What was the first robot combat video game? Think about it. Most people will respond with the original Robot Arena for PC, released in 2001. Fans of American robot combat might suggest it was BattleBots: Beyond The Battlebox from 2003. Savvier fans from across the pond might bring up Tiertex’s god awful abomination known as Robot Wars: Metal Mayhem released in 2000 for the Game Boy Color, beating the aforementioned Robot Arena by a whole year. You’re all wrong. All of you, now sit down and accept your negative points on this Jeopardy question. The first robot combat game was released in early 1996* programmed and produced by a single fan of the burgeoning sport. That man was Mark Sheeky, and his game was Trax: The Robot Wars.
* Trax began life as an Amiga game named Burnout before being updated for Windows OS.
THE MAN BEHIND THE GAME
Mark Sheeky is something of what you might call a “Renaissance Man”. He started programming computer games from a young age before branching off into art, music, and publishing. To date he’s published several books, recorded even more albums and EP’s, released a couple dozen computer games, and won first place in the Grosvenor Art competition for his work “The Paranoid Schizophrenia of Richard Dadd” in 2012. Sounds thrilling. Or terrifying, I haven’t seen it to be honest with you. Mark is also active on Twitter but I refuse to use that platform because it’s filled with nothing but hate mobs and cyberstalkers. He has an official website where all of his works are very neatly organized and presented using a Google Font that I can’t quite read at my screen’s resolution. He seems like an all around cool guy, so where does Trax come into play?
Well, like any British programmer Mark got his start typing away on a Commodore Amiga computer creating demos and small games, all of which appear to be available on itch.io and the earliest of which being released in 1991. Although he claims he’s been programming since he was just nine years old, this first proper release would’ve put Mark at 19 years old when he published his first video game. Said first game, The Challenge of The Matrix, was just a standard simple puzzle affair, however by 1996 he’d stepped up his game (literally) and produced a massive dungeon crawler named Blade that cemented Mark officially as “someone who knew what the fuck they were doing”. Eventually Mark jumped ship for greener pastures with the growing demand of PC and IBM compatibles and began developing games for Windows operating systems.
Much like his Amiga exploits many of Mark’s PC games are also available on itch.io including his first PC release — Thermonuclear Domination — however as you’ll soon see Mark’s stayed busy with his software and a number of game links take you to pages on Steam where updated versions for modern platforms are available. Even still others will take you to a generic information page and these were the games that saw physical release that Mark has yet to make available in one form or another. Trax is one of these games, published by a company called Crystal Arcade. Since Trax has been out for 20+ years, Mark isn’t making commission off of it, and Crystal Arcade folded and isn’t pressing any new copies of it I think it’s safe to assume that it’s okay to just release the .ISO file I have of this very rare computer game.
CRYSTAL ARCADE PRESENTS…
Most of Mark’s games were self-published under his own label, however three of them stick out from the rest. Trax is one of them of course, and the others are Roton and Martian Rover Patrol. All three games are revamped versions of things Mark had made prior on the Amiga but Trax is the star of the show here. The other two games are just takes on Asteroids and Moon Patrol if that’s your thing. (And if they are then they’re also included in the .ISO.) It seems that prior to Mark establishing his own label he either courted or was approached by publishers regarding his game design work. One such company was Crystal Arcade who wanted to release a trio of Mark’s games on one disc, though they made sure to make Trax: The Robot Wars the stand-out title. It was even rated T by the ESRB. (The “T” is for “Trax”.)
Production numbers are unknown for Trax but I’d imagine they were relatively low. This has all the trimmings of an obscure budget release and I don’t think a million copies of this were made. In fact I can’t even find any for sale online as of this very posting. This is a rare game in both of its CD releases (yes both, we’ll get into that shortly). I have no idea how much this game is worth but it’s one of the crown jewels of my collection for its historic value to the sport of robot combat. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Mark made much on this deal as I quote from the Roton page on his website “as was common with my publishing history at the time I didn’t receive advances or royalties and [Crystal Arcade] soon vanished into a mysterious ether”. To me it sounds like he didn’t even get paid at all and that’s straight up bullshit. Shady companies like that were a dime a dozen, which is why it pains me to continue this by saying…
…a company known as Gamesoft Publishing must’ve bought the rights to Crystal Arcade’s catalog of games because there was a second even more rare release of Trax: The Robot Wars produced for Gamesoft’s “Pocketware” line of games which were rectangular mini-CD’s that fit inside the little inlay section of your CD drive. Yeah I don’t know how a “rectangular mini-CD” works either but apparently this was a thing back then because I distinctly remember Nintendo Power selling CD soundtracks of Diddy Kong Racing that were shaped like Diddy Kong’s stupid fucking face. Shaped CD’s were all the rage and these Pocketware releases by Gamesoft were small enough that you could fit them in a trading card binder, which might’ve been the reason behind their size all along. It goes without saying however that I’m about 100% certain Mark didn’t see any royalties from this second pressing of his game, especially if he got fucked the first time around.
LET THE WARS BEGIN
Trax is about 85% robot combat and 15% demolition derby. I say this because when you start the game out usually you don’t have a weapon and you have to save up in-game money to buy one. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s introduce this game proper with its three game modes: Ascent, Battle, and Tournament. Each are distinct enough to be their own thing while also having a lot of similarities between them. “Ascent” is an 11 mission nightmare where the game chooses your robot and outfitting for you and pits you against up to three opponents. “Battle” is a “best of X” game mode where you start out with $5,000 to improve your robots right off the bat. “Tournament” is like Battle mode except you start with no money and no upgrades and you go to the in-game shop every three battles to spend your winnings. And that’s it. It’s a simple enough affair and you can see all that Trax has to offer with about 15-20 minutes of your time but I can’t just leave well enough alone, we have to dig deep into this game because to my knowledge nobody’s ever covered this game and due to its limited distribution, and Mark seemingly being unable to distribute the game himself, this is borderline lost media… and y’all know how I feel about lost media.
Ascent mode is absolute bullshit. It’s only 11 fights long so you’re probably wondering what the problem is so let me spell it out for you: hovercar physics. Ascent mode lures you into this false sense of security by giving you a four-wheeled buggy with a saw blade (it might be a drill) and pits you against a robot who has no weapons to speak of. It’s a cakewalk. From here the second mission gives you the hoverbot chassis with no weapons and expects you to fight two tanks, also with no weapons, who can easily shove you around and push you out of the arena perimeter or down the pit in the center of the floor. The difficulty goes from 0 to Fuck You at breakneck speed. The furthest I’ve made it into Ascent mode is five battles because by the time I made it to stage six I was given a shitty weaponless robot again except it had jump jets on it so when I pressed the weapon button I activated them, hopped into the air, and landed on some insta-kill spikes. Oh yeah, that’s a thing in this game, hazards that kill you the moment you touch them no matter how much health you have. I gave up on Ascent mode. If there’s an ending screen then I haven’t seen it. If you make it there send me a screenshot, I’ll edit it into this article.
Battle and Tournament mode is more my speed because it’s forgiving if you lose a round; you’re not eliminated from the game and kicked back to the main menu, you just earn a little less of a cash prize than your opponents. These two modes are so similar that I’m going to talk about them together and just bring up their differences as we come to them, like how Tournament mode changes arenas every three battles and Battle mode lets you choose the one arena you’ll be fighting in. As mentioned earlier Battle mode gives you a cash injection of $5,000 to spend right away but Tournament mode makes you work for your money. Battle is where you want to be if you just want to hop into some combat complete with an array of weaponry at your disposal, otherwise you’ll have to earn it and start slow in Tournament mode. When I really want to sit down and enjoy Trax for what it is, I’ll play Tournament mode because there’s some variety to the arenas and I enjoy having to start out buying the smaller upgrades first before I can get to the heavy guns… like how your robot doesn’t come with a reverse gear. That costs $500. Just to go backwards.
One thing I find very interesting about this game are all the different chassis you can pick from. There’s four wheels, three wheels, two wheels, no wheels, and tank tracks all with their own invisible stats for speed and controllability. You can play it safe with your standard four-wheeled affair or you can take a chance with the hoverbot that drives like it’s on fucking ice. You can even pick the slow tank robot and plow through everyone with some added spikes. When you buy your upgrades most robots have the same few things that are unanimous across all designs like defensive spikes and a pneumatic ram. Where it gets interesting though are the weapons that apply only to specific designs, like the saw, crusher, and hammer. The crusher is only available to robots whose chassis already look like Tough As Nails from Robot Wars and the hammer is only applicable to a certain few designs. The saw blade though, this can literally turn into anything. Sometimes it’s a vertical saw, sometimes it’s a horizontal saw. Other times it turns into a “drisk” which is a spinning drum made out of several disks or it can even be just a full on heavy spinning drum. Mark Sheeky came up with some of these designs long before they were seen in actual combat and that’s why I think he can see the future.
ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES
I found my copy of Trax (and Roton and Martian Rover Patrol…) in the discount bin at one of my favorite book stores. I’d never heard of it but the subtitle of “The Robot Wars” immediately piqued my interest. There wasn’t much to go by in the way of screenshots on the back of the jewel case but it was on clearance for a couple of bucks so it’s not like I’d be out any serious money if it turned out to be garbage. So I bought it, brought it home, played it for a while, and then kind of forgot about it. The CD went back into my massive collection of vintage computer games and I never really thought about the game because it didn’t make an impact on me. I didn’t bring it back out until recently when I streamed some old PC games on Twitch and decided Trax needed some time in the spotlight for the novelty that it was; it shared a stream with a terrible vehicular combat game called Road Wars. Needless to say Trax was the stand out game of the evening.
One thing that impressed me about Trax is that it works fine on Windows 10. Literally, right out of the box. I just plopped the CD into my drive, installed it, and tested it out. If there was ever a reason to doubt Mark Sheeky’s abilities as a programmer now’s the time when you throw them out the window because this is a game made for fucking Windows 98 that still works perfectly fine on an operating system 20 years later. Mark expresses concern that “modern computers might have difficulty in running [Trax]” but he’s underselling his abilities. The man made a game that can withstand the test of time. I cannot tell you how rare of an occurrence this is. Whenever I play vintage PC games I’ll try to install them on Windows 10 just for the hell of it because I might as well try and 99% of the time the games don’t work. The only two games that have worked for me without needing DOSbox or a virtual machine are Trax and Steve Moraff’s World of Games. Interesting bedfellows to say the least.
Nobody had ever heard of Trax in my Twitch stream so naturally I went online to see what kind of information was out there. The first Google result for “Trax The Robot Wars” is a page on the Robot Wars Wiki for the goddamned competitor named Trax. Off to a good start. From there you get MobyGames and Metacritic who’ve logged a staggering 0 reviews for this game, both professional and from users. Nobody’s ever played or heard of this game before save for the one person who made a YouTube let’s play video in 2013. All the other results are just auto-generated nonsense or irrelevant. There’s barely even first page of usable results, and I just can’t let that be the case. That dude from YouTube might have a copy of this game, but I’m going to go ahead and give you all my copy of it. This was the very first robot combat game ever released and despite its wonky physics there’s a decent amount of fun to be had here, especially because you don’t have to do anything stupid to get it working on a modern system. Just burn (or mount) the CD image and then you’re ready to go.
Robot Arena 2 might still be the gold standard in robot combat games but I think it’s important to know where this genre came from. Much like the sport itself it didn’t come from some giant company looking to break new ground, it came from a single guy who thought it would be cool to make a game about something he had an interest in. Just like Marc Thorpe and his radio-controlled vacuum cleaner, Mark Sheeky’s Trax: The Robot Wars would go on to lay the groundwork for something much bigger than itself. Perhaps the original version of the game was more about cars than robots but the DNA for a robot combat game was there, it just needed to be discovered, and that’s exactly what happened when Trax was released. Mark may have been rolled by his publisher 20 years ago but he seems to be doing alright for himself. He’s won numerous art awards, published his own books, illustrated for other books, and has a sprawling discography so large that Spotify made one of those “This Is ____” playlists for him compiling his best and most listened to songs into one place. We owe a big thank you to Mark for getting the ball rolling on robot combat games, whether he knew he was doing so or not.
I was not content to let BattleBots: Metal Breakdown fade into obscurity and I’m not content to let Trax: The Robot Wars do so either. These are old games and yeah they kind of suck and are rough around the edges but this is where our hobby came from. This is the primordial soup that would later birth Robot Arena 2 and all the other robot combat games that are out there… for better or worse. It’s important to remember these games and celebrate them because without them who would’ve been the one to start things off? Fucking Tiertex? I don’t think we want to live in that timeline.
And that’s it for Trax: The Robot Wars. You can download the game for free at the link provided at the top of this article and get busy playing it right away. Hopefully this post brings this game to light in the robot combat community so that more of you can enjoy this wonderful little relic that I am happy to share with you all. Again, I’m not intending to infringe on anyone’s rights here but if this is stepping over a line then I can retract the download and just leave this article up for posterity I suppose, but I think it’s important to let the community enjoy this game. Besides, Mark Sheeky even said on his own website he might make an updated version of the game if there’s interest in it. Maybe we should let him know there is indeed “interest”?