The beat-em-up genre was at its peak popularity in the early 90s, with many developers trying to capture the fun and financial success of well-remembered classics like Final Fight and Streets of Rage. While SNK had made a small handful of beat-em-ups for the Neo Geo, only a few of them would turn out to be as good as their work on P.O.W.: Prisoner of War from 1988. Released in early 1991, Robo Army sits comfortably between the disaster of 1990’s Ninja Combat and 1991’s cult favorite Mutation Nation both chronologically and in quality.
Robo Army is fun enough to stand out and is generally looked upon fondly by those who played it when it was new. It’s a very solid game, but like many early Neo Geo titles, some may be put off today by how simple it is to play on the surface. While the game has a few unique features, the story is about as basic as it gets. The game’s promotional flyers and marquee offers us little information about why you're about to walk from the left side of the screen to the right and punch robots for half an hour, only telling of:
A POWER EXPLOSION! Intense fighting against a swarm or armed Robo Army. Bonus items enable “Maxima” and “Rocky” to transform themselves into Super Buggies. Various types of enemies are appearing everywhere! Action develops on the battle field.
As you play the game more, however, you get some helpful intermission scenes that let you know that the city of Neo Detroit has been crushed and conquered by a mad scientist named Jeed, who has converted its citizens and wildlife into cyborgs. Maxima and Rocky are two soldiers who were captured by Jeed, but escaped before the process could fully take. Retaining their humanity, they venture back into Neo-Detroit to stop Jeed and save the city. Those well off enough in the US in the early 90s to actually buy a Neo Geo home system for $600 and also purchase the Robo Army game for it for another $250 would get a much better explanation of what’s going on:
In a world full of chaos and destruction, a new dark power ruled the land. The cyber army called Hell Jeed have come within theIreach (sic) of their final objective… to create cyber cities; robot infested cities where no humans can be found. A hostile takeover… the people were no match… the masses were slaughtered… their human brains used to equip the new soldiers of Hell Jeed. The cyber army’s invasion struck fear into the population of the major cities and the few lucky inhabitants fled for their lives. Unprotected and battle scarred, the world seemed doomed and mandkind’s end was near… But all hope was not lost, Maxima and Rocky have been called to return peace to the land. Will Hell Jeed dominate the world? Can Hell Jeed by stopped? In this 46 MEG 2 player action smash, attempt to defeat the evil hell Jeed by helping Maxima and Rocky, the two greatest war soldiers of the legendary ROBO ARMY!
This is a little more helpful, but doesn’t really match the information you get in the game itself. This is a recurring quirk of SNK’s beat-em-ups, the description on the back of the box seems to not quite match up with the story shown in the actual game; a mix of rushing to get these games on the market and bad translation. Fortunately, despite the inconsistent build up, the actual game holds up.
Unlike several of SNK’s previous beat-em-ups, while Robo Army still uses three buttons it’s much easier to play. There’s only one attack button, with the other two being used to jump and unleash a powerful but energy blast. Hitting the jump and attack button simultaneously lets Rocky and Maxima attack behind them. That back attack is actually pretty damaging, and with the right timing skilled players can take advantage of it to quickly clear a screen of weaker enemies. Players can also occasionally pick up a fallen robot’s limb to club other robots to death with. The coolest move in the game, however, is that if one approaches a weakened enemy and hits forward and the A button at the right time, Maxima or Rocky will dramatically rip an enemy in half.
Finally, the energy blast players shoot with the C button gets more powerful the more energy balls are collected before using it, similar to the magic potions in Golden Axe. However, unlike in that game it can be used a few times to weaker effect before running out, trivializing some of the game’s boss fights. One version of the energy blast appears in some installments of The King of Fighters as cybernetic character Maxima’s super move, solidifying him and the Colonel Maxima players control in Robo Army as the same person. If two people are playing, they will also recognize Robo Army’s second player, Sgt. Rocky, from his helpful cameo appearance in The King of Fighters 2000.
It seems primitive on the surface, but Robo Army ends up being more fun than SNK’s earlier Neo Geo efforts because of its much more focused enemy designs and encounters. The game doesn’t detects where attacks are landing in a way that vastly favors the computer like in Sengoku or Burning Fight, and while there’s still noticeable lack in enemy variety (an issue in every SNK beat-em-up) there’s a higher variety of behaviors and attacks for each to help keep the game interesting. It also has a presentation almost on par with SNK’s visually and aurally unforgettable (though middling to actually play) Sengoku. While it may seem plain at a glance, SNK put some effort into the animation to really sell that the characters and most of their enemies are completely inhuman. Tons of limbs and robotic parts explode out of enemies when they’re defeated. Another nice detail is that in a level where Maxima and Rocky must descend a chasm of ruined urban sprawl via cables, instead of gripping the cable the way a human would their hands actually expand and fold out to form a winch to hang off of.
That level of commitment to the design of the characters effects the game’s fighting as well. The most obvious way is the way the characters jump. In many early 90s beat-em-ups jumping attacks tend to be the way characters can evade some enemies or knock several way at once to clear out space to move around more freely. In Robo Army however it’s the opposite. Instead of deftly leaping forward, hitting the jump button causes the characters to crouch, and then fire a blast out of their hands to make them jump up much more quickly and higher than in most other beat-em-ups. The actual amount of time players can control their movement in the air is short, as the characters will fall back to the ground just as fast. It’s a great way to add a sense of weight to the character’s movements befitting their robotic nature. It also gives it a unique feel compared to other beat-em-ups since it requires more skill than normal to evade and attack enemies while jumping.
Similar to what you see in many of SNK’s one on one fighting games, a simple alteration to what’s normally expected in the genre actually works both as a way to sell the game’s characters and as a way to make the game function in a way that’s unique while still being firmly genre. It’s also a good way to make sure players are taking advantage of not only the back attack but their energy blast as well. Since the energy spheres that power said energy attack are dropped by enemies regularly, one can use it more often than expected. It’s even ideal to do so, as the attack differs depending on how many spheres the player has left, and if all are expended hitting the button instead lets the character perform a powerful kick attack.
Robo Army does have one half-baked gimmick, however. Occasionally, a defeated enemy will drop a glowing icon of a human fist. As the entire game’s presentation is based around the melding of man and machine, one would think a human fist would make the character more human, maybe weaker or stronger in some way? Instead, it causes Rocky or Maxima to bend over and magically transform into a futuristic car. The Super Buggy shown off in the game’s instructions and promotional materials reveals itself! It’s a cathartic experience for any beat-em-up fan, any enemies Maxima and Rocky touch while in buggy form instantly explode, and hitting the attack button allows them to speed across the screen to quickly run enemies down. However, it only lasts for a limited time, and is a weird addition to the game that clashes with everything else in its presentation.
That presentation is otherwise fulfilled even with the game’s ultra-thin plot. Returning to Neo-Detroit, the first level is a jungle (what country Neo-Detroit is located in is never revealed) on the outskirts of the city, where the biggest threat to players will be robotic dogs and birds rather than more humanoid fair. The next level is a highway from this suburb into the heart of the city. The game really gets across how destroyed Neo-Detroit is, again not just with its visuals but with how the game is played. When the player actually reaches Neo-Detroit’s urban center, the first half of the level involves spelunking down many stories of wrecked shops, buildings and streets, with the rest of the level being a sewer conduit that leads to the surface of the city only briefly before entering a corrupt police station. After freeing human survivors from its cellblock so they can avoid a brainwashed cybernetic fate Maxima and Rocky’s, the next level has them descending even further into Jeed’s laboratory, where the final confrontation waits.
Jeed himself is a pretty impressive design for a 1991 beat-em-up. Throughout the game, between each level you get to see his face projected from his massive robotic suit he inhabits, so you already know what you're going to be confronting at the end of the game. What you're not expecting, however is that Jeed himself has no body, confronting the player as a head connected to a mechanical apparatus attached to the ceiling. It’s brief but striking, evocative of the mechanical body horror seen in films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and you can see the concept used even in recent science-fiction movies like the 2014 remake of RoboCop. Of course, given Robo Army’s genre, Jeed quickly enters the robotic getup seen in the game’s intermissions for the final battle.
It’s a fun fight, as the final boss now has arms and a torso that can be attacked and destroyed separately, eventually leaving just the large head to do battle with. When Jeed is finally killed, his daughter rises out of a capsule in the background and offers to undo her father’s evil, turning everyone back into a human being. This might seem confusing at first, as the sprite in the game for Jeed’s daughter is a blond Caucasian woman, but in the game’s ending, she has dark hair and appears to be Asian. SNK seemed to do this with several of its female characters, another example can be found in The Super Spy. In this game’s manual, one of the enemy bosses, Pink, is illustrated as a Japanese woman, but then when you confront her in the actual game, she’s a blond Caucasian woman again.
This incongruity was caused by the manual illustrators copying their character artwork off of whatever fashion magazines and clothing ads they had on hand, but it’s amusing that so many SNK game manuals have illustrations and sometimes even descriptions that do not even remotely match what happens in the game itself. Robo Army is a unique case however, as that inconsistency carries over into the actual game’s ending.
Fortunately, however, Robo Army’s presentation makes it fun to play through with a friend even today. Besides the nice sense of progression given by its backgrounds and different attacks offered to the players, it also has a fun soundtrack. The music and great metallic sound effects for the time are the work of Yasumasa Yamada and Kazuhiro Nishida, both SNK regulars. While the way the characters jump may seem odd at a glance, it might make more sense when one sees that Hiroshi Matsumoto (often credited as Finish or Finishi Hiroshi) was an associate producer of the game. While the animation and sound effects add an appropriate weight to the attacks in Robo Army, the timing is actually similar to Matsumoto’s 1987 work on Street Fighter and his 1992 work as the director of Art of Fighting. So besides being a fun beat-em-up, it’s also an interesting chance to see his design sensibilities applied outside of the genre he spends most of his career working in. Unfortunately, like Mutation Nation it has yet to be released on any compilations or digital download services.