Grobda is a mash-up. It can be described as a hectic Berzerk clone, an evolved version of Atari’s Combat or a Xevious spin-off. There are hints and touches and small influences, yet by mixing them so seamlessly it manages to become its own game, free to be judged on its own merits.
The eponymous Grobda are, of course, those little screw-propelled tanks you could bomb in Xevious, which seems an unlikely choice for a protagonist, a thought probably shared by the player once he sees himself outnumbered from the first stage of the game and quickly turned to ashes. It’s an uphill battle, and it will take all your skills to survive the National Battling Association.
Here are the tools you have: a cannon and a powerful shield. Both drain their energy from the same supply, so while you can give yourself invulnerability for short periods of time and shoot like a maniac, it’s often safer to navigate with care and raise your shield only when taking fire. Unlike other similar games, most enemies won’t go down in one shot, so rushing head-on only serves to put the players in a bad spot or being caught in the explosion of the tank you were shooting.
These explosions are very interesting, because they form a basic, yet nuanced, scoring system key to accessing the later levels. When an enemy tank is shot down, it explodes in a multicolored ball of fire that instantly kills any other tank it touches as in Missile Command, while giving you bonus points for doing so. This means the player has an incentive to plan each stage to bring all enemies together and kill them in one go to get more extra lives than they normally would, a sizable reward in such a fast-paced game.
The scoring system has another basic function, and that’s keeping the early stages of the game fun to play even when you can reach much later levels. By allowing the player to point press, early stages become a puzzle, keeping them as fun to play at the beginning of the game as they are once you can reach stage 50 or so.
Something strange about Grobda: the tank is controlled with a single joystick, but it’s possible (and even required) to shoot in one direction while moving in another. You would think this would make the game clunky, but it doesn’t. No, it works surprisingly well, better than the movement in Berzerk while keeping the controlled pace. The tank’s cannon shot isn’t quite centred, which allows the player to shoot around corners with ease and hide himself behind obstacles while spraying his laser. If anything, it’s decidedly unique and worth analyzing.
Grobda wasn’t a huge hit, as this kind of game felt kind of passé by 1984, but Namco has re-released it in several formats, most recently Namco Museum Battle Collection (PSP) and on Wii Virtual Console, both of which are arcade-perfect ports. It was also featured in the Wii’s Namco Museum Megamix, in which it got one of the title’s remixes, giving it new graphics and a modernized take on the levels. It doesn’t have separate levels; the enemies just warp into the play field. This makes the game faster, but also less strategically interesting.