RoboCop 3 may have been a muddled disappointment of a film, but the videogames – that came out first – were a bit more interesting.

Horror director Fred Dekker was perhaps not the obvious choice to helm the third RoboCop movie, but he was duly hired, and worked with comic book writer Frank Miller to deliver a script for the movie. The third film came with particular expectations: parent company Orion was in trouble, and needed a hit. The decision was thus taken to try and aim the new movie at a softer rating. It wasn’t news that went down well, going for PG-13 with a more grown-up franchise, long before it came the norm.

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Miller’s frustrations at how badly his Robocop 2 treatment fared – with much of what he wrote discarded, to be re-used for the third film – would only get worse, leading to him stepping away from Hollywood until 2005’s Sin City. Filming on RoboCop 3 eventually took place in Atlanta, utilising derelict areas due to be demolished (making way for new facilities needed for the 1996 Olympics). The plot saw a Japanese corporation take over OCP and RoboCop siding with rebels, for good measure mixing in robotic ninjas and RoboCop flying on a jetpack.

That was a boon for the toy manufacturers but it did not cheer critics or the audience. When the much-delayed film originally arrived, it landed with a thump.

The lack of original RoboCop – Peter Weller – was an added test to the film’s hopes, and the movie’s $22 million production costs would prove to be the final straw for Orion Pictures. The company went into bankruptcy in 1992, and the film languished in the vaults for a year – the UK cinema release did not happen until 1994. Audiences then failed to turn out in large numbers meaning it made just $10 million at the box office, the reduction in gore and lack of dark humour doing the film no favours.

But it had a far more successful and interesting computer game tie-in.

Ocean Software had bid for the rights to a RoboCop 3 computer game, having made huge money from its releases based around the first and second movies. But at this stage, the gaming market was changing, with the need to produce games across 8-bit computers, 16-bit computers and games consoles making it a more expensive and testing business.

The end result was a different game of RoboCop 3 for different formats.

The NES console version is perhaps the most straightforward, copying the platform action of the original RoboCop arcade game (developed by the company Data East under license from Ocean). The NES take on it was coded by Probe Software – responsible for developing all the 8-bit and console versions – and it features some unique level designs and a flamethrower for our cyber policeman. It also has a good rendition of Jeroen Tel’s theme music, created for the C64 game. One nice touch here is the briefing before each mission, including text and small images as if relayed into RoboCop’s visor.

The Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions shared the same design, the latter published on cartridge to be compatible with the short-lived C64GS console too.

The first level played like the coin-op game  Operation Wolf, with a side-scrolling first-person view allowing RoboCop to gun down splatterpunks. Level two saw RoboCop searching a rocket engine factory, made more difficult by acid baths and conveyor belts. In level three Robo then puts on a jetpack from the factory and flies to the left, before taking on a large robot tank. Level four forces him to walk back to OCP Tower, culminating in a fight against old rival ED-209. The final level sees our hero climbing the Tower, taking on the robotic ninja Otomi. Shooting or collecting Repair tokens in each section allows Robocop to patch himself up between levels.

The Spectrum version works well for the format, but the cartridge-based C64 game outclasses it – especially the first level and the aforementioned Jeroen Tel music.

The console versions appeared for Mega Drive, Master System, Game Gear and SNES and all harked back to the arcade game version of RoboCop. But their biggest problem was their sheer difficulty. Tight time limits and tricky enemy layouts made it almost impossible to get through the levels, with Robo moving particularly sluggishly in the SNES incarnation. Only the most skilled players could ever hope to reach the vertically-scrolling jetpack sections of the SNES game. This version appeared in arcades thanks to Nintendo’s Super Select System (the SNES hardware in an arcade cabinet).

The most dramatically different and innovative version though was release was released for more advanced and powerful home computers: the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and the PC. These versions were developed by Digital Image Design. The company had already made its name with flight simulator game F29 Retaliator and would use its 3D engine again for the infamous space simulation title Epic. It would prove too to be an inspired choice for the Robo-tie-in.

Its RoboCop 3 design was also in 3D – at a point where games of this ilk simply weren’t as a norm – and could be played in one of two ways. ‘Arcade Action’ mode allowed you to play the five ‘missions’ in any order. ‘Movie Adventure’ mode also allowed you to tackle the five missions in any order, with the outcome of one mission affecting the others. The clever presentation used the Newsbreak presenters to introduce each mission, giving the player a briefing on what is happening.

The initial two missions are shown from a then-groundbreaking first-person perspective as RoboCop clears terrorists from an office building and then takes out the splatterpunks in the claustrophobic slums. In both levels he must be careful not to shoot civilians by mistake. The third mission sees Robo driving around, trying to stop carjackers in a similar way to arcade game Chase HQ. The fourth level sees RoboCop on the jetpack flying about over the Rehab Zone. Finally there is a beat ‘em up section where he takes on a robotic ninja. The 3D looks primitive now but for the time it was mesmerising for a home computer. Sound and music add a lot to the atmosphere, although each level is quite a short experience.

Digital Image Design used a modified version of the F29 Retaliator engine to create RoboCop 3. One hold-over from the aforementioned flight simulator is the ability to select different camera angles in each mission, although not all were playable. The technology was being pressed pretty hard as it was.

Development was difficult as Orion Pictures kept details of the movie plot under wraps, meaning the development teams only had access to stills and written descriptions. Much of it was guesswork, so when they heard about the ‘gyrocycle’ they began creating a section with RoboCop on a futuristic motorbike – only to find out that it was actually the ‘gyropack’, or jet pack.

Another issue with the Amiga game was the decision to include a ‘dongle’.

To this day, that makes those who bought the game shudder just a little. This small piece of electronics plugged into one of the Amiga’s two joystick ports, and the game checked it was there before running. The idea was to prevent piracy, but the game was ‘cracked’ and spread by pirates a week before its official release. Worse still, the dongle would not fit properly in the redesigned Amiga 600 machine that was on the market. It would be fair to say that as far as anti-piracy strategies went, this one wasn’t a very successful one. It was swiftly abandoned for future games.

The delays to the film itself ultimately affected the release of the games, and they all came out ahead of the movie in the end. The 16-bit versions appeared first at the end of 1991, followed by the C64 and Spectrum in the spring of 1992 – ahead of the film’s original planned release date. The NES and SNES version hit the shelves at the end of 1993. UK gamers got their hands on the Game Gear and Mega Drive games in July and December 1993 respectively, but American Genesis owners had to wait until 1994.

Reviewers were not kind to the console games, but the Amiga and ST versions are an interesting curiosity and got a far better reception. And, of their era, they were very much ahead of their time in many ways. It’s not hard to conclude that Robo had a better time on computer and console screens that he did in cinemas for much of the 1990s…

 

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