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The Hardest Computer Game of All Time
January 25, 2014 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Many programmers' careers were launched by playing an innovative computer game called Robot Odyssey.

This game has been mentioned previously on the Blue as well.
posted by reenum (35 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Launched? It's ruining careers that's the touchstone of a great game.
posted by thelonius at 3:02 PM on January 25


To win, you need to be able to make flip-flops out of logic gates. Rather, you as a child would have needed to independently reinvent the concept of a flip-flop without aid from the unavailable internet, then build it out of logic gates. This is awe inspiring.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:02 PM on January 25 [10 favorites]


What's next? A cooking sim in which the player must solve a series of process chemistry problems? Or how about proving results from number theory, all done under the guise of a detective mystery?
posted by polymodus at 3:14 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


For years I had a half-remembered recollection of Robot Odyssey, but the computer game was all mixed in with the spinoff book Escape From Robotropolis, which is loosely based on the game (and seems to have been intended to be the first book in a series that was never written).

I paged through the book a few years ago, and it's exactly as cracked out as you'd expect a book based on Robot Odyssey to be.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:31 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Or how about proving results from number theory, all done under the guise of a detective mystery?

Throw in a little theology too and that's a fair outline of a few different Borges stories.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:36 PM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Just as a style beef, I can't help but feel like this article is written backwards. The whole first part of the article is dedicated to talking about how tough this game is, how person X uses the game to teach programming, how person Y made level 4, etc.; it's only after all of the long winded description of history that the author finally gets down to the brass tacks of how to play.

That all said, sounds like a pretty interesting game. Thanks for posting.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:39 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I spent weeks on Robot Odyssey. It's still the most challenging game I've ever played.
posted by clarknova at 4:02 PM on January 25


All without one mention of SpaceChem.

I feel... young? Get off... my... patio?
posted by LogicalDash at 4:11 PM on January 25 [7 favorites]


GOD, these games. So much childhood trauma. I was having nightmares about logic gates before I hit puberty. I guess it's time to revisit now that I have a computer science degree. I need a reminder of my utter intellectual inadequacy.
posted by naju at 4:44 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Revisiting the games of my youth just validates my hypochondria that I've got a giant tumor in my brain, because goddammit, I used to fly through Trolls & Tribulations with a deftness akin to the delicacy of ballet and now
posted by sonascope at 5:10 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


This game was hugely influential on me. I was 13 when I first played it, and by then I'd already been writing small Apple ][ assembly language programs so had some idea about programming. But seeing a concrete game like this, with direct manipulation of logic gates, it was hugely eye opening.

I think Minecraft is the most successful game with this kind of educational potential now. The programming in it is just a bit too weird and limited to really be great, at least the vanilla stuff with redstone and bizarro physics. Some of the addson like BuildCraft and ComputerCraft are pretty great though, and I like to think kids are learning systems design with them. SpaceChem is great too, but it's pretty obscure. And somehow just falls a little flat, at least for me.
posted by Nelson at 5:39 PM on January 25


Rather, you as a child would have needed to independently reinvent the concept of a flip-flop without aid from the unavailable internet, then build it out of logic gates.

Flip-flops are specifically taught by name in Robot Odyssey's predecessor, Rocky's Boots.
posted by grouse at 5:40 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


"Rather, you as a child would have needed to independently reinvent the concept of a flip-flop without aid from the unavailable internet, then build it out of logic gates."

In some cases, but not necessarily in others. It wasn't a dark-age of knowledge before the Internet.

I didn't have a computer when I was a kid, though if we'd had more money I might well have by the time I entered high school in 1978. (While I was in high school, the HS got its first computer in the form of a TRS-80 and I also had access to a minicomputer at the university where my dad was a programmer.) So I never was exposed to Robot Odyssey.

But what I did have were a number of introductory electronics books from the local Radio Shack (actually a hardware store that was an outlet; the town was too small for its own actual Radio Shack). That's how I first learned, probably during my freshman year or so when I was 14, about the different kinds of transistors, how they worked, and then also about both the basic analog and digital circuits made from them. I guess there must have been a separate IC book and a elementary digital logic book.

The digital logic stuff made a big impression on me in exactly the way that this author describes.

So no Internet necessary. Other kids, I'm sure, used the library. I imagine that a lot of kids playing the game didn't have any exposure to this stuff and so, you're right, they'd have to make some big intuitive leaps that would be quite impressive. But many would have some exposure to digital electronics and either would have known it or known where to look for more information.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:48 PM on January 25


robot odyssey, rockey's boots, and the radio shack 300 in 1 electronic experimenters kit pretty much made me the man I am today. I have no idea how much time I spent on those things.
posted by Dr. Twist at 6:13 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I would like to think portions of "A Young Ladies Illustrated Primer" were like this.
posted by sourwookie at 6:16 PM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Ivan, if the books you learned on looked hand drawn, then they were most likely part of the Engineer's Notebook series by Forrest Mims. While he is an interesting guy in his own right, his books are pretty much the best introduction to electronics I've come across. I've known people struggling with Horowitz and Hill in college physics courses who were able to build functional digital circuits two days after reading "Getting Started in Electronics". It is still in print (or at least, still available) and still just as good as you remember.
posted by andorphin at 7:30 PM on January 25 [9 favorites]


I had an Apple ][ but never played these, so I downloaded Rocky's Boots tonight and started on an emulator.

Hmmm, the author and the interface is hauntingly familiar...

Warren Robinett wrote the Atari 2600 Adventure. My hero!

Haven't got to Robot Odyssey yet, but this is like a sequel to Adventure, but for programmers.
posted by pashdown at 9:27 PM on January 25


Holy crap, Rocky's Boots. My aunt had that and Gertrude's Secrets on her Apple II, and my younger brother and I were hooked on them. It's probably a good thing she didn't have Robot Odyssey, as well, since we fought enough over who was going to get to play on the computer when we visited as it was. But wow, that gave me flashbacks.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:58 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I worked for the company that developed RO, before our company got killed by that Sharktank bastard, and one of the most awesome experiences was going to GDC and having developer after developer do a double take when they saw The Learning Company on my conference badge. Every one of them said the same thing, that Robot Odyssey was the reason they were programmers or game designers. I couldn't take any credit at all, my time there was a decade after RO but my boss was on the original dev team and it was even more of a treat to wave them over to him and watch them gush even more.

Best company ever. I feel like I'll never find a better group of people to work with again.
posted by jamaro at 10:08 PM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Back in elementary school, there was one day in which they brought in Apple IIs for us to play with. I didn't get to play with them, but I remembered one of the games involved wiring up logic gates, and I think it was Robot Odyssey. I've always wondered about that game, glad to find out what it was called.
posted by JHarris at 10:26 PM on January 25


Wow, I remember this. It truly is a remarkable learning tool. Cool post, reenum.

I wonder if there's a contemporary version out now - same game, but with a friendlier UI, drag-and-drop, etc. It would be fun to do it all again, and I feel like my kids should be exposed to it at least once.
posted by sidereal at 5:15 AM on January 26


Back in elementary school, there was one day in which they brought in Apple IIs for us to play with. I didn't get to play with them, but I remembered one of the games involved wiring up logic gates, and I think it was Robot Odyssey. I've always wondered about that game, glad to find out what it was called.

For what it's worth, there's a much, much higher chance that the one you saw at the elementary school was Rocky's Boots.
posted by nobody at 7:04 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Definitely one of the most unique games ever made.

It is a difficult game, but to an Apple ][ programmer, who might have this chart on their wall, it was more of a casual game.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:19 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


I had an Atari 800 in my youth, and didn't know anyone else with a computer, so never encountered this very cool game. Neat! In searching for a way to run it today, I came across a Java remake called Droid Quest, which looks pretty good. It was written for Java 1.2, and seems to be abandoned, but runs great on my current-JDK platform. If anyone has other suggestions, I'd be interested (as would others here, I imagine). Thanks for the post!
posted by dylanjames at 8:04 AM on January 26


Here's Rocky's Boots in your browser, albeit with some extension I haven't tried. This Java version may work too, but I don't have Java in my browsers anymore. That site doesn't have Robot Odyssey, but you can download it on this abandonware site or this one and run it in an Apple 2 emulator on your desktop computer.
posted by Nelson at 8:48 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


I am looking for other games like this. I saw the mention of SpaceChem which I like and the company Zachtronics has made some other games that are logic puzzles like Ruckingenur. Any other suggestions?
posted by ill3 at 9:36 AM on January 26


The Carnage Heart games have you building a fighting robot, then programming its AI using a language something like Befunge. I think the most recent release that made it to the US was Carnage Heart Exa for the PSP.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:59 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Aw, man, I lost weeks/months of my childhood to Rocky's Boots, in a good way. Wish I'd known about Robot Odyssey, too.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:25 AM on January 26


Blackvoxel is a Minecraft-alike with special emphasis on the programming angle. Apparently, to craft anything of value, you need to build assembly lines. From cubes.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:13 PM on January 26


RobotWar was the robot programming game that I was consumed with. Not as low-level as designing ICs, but I was never all that smart.

(After years of trying to develop a complex RobotWar program that could track and hit moving targets while in motion itself, the dirty little secret to an effective bot turned out to be essentially Lots Of Random, plus sanity checks to keep it from running into things.)
posted by El Mariachi at 2:58 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


ill3: Zachtronics also made Конструктор which is one of the best games I've ever played. You build chips out of metal traces and two types of silicon. In the first level, you have to make an inverter. The complexity builds, and in some of the later levels you have to make RAM and an ALU!

Another one in this same vein is Manufactoria, where you design Turing-esque state machines that process symbols on a paper tape. There is also LightBox, Tile Factory, Light Bot, and LogicBox. Oh, and Ancient Greek Geometry!
posted by steveminutillo at 4:37 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


RobotWar was the robot programming game that I was consumed with.

I adored that game, which was about as deep into programming as I ever got, alas. Even better, Muse Software was around the corner from my mother's office on Charles Street in Baltimore, within walking, and therefore asking, distance.
posted by sonascope at 4:53 PM on January 26


I should also mention that my love for the above listed games almost certainly stems from many afternoons in junior high when I was excused from gym class and could go up to the library and play, of course, Robot Odyssey.
posted by steveminutillo at 4:55 PM on January 26


Rawbots is currently messy and unfinished, but I can verify that you build some sweet robots and wire their behavior using some diagrams not entirely unlike Robot Odyssey, though much higher level.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:23 PM on January 26


I played Rocky's Boots and Gertrude's Secrets in elementary school. I really wish they had had a copy of this also. I still remember figuring out the machine to punch the alligator in the hidden room in Gertrude's Secrets.

This game looks amazing, but I don't think I have the stamina for it these days.
posted by Hactar at 1:34 PM on January 27


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