Planet of the Robots (1981)   3 comments

From Softdisk, Issue 1, October 1981.

In the genre of magazines-on-disk-or-tape, we’ve so far experienced CLOAD (for TRS-80) and CURSOR (for Commodore PET). We could also reasonably count the Softside Adventure of the Month even though that counts more as a single-game subscription service, and we could stretch to include Micro-Fantasy Magazine although no copies of that has ever surfaced and it may have been vaporware.

Softdisk, which started on Apple II in September 1981, is similar but different.

Softdisk December 1981, which will be the issue important for today.





At least in the era we’re talking about, it was almost a “community magazine”. While this is another publication on disk, to get any issues past an initial disk, subscribers would send back their disks to receive a new one. Rather like CLOAD and CURSOR, there were user-written programs:


Rather unlike the other two, there was “magazine-like” content on the disk itself, and some of it was collated directly from those returned disks. Issue 1 had a survey about piracy…

and there were “classifieds”.

A good analogy might be to the various “exchanges” that were popping up in local places. Call-A.P.P.L.E., started in 1978, has the acronym deconstruct to “Apple Pugetsound Program Library Exchange”. Their publication was not by any means a “magazine on disk” but they still served as an informal community distribution outlet, and plenty of other local groups with no associated magazine at all existed (like Rhode Island in the late 70s and Sydney’s in the late 80s). The difference is that Softdisk was entirely “virtual” — as much as having disks traded back and forth by mail is virtual — not associated with a physical group at its origin locale of Louisiana.

The whole enterprise was the brainchild of Jim Mangham, who wanted to place ads for what he was calling The Harbinger Magazette in the Apple II magazine Softalk (one that was free for Apple users and funded entirely by advertising). Al Tommervik (who ran Softalk) liked the idea enough to agree to be a partner, leading to the magazine being renamed Softdisk to be considered a parallel publication. This ended up being trouble when Softalk went under in 1984 but not Softdisk; Mangham bought back the shares in order to re-separate, although this connection helped jump-start the original subscription numbers.

The subscription service eventually extended to C64 (Loadstar) and PC (Big Blue Disk). The Softdisk family are the most important of the early diskmags, in not just longevity (chugging until the late 90s), but also becoming the launching point for both Apogee and id Software.

Screenshot from 1989’s Catacomb as published by Softdisk, made with the involvement of Tom Hall, John Romero, John Carmack, and Adrian Carmack. Two years later all four were part of the founding of id software.

Issues 0 (September 1981) through 2 (November 1981) have nothing resembling a game. Issue 3 has a handful, including Keno and a Simon clone, and it also includes Planet of the Robots, essentially Softdisk’s first original game.

In other words, even for someone not interested in adventure games this is an important moment in gaming history.

Dan Tobias describes himself as a “charter member” of the publication and worked off and on for Softdisk, including even in the 2000s when it tried to pivot to being an internet service provider as opposed to a software distributor. This is, as noted earlier, back when no money was involved, but his involvement led to his getting a job in 1984 for the launch of Loadstar, which ended up including a “reprint” of his game Planet of the Robots.

The premise involves a “time warp” having transported you into the future where humans have been wiped out, but the robots that remain aren’t aware this has happened. You start outside a mall which includes a restaurant and clothing store and other things which robots clearly have no need of.

The “humans are all dead, but the robots keep going on” premise makes the game tragic and comedic at the same time. I admit I was originally still expected something styled after Forbidden City with lots of robot combat, especially since the first item I found was a ray gun, but there’s only two moments where there is a “berserk robot” you have to shoot. Otherwise all robots have a force field and can’t be hurt.

This is after I shot a “robot clerk” at the robot. The “defendant” prompt lets you type GUILTY or NOT GUILTY, but either way you end up electrocuted.

Ignoring the mall for the moment, I found a “city hall” with two guards requiring ID, a working subway, a library with a book explaining how to log on to future-Internet and check census data, a “university” which asked about a room number I wanted to see, and a plain destroyed by a bomb blast.

The plain was a small maze that intentionally foils the ability to drop objects (they fall into cracks in the ground) so you just have to wander, but fortunately it is easy to find the only intact structure, a phone booth that has over $100 in cash. The cash can then be toted back to the mall for some shopping.

Some items, like a comic (THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERROBOT) are entirely fluff. The only useful thing to buy is the tie, which lets you get into the restaurant (otherwise a robot stops you). Once in the restaurant, rather like a similar scene in Time Zone, the idea is to order something too expensive and get into trouble. The catch here (or at least thing that makes the puzzle easier) is that everything is too expensive.

This whole sequence land you in jail, but the bars are incredibly fragile and you can just bend your way out, and the guard robots don’t seem to care (I assume the bad maintenance is due to the humans being dead, so this is another moment of tragicomedy). Breaking out of jail lands you near an ID card which you can then use to sneak upstairs in city hall and get some login information and a room number of the university. You can then go over back to the mall and the computer with an Apple X and take it for a test run, getting a door code in the process.

The room number and door code be carted back to the university in order to find a time machine, which can then be used to warp back safely to the 20th century (you actually get to choose exactly when, so if you hate the 80s you can go straight to the 90s, say).

This game was clearly intended as minimal but still managed to eke out some fascinating interaction in the process. The premise of an aging robot civilization was interesting enough in itself to allow the bar-bending puzzle to be simultaneously a moment of puzzle-solving and a moment of tragic world-building at the same time.

Mr. Tobias returned the next month with another text adventure, so we’re not done with him yet.

This action “game” in the arcade moves very slow and you just move around shooting things with the space bar. I originally thought reaching a certain score was necessary to get a clue in the game, but no, this was tossed in for fun.

Posted March 9, 2022 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Video Games

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3 responses to “Planet of the Robots (1981)

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  1. Nice to see that there was something in one of those magazines that was good and not from the boys at iD. I remember playing the first Legends of Murder game, which was supposed to be a mystery adventure/RPG, but was really bad at doing that.
    Wow, that Apple computer has 32 MB of memory available. I wonder if it was always like that or if its memory degraded over time? 32 MB seems awfully underwhelming for 100 years of advancement.

    What happens if you set the date of the time machine to before the ’80s or after the game takes place? I feel like this game left open an interesting possibility too. Since you know that somehow humans died out, you have a time machine, and presumably you have access to news before we died out. Sequel hook.

    Morpheus Kitami
    • CRPG Addict has done some “little” RPGs lately and they’ve always been only barely workable. It’s easier in general to make a competent adventure without having it be long.

      re: time travel, you’re OK as long as your jump is somewhere in the 20th century.

      • Every interaction in an adventure game is essentially bespoke. You can kludge your way into writing a functional adventure game by just special-casing everything. This falls apart quickly because of combinatorial explosion, but it falls apart above the threshold of a modest-sized game by 80s standards.

        But you can’t special-case your way through an RPG, even a small one; you need to have a fully functional core mechanic.

        (Now I’m imagining trying to write a platform game but instead of calculating the ballistic kinematics, you just hard-coded the result of jumping from every position in the level.)

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