like Kings Quest V had pushed those limits, with ten disks. With the rising spread of CD drives, we had games like Megarace, Cyberia and Under a Killing Moon, games which used a lot of pre-rendered or filmed footage, but hadn’t really made anything fluid or fast.

4071-under-a-killing-moon-dos-screenshot-questioning-louie-lamintz
Depicted: The Future of Videogames

Come the hype season of 1993, there was a videogame on the horizon called Rise of the Robots. It was a game that used 3d models, that were then turned into 2D sprites, which meant they could look very pretty in the full-motion videos, but still move quickly and fluidly in combat. Rise was one of the first generation of games that required a CD-Rom to play – it was simply too enormous to fit on 3.5 inch floppies. This technique you may recognise as how Donkey Kong Country managed to look so good on the SNES.

It is still funny how seriously we took this cover
It is still funny how seriously we took this cover

If you have the opportunity to handle a real, physical copy of the Rise of the Robots box, you’ll find a lot of praise on it. You’ll see blurbs quoting PC gaming magazines talking about how the game looks great, plays great, how fluid and fast it is, how it has a great story. This advertising was so prominent that it’s also mentioned on the SNES and Amiga ports of the game as well. When Rise of the Robots was near release, Mirage took game reviewers out to lunch, let them play the game early, and talked to them about the game.

Most PC gaming magazines spoke about this game very highly. Just off the top of my head, PC User, PC Gamer and PC Gamer Australia all gave the game 80%+ in their rating systems; some even gave it a 93%, and famously offered the blurb You’ll wish every game you played was this good. Almost all magazines had a review of Rise early to its release, with this glorious media blitz that gave it magazine covers and lots of glossy, high-quality presence on magazine racks.

One month later, the game was out, and one magazine, PC Format, came out with its review, which kicked Rise of the Robots into the toilet as a bug-laden piece of shit. You want to know how bad Rise of the Robots was? This was a 2D-side-set fighter that wanted to compete with Mortal Kombat and One Must Fall where you couldn’t face left. You couldn’t jump over your opponents. You had no selectable characters. The ‘story’ was told entirely through wordless FMVs between fights, with arduous thirty-second loading times. You had one set of moves to memorise, and the AI was buggy enough to fail to spammed moves. Oh, and I have to repeat you couldn’t face left.

The official reason for Mirage was that it was too hard to do all these things. Picking characters, different super moves, AI, all that stuff, just too hard.

Why then did all those other game reviewers comment so glowingly on it? Because they’d played a demo that was given to them for free, and they’d believed Mirage when they’d told them that everything will be fixed when the game is released.

This was in 1994. Multiple gaming outlets played a fucking demo, and praised the game like it was brilliant. This game is now held up as a great and dreadful critical bomb, it was panned on every other system that ran it, it was brutalised in the second wave of reviews that came from its Amiga and SNES ports – with the same problems! – and everyone likes to pretend there weren’t major gaming outlets praising it! And the consequences for this? Nothing.

This corruption is not new. This ethical challenge of games journalists and games publishers is not brought in by these others. This is foundational. This is bedrock. This is what your games industry was built on. You sit atop a throne of lies and 9.8s and endorsements and tie-ins and graft and review copies and you want to talk to me about journalistic ethics? You want to lecture me about video games?

Get out, children.

Oh, one final note. The gaming outlet that refused to accept review copies, the gaming outlet that made the proud decision to play what you played, and bought their games off the shelf? That gaming outlet, PC Format, was helmed under a woman editor.

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