MicroBot

[20 January 2011]

By Mike Schiller

To say that MicroBot is disappointing is to be somewhat disingenuous; after all, it’s hard to be disappointed in something you knew nothing about before playing. Here’s the pre-game knowledge that I had going into my playthrough of MicroBot:

1. It is a dual-stick shooter.
2. The player controls a tiny robot fighting infection within the human body.

Other than a quick flash of “DUDE, they finally made a video game out of Innerspace,” that’s not much to go on.

Still, it’s something, and at the very least, it’s enough to conjure up some basic requirements of the game you think that you’re going to be getting.  Comparing the game you think that you’re going to get to the game that you actually get yields few commonalities, however, and the ways in which MicroBot confounds even the meager expectations offered by its genre and primary conceit lead to its biggest failings.

One of the first things that the player is told to do in MicroBot is to ignore some of the organisms floating around.  You can shoot them, sure, but it’s a waste of time; you don’t gain anything from taking the time to blow them away.  They’re just there, a part of the scenery that you can attack if you’re feeling particularly aggressive and you can’t wait the 30 seconds that it takes to get to an actual hostile enemy.  No one will hold it against you—you’re playing a dual-stick shooter after all.  Aggression is typically encouraged.

MicroBot is anything but typical, however.  The reality of MicroBot is that the robot that the player happens to be piloting is constantly in liquid of some sort.  What liquid it is, exactly, is never made perfectly clear, given that the clarity and the color changes depending on the environment, but it is definitely liquid.  While this makes sense in terms of the game’s conceit—there aren’t many long passages of air in the human body, after all—the game’s insistence on a physics system that makes the player feel as though the mechanism must paddle through the water is a questionable choice. 

Piloting a ship through liquid means that the player absolutely must pay attention to the momentum of that ship.  Unless player customizations devise a ship almost entirely equipped with propulsion mechanisms (a perfectly valid option in levels without a boss, actually), stopping and turning takes time.  As such, running full throttle into a throng of baddies is never, ever a good idea, as opposed to something like Geometry Wars, in which running full throttle into a throng of baddies is the only idea.  This is especially true if you fall into the all too appealing trap of outfitting your ship with all kinds of firepower, leaving room for only one or two measly fins or rotors—speed your way into a pile of hostiles and you’ll watch your ship get eaten alive.

This mechanic forces the player to progress cautiously, undoubtedly the intention of the developers.  A side effect of such caution, however, is the replacement of excitement with a stressful sort of tension.  Much time is spent inching along, waiting for an enemy to show up from offscreen just so that you can retreat and fire.  In almost all cases, the enemies are finite, so it’s a strategy that works; it just doesn’t get you anywhere fast.

This would be fine, of course, if the excitement could have been replaced by some motivation to progress.  This could have been as easy as giving the player a tour of the body from the inside.  “Check it out, an EYEBALL,” we could have said, however unrealistic happening upon a recognizable organ might be at such a scale.  Unfortunately, MicroBot has taken the tack of making all of the environments look painfully similar to one another—with little more than a palette swap to separate them.  Yes, you spend four levels floating around in a watery red world, you beat a boss of some sort, and then you get to spend four levels floating around in a watery green world.  And then a blue one.  The environments are rendered beautifully, and some of the maps are quite well designed, but when supposedly different areas of the body look so similar to one another, it’s difficult to maintain the excitement inspired by the idea of the game.

Upon review, it seems that even with a minimum of background knowledge it’s difficult to escape the weight of expectations on our opinions of a game.

Perhaps if I had approached MicroBot wishing for something else—say, a twin-stick companion to Flower, a game with which it shares similarities in pace as well as in its soundtrack—perhaps my thoughts on the game would be different.  Perhaps I could find some sense of relaxation in the languid pacing of the game, perhaps looking for the game’s not-all-that-well-hidden collectibles, the “buckyballs”, would become the primary goal rather than some ambiguous desire for “excitement” via progression.  More than anything, though, I wanted to like MicroBot.  I don’t.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136088-microbot/