14th November 2008 – 9.13 am

A disturbing message has been received. The robots on several spaceships have turned rogue, their programming corrupted. All humans on board the ships have been killed. There is not much hope in sending in human forces to regain control of the ships, but a small influence droid could be sent aboard to penetrate the defences and slowly but surely remove the robot threat. Such is the story behind Paradroid, an excellent computer game for the Commodore 64 written by Andrew Braybrook.

The influence droid under your control can subdue the robotic forces in two ways. First, it can use its weapon to destroy the robots, removing their malignant presence on the ship. Although it is possible to destroy a robot through impact damage, by repeatedly bumping in to it, this method also damages the influence droid or its host and is only advised as an emergency act. Second, the influence droid can hijack a robot's systems, rewiring its circuitry so that the influence droid takes complete control of the host, hence its name. Whilst blasting other robots is fun there is a need to hijack robots, as they become far more powerful than the influence droid can hope to best in combat. Even then, hijacking a robot is more difficult the more powerful it is, making it almost necessary to hijack your way up the class structure.

A hijacked robot, whilst under your control, is still fighting the influence droid and the drain on the power systems of the robot will cause the robot's circuits to burn out eventually, with the destruction occurring the more powerful the host robot is. The influence droid needs to swap hosts regularly in order to maintain a suitable level of power, both in terms of electrical power and of might. Being in control of another robot also offers a level of protection to the influence droid. The destruction of the influence droid means the end of the game, with the rebellious robots still present on the ship, but when the influence droid is in control of a host the destruction of the host leaves the influence droid intact, if dangerously low on power.

The transfer game, invoked when hijacking a robot, is also quite clever. It is a simplistic mini-game with you aiming to take control by being able to assert more control signals than the host robot. The influence droid gets three assertions to make, with other robots getting more as their level increases. The assertions only last a limited amount of time before running out of energy, so it is possible to delay controlling a line until later and relying on the host's assertion being overwritten by your own, but with only a short time allowed to hijack the host delaying can result in some frantic action. There are also splitters, repeaters, combiners and bit changers in the circuits, with each robot's circuits arranged differently, offering opportunities for a single assertion to change multiple lines or for the assertion to be permanent, for example.

Part of the skill in a successful transfer is choosing which circuit path of the two available would either help you or hinder the host more, again with only a short amount of time to choose. With luck and skill it is possible to hijack a high-level robot from the influence droid, but this should be an act of desperation and not attempted as a matter of course. A successful transfer destroys the current host and places the influence droid in the new host. An unsuccessful transfer still destroys the current host but also the potential host, and destroys the influence droid if it isn't in a host, so care must be taken choosing which robots to hijack and when.

Each robot, including the interface droid, is assigned a three-digit number. The first number assigns the class of the robot, with the remaining two numbers referring to the model. Although the representation of the robots is rudimentary it works surprisingly well. This is helped by the style of the text making the '001' of the influence droid look like a pair of seeking eyes, giving your connection with the game a more human feel. There is no stylistic difference between the robots encountered beyond their class and model number but the three-digit number conveys sufficient information in a tidy package, effectively giving each robot a 'level' and allowing the player to 'con' every encounter.

The series 1xx, 2xx and 3xx robots are all unarmed and harmless to encounter, with the 476 being the robot with the lowest model number to have its own weapon, a single powerful laser. The influence droid will take advantage of any weapon the host is armed with, falling back to use its weak dual laser weapon if the host has no weapon. The 6xx series robots are sentinels, the 7xx robots have disruptor weapons, the 8xx are heavily armed and armoured security robots, and the 999 robot, the only 9xx class, is the command robot.

The disruptor weapons of the 7xx series robots provide an interesting diversion for the player. Unlike the laser-based weapons all other armed robots have the disruptor is not directionally fired. Instead, it is effectively an EMP blast that damages all robots visible on the screen. With the designers realising the potential problems this causes all 7xx series robots are hardened against the disruptors they carry. Whilst it is possible to destroy a disruptor-carrying robot with normal lasers the lack of aiming required for the disruptors to hit makes engaging one in conventional combat a risky endeavour, particularly when there are several to destroy in quick succession or simultaneously. In most cases the best choice is to use the influence droid to hijack their systems and take control of the robot. Then you have another problem. Whilst it is possible to blast screens of low-level robots at a time you cannot destroy another 7xx series robot whilst controlling one yourself, as the disruptor has no effect and the influence droid's lasers are bypassed.

On the positive side, other 7xx series robots cannot harm you either, so you can leave them alone and regain control of another deck before returning to replace your waning robot with another disruptor-capable unit. This highlights the strategic elements that are available in Paradroid. Whilst it is possible to go deck-to-deck killing or hijacking robots as you go there are methods that are more likely to produce successful results. It would be possible to hijack each 7xx series robot in sequence, wiping them all out in one go, but then you wouldn't have the destructive power the disruptor possesses once the final 7xx host's circuits are close to burn-out. And whilst the low-level robots seem like easy pickings it is unwise to go on a rampage early on in the mission. Taking on the 6xx and 8xx class robots is dangerous and can often lead to a host being destroyed, leaving your influence droid vulnerable. If you have already wiped out the lower class of robots your only choice will be to fight on or try to hijack a higher class of robot than is straightforward, whereas with some low-class robots still around you can safely jump in to one of them for to give both a better chance of survival and hijacking a stronger robot.

Whilst it is a good idea to fight your way to the top quickly the more powerful droids also burn out much more quickly, adding a sense of urgency to the action. You need to avoid heavy fire when around the highest-level robots and as your best bet of defeating them is often to hijack at least one you will have to manoeuvre in to close contact, making it a risky prospect. It is possible to be destroyed whilst trying to get close enough to hijack a robot, so it is recommended that hostile robots are approached not directly but using a curved path. Once you are in the robot you need to incapacitate the others and find a replacement for your quickly degenerating host. Although the 999 robot is the pinnacle of design on the ship the best use you can make of it when hijacked is not to run around flaunting your powers but to find a computer terminal and plug yourself in quickly before it rejects the influence droid as a host.

The terminals dotted around the ship give access to information about the current deck's layout and the schematics of the lift system. They also offer security information about all the robots on the ship, although clearance is required to access the security information. The clearance is based on the robot's class and model, with access only available to your current robot level and below. As the influence droid, model 001, you only get access to yourself. Moving up, the 302 robot—the fastest moving robot on the ship, by the way—gives access to anything numbered below 302. Hijacking the 999 command robot thus gives access to any and all security records, allowing information to be revealed about all the weapons and systems of any robot on the ship. This is good information to know, as the numbering system allows for quick identification of the robots and it can be vital to know whether to hijack the slow 614 robot of the powerfully armed 629 when they are next to each other.

Points are gained for destroying or transferring to robots, with the amount gained based on the class of the robot engaged. At standard green alert conditions you just get the points scored, but at amber and red alert conditions your score is multiplied for each kill. The ship enters a higher alert level based on the number of robots killed per second, and you really need to go on a rampage to get invoke red alert.

There are plenty of clever touches in Paradroid. One clever aspect is the abstraction of the controls. Even though—as with most, if not all, games of the time—you are clearly moving some kind of avatar on the screen the plot of the game gives reason to the control system. The player is not actually represented by the character on-screen but is in remote control of the influence droid sent to quell the robotic rebellion on the spaceships. As you are in direct control of the droid's movements and actions it is easier to get more involved in what little story there is, with the possibility of being able to become immersed in the idea that what you are seeing on the screen is what the droid is beaming back from the ship. This is not to say it was difficult to become immersed with moving a small pixellated represenation of a man or car around a screen with a joystick, more that the immersion won't be broken by realising you are using a joystick in such a fashion when playing Paradroid.

The game also only shows you what the influence droid can 'see'. Even with the overhead multi-directional scrolling decks of the ship allowing the player to see more than just the room the influence droid is in, if a robot is behind a closed door, or even just around a corner, the game won't display it. This adds an excellent element of suspense when exploring the ship, particularly the high-level decks, as you really cannot be sure what is behind the next door until you open it. Don't worry if you think this means that you will have trouble ensuring you've destroyed all the robots, because once a deck is clear of robots—and the influence droid is the only robot capable of using the lift system on the ship—the lights switch off, dimming the entire level.

The advanced graphics, atmospheric sounds, clever interface, and addictive gameplay made Paradroid one of the best games of its day. The blend of action and strategy, exploration and discovery, let the game appeal and offer a rewarding experience to many players. It was successful enough that it was re-released under the title Heavy Metal Paradroid a couple of years later with some coding changes that smoothed the scrolling and added extra ships of robots to defeat. Paradroid is an 8-bit classic.

  1. One Response to “Paradroid”

  2. Sounds like fun!

    By PsycheDiver on Nov 14, 2008

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