The year is 2000. Bill Clinton is winding down his two-term presidency and George W. Bush is the current President-elect after defeating Al Gore in a controversial election. The dot-com bubble had not yet burst and America Online not only rolled out version “6.0” of their web software but also merged with Time Warner to form what was, at the time, the largest media company in the world. *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached is named Billboard Magazine’s Album of the Year and their Song of the Year is “Hanging By a Moment” by Lifehouse. The first crew of the International Space Station reach their destination and successfully board the vessel. Yahoo hadn’t yet dicked with GeoCities to try and market it as “premium” web hosting. The Twin Towers still proudly stood in New York City.
It was a truly different time.
BATTLEBOTS’ FIRST GAME IS BORN
It was during this period that BattleBots had begun airing on Comedy Central. The show’s premiere on August 30th, 2000 reeled in a staggering 2.1 million viewers placing BattleBots just behind The Man Show as Comedy Central’s most successful program. I don’t know if that means the bar was set really high or really low so let’s just call it down the middle and say “wow that’s a lot of viewers, two whole Neilsen points”. The show would eventually go on to have five seasons until Carmen Electra’s tits and the producers’ idea of “humor” were destined to kill it. BattleBots was a part of a very specific and unique aspect of Comedy Central’s history. Few people seem to know this but when the show was new it was actually billed as Comedy Central Sports Presents BattleBots and was later shortened to just BattleBots when the whole “Comedy Central Sports” thing didn’t pan out. The only other show to bear the “Comedy Central Sports” moniker was something called Let’s Bowl, a scripted game show that lasted just 20 episodes. A scripted game show. That’s apparently a thing. Or was a thing, I guess. Here’s the first episode of this piece of shit and if you’re not put off within the first 30 seconds then you might need to get your brain checked.
Most of Comedy Central’s shows at the time — especially the ones that they were footing the production bill for — had dedicated pages on the comedycentral.com website. BattleBots was no exception and host Bil Dwyer would plug the show’s URL verbally at the end of every episode. Most of the channel’s in-house shows also had at least one browser-based game that you could play on their corresponding website too. Again, BattleBots was no exception. Comedy Central’s games page was overloaded with crap from South Park because that show’s style and content lent itself pretty well to the medium of Flash but there were also crappy little web games for things like The Man Show strip poker or a trivia game based around Win Ben Stein’s Money. In the case of BattleBots Comedy Central decided to aim high and spring for a 3D bot battling game named Metal Breakdown. The earliest instance of the game available through the Wayback Machine provides August 19, 2002 as a potential release date but that seems extremely incorrect to me because I have personal memories of playing this game that would firmly put the date somewhere in early to mid-2001. Considering the show premiered in the latter half of 2000 and that would make it a little too late to throw a whole game of this caliber together I feel like saying “the game came out some time in 2001” is a safe bet.
Metal Breakdown was designed in Macromedia Shockwave which at the time was an absolute powerhouse. Shockwave.com was one of the hottest websites on the planet and places such as the late candystand.com absolutely dominated the online gaming market. If you were a kid back then, you played their Lifesavers-themed mini golf game all the time. Guaranteed. Up to this point browser-based games were mostly locked into two dimensions and weren’t very complex. When you think back to the turn of the millennium and what Flash or Java games were popular you probably default to Mini Putt, Wicky Woo, and Diamond Mine (later known as Bejeweled). The one thing those games have in common is that they were piss easy and about as technically complex as someone could get away with at the time. Here’s a promotional pinball game for Shrek from 2001 to show you the kind of shitty caliber of games you could expect as promotional things to get people excited for something. Might I remind you this is fucking Shrek we’re talking about which was a huge movie even back then before all the sequels and memes. It got a pinball game with fart sounds. All of Comedy Central’s games at the time were flat 2D affairs and if they were “3D” it was mostly an illusion of depth and not actually 3D. Metal Breakdown was their first one and, to quote a famous fictional paleontologist, they spared no expense. A 3D Shockwave game in 2001 probably wasn’t cheap and the logistics of putting Metal Breakdown together is something that I am sure at least one person lost their job over. No joke. This shit was not easy back then.
As one of the first 3D Shockwave games Metal Breakdown had no design conventions or standards to adhere to, it was one of the games that had the privilege of defining them. And in the end? It wasn’t a very good game. I mean it. This game fucking blew. You could only choose from one of five pre-built designs and your only customization option was its color. I guess you could also technically consider how big it was as an option too because the “weight class” selection modified how large the game rendered the 3D models and how quickly they could drive around, but that was it. The computer automatically chooses an opponent at random from one of the four unselected robots and the fight starts in an arena whose only hazard is a dinky little saw that’s permanently sticking out of the floor. But at least they included a sound bite of Sean Salisbury saying “it’s robot fightin’ time!” From here you just button mash the arrows on the keyboard because the Shockwave applet reads the keystrokes as if this were a standard word processor. This means you don’t immediately go forward if you hold down the “Up” key, you jump forward one click and then after a couple moments you move constantly because now the system is reading the key as being held down and then repeats its input over and over again. Yeah it was pretty jank and god help you if you decided to use the on-screen joystick controller because while it was admittedly a lot smoother than using the keyboard that shit was virtually impossible to control in any meaningful way.
Also the game was so badly programmed that you can actually move your robot around during the pre-fight countdown… but only if you use the keyboard controls because whoever made the game had the foresight to lock only the joystick. Seriously.
THE DEMISE OF METAL BREAKDOWN
For all the popularity and hype that BattleBots both caused and earned in its three year stint on Comedy Central the series seemed to disappear as quickly as it arrived. As the show marched on into its fifth season Comedy Central never made another game to promote the show, Metal Breakdown remained the only one. Even in the the show’s last season where production values had ramped up significantly from the “shot in an abandoned warehouse over a three day weekend” look that the first season had you could still select good ol’ Metal Breakdown from the list of available games on comedycentral.com and just like that you’d be whisked away to only a couple years ago when nobody knew what the fuck they were doing but goddammit they were determined to try. When BattleBots was not renewed for a sixth season Comedy Central wasted no time pulling their pages for the show from their website and took Metal Breakdown away with it. From what I can tell with the incomplete backups available to me Metal Breakdown was available until August 2003 whereafter accessing its URL would take you to the 404 page of comedycentral.com.
Two years online. And just like that Metal Breakdown was gone without a trace.
I mean it too, this game just straight up vanished off the face of the fucking planet. Today as I am writing this blog post Google won’t even consider suggesting it to you until you’ve typed as far as “battlebots metal br” into the search bar and even then “breakdown” isn’t the first suggestion. Prior to this restoration effort searching Google for “battlebots metal breakdown game” turned up less than two pages of results with the only relevant ones being on the first page. The first result is a link to the brief synopsis of the game on the BattleBots Wiki, the second result is the thread I posted to /r/BattleBots on Reddit where I shared a link to a possible .DCR file of the game, and the third result is a mention of it by name on the Mutant Robots website that hasn’t changed in 20 years including the typo in the fucking title that says “MUNTANT”. So really there’s two results because my dumb ass doesn’t count. After that, literally nothing. No discussion of it on dead message boards, no links to it on other websites or fansites, and not even anyone claiming it in a footnote in an online portfolio of work. It was totally gone.
Some of you might be wondering how a game can just vanish like that when to this day there are websites where all their webmasters do is rip games off from wherever they can, host them on their own server, and stuff the pages chock full of ads. How come — in 20 years — Metal Breakdown never turned up on one of these sites? Well, there’s a pretty good reason for that, and a fairly bog standard one for the era. When you try and play Metal Breakdown the game will run a check to see what URL it’s being called from; if that URL doesn’t resolve to comedycentral.com the game will fail to initialize. Decompiling the Shockwave .DCR file, weeding out the security parameters, and recompiling it into a new copy of the game was simply too complicated and labor intensive of a process. It’s far easier to just skip right over Metal Breakdown and find some other easier games to steal. Besides, I’m not entirely certain the tools to fully decompile Shockwave files even existed back then because the file standard was mostly a proprietary thing developed in-house by Macromedia and even made use of its own dedicated programming language (Lingo) that most code decompilers didn’t support at the time. In other words, breaking the copy protection on Metal Breakdown was “buttfuckingly impossible”.
It is a little strange that there are no casual mentions of the game on other websites or forums though, but I guess you kind of have to realize that in the years following BattleBots‘ cancellation in 2003 a lot of teams lost faith in the sport and many of the ones who had websites opted to just let their domains expire. The websites that were hosted on free service providers (GeoCities, etc) were on borrowed time as well because almost all of those companies no longer exist today. If there were any mentions or links to the game I’d be willing to bet they were on the plethora of robot combat team sites that have vanished over the years due to simple web rot, a sad but probable truth.
THE PROCESS OF BECOMING “LOST”
I have a soft spot for “lost media” and I guess in a larger sense the ongoing erosion of the world around us as society advances and time marches onward. Absolutely nothing will last forever, not even the universe itself, but for some stupid reason I’m one of those people who has a compulsion to hang on to things in the hopes that they can be enjoyed by future generations. I’ve been like this ever since I was a kid and I guess the thing that really kicked off this mindset for me was the time when the local video store had gotten rid of their Nintendo Entertainment System games in favor of bringing in a stock of Super Nintendo games. Yeah there were new games and all… but what about the old ones? I used to love playing the NES port of the game Toobin’ with my father and now it’s just gone? Remember, this was a time before PC emulation and the internet and eBay and everything else, when those games disappeared where was I supposed to go to get one? Walmart? Fat chance, they were selling Super Nintendo games now too. As insignificant as that event probably sounds (especially now that we live in an age where I can download every single Nintendo game ever made and stick them on a memory card the size of my goddamned fingernail) it made me realize that the world around us isn’t going to stay the way it is as of this very moment. As the late Warren Zevon once said, “enjoy every sandwich”.
If you’ve followed me around in the robot combat community you’d probably know that at one point in time I had the entire series of BattleBots recorded on VHS. You might also be aware of the fact that the availability of the show online is sadly incomplete. I recorded the entire series because it was something that I genuinely cared about. It was something that I knew I was going to want to be able to relive and experience again in the future. By the time BattleBots had aired on television I had already watched tons of my favorite shows complete their broadcast cycles and vanish into the ether. I wanted to save BattleBots from that same fate so I shelled out my own money to buy pack after pack of blank tapes to dutifully preserve the entire show. Then I lent those tapes to a friend of mine by way of shipping them across the country. Today the tapes are no longer accounted for and have been lost. I was afraid that was going to happen — and I should have made copies — but back then my collection of tapes just for BattleBots consisted of 15 volumes. 15 additional blank hi-fi VHS tapes weren’t exactly cheap. If I only knew then what I know now, though.
The internet is something that I draw parallels to in the world around me. Buildings get erected, torn down, remodeled, moved, and so forth; so do websites. I’m not exactly a computer expert so I’m grateful that systems like the Wayback Machine at archive.org exist because even though the snapshots they take of websites aren’t always complete (or even usable for that matter) the amount of effort and work that they’ve put toward their mission is beyond admirable. Without their help I would not have been able to salvage Metal Breakdown and reconstruct its original home on the web.
Reviving the original comedycentral.com page for BattleBots was about as tricky as it was fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were points where I was essentially pulling my hair out and yelling at my computer but that’s just part of the process of fishing abandoned shit out of the garbage disposal and putting it back together again. There were several iterations of Comedy Central’s website throughout the show’s five seasons and I settled on recreating the last version mostly because it was the only one I could get solid references to work from. I remember the earlier websites being black with green menus and lettering but I guess those entire pages were drawn up in Macromedia Flash and as such they unfortunately did not seem to archive very well so I was given absolutely nothing to go by. None of the archives of the version I ultimately settled on were complete but there was enough there for me to get an idea of how everything was supposed to fit together. I took some “creative liberties” with content placement but overall the end result is pretty close to what it used to look like, off-centered Comedy Central header and all.
I built the page out of HTML tables both out of convenience and because that’s actually how this website was assembled back then. The source code was extremely sloppy to the point where entire sections were hastily commented out in order to turn some “off” while others were left “on”. A lot of the cells of the table were also pseudo-dynamically generated and by that I mean the headers and titles were static images but things like the date after “Fights for the week of” were generated by a script which is why they’re in a different font (and also looked a lot shittier on the original page). For this reason I figured it would be easier to replace these assets with custom designed images and graphics using the exact same colors, style, and typefaces as opposed to trying to reconstruct the coding that overlaid the text when the page loaded. This came with the drawback that the features wouldn’t exactly be functional, but completely remaking the original Comedy Central site into a fully functional copy wasn’t really my goal here. Metal Breakdown is the real star of the show so everything surrounding it on the page is just there for presentation; now that I had settled on that it afforded me the ability to be a little silly with the content of the graphics while still keeping its original aesthetic.
The goal of the “restored” website is to make you feel like you’re back in 2002 checking out the BattleBots page for the latest updates and even though I mentioned the page content is mostly for show I actually threw in a lot of era-appropriate references while also mixing in some content from today’s era of BattleBots to make a “hybrid” retro experience. The most obvious example of this is the airing times under the BattleBots logo; I replaced the original showtime with the ones from the 2018 season. It’s still in the same style as the 2002 website however, so even though the content has been updated to reflect when the show is airing today it’s presented in a way that feels nostalgic. The photos under the BattleBots logo have also been updated with stills from the 2015 season and onward. Over on the right side of the page I was afforded a ton of opportunities to modernize the content. The blue feature box never actually worked on any of the snapshots that were available to me so I pretty much had the freedom to construct whatever sort of showcase I wanted. I settled on Gamma 9 because people have said the robot looks like it was built during the Comedy Central era of the show so it fits the best with the motif I’m going for. Under that is a list of “fights for the week” and I just sorta went crazy with it alternating between fights that seem plausible (Biohazard vs. Surgeon General) and ones that are just for the memes (Hellachopper vs. White Rabbit). My attention to detail doesn’t end at just the BattleBots content though; I rebuilt the Comedy Central header as well. It’s not functional (just like the real thing lol gottem), but I made sure to populate it with references to some of the better shows that Comedy Central aired during that same time period.
I’ve wasted a lot of time talking about building the page and the content surrounding the game but not so much the game itself yet and the reason for that is because this was simultaneously both the easiest and most infuriating thing I’ve ever had to work on. As I mentioned earlier Metal Breakdown was released at the height of the era where scummy people were just ripping games off of wherever they could find them and hosting websites filled with stolen content in order to make bank from ad revenue (again, this was a time before the burst of the dot-com bubble so things like ad payouts were still bookoo bucks). In its standard form Metal Breakdown will only load if the Shockwave file sees that it’s being loaded from comedycentral.com, otherwise it just won’t start up and will instead hang on the generic Shockwave loading screen at 0%. In that case you might be wondering how the version on the Wayback Machine gets by that security check. Well, it kind of doesn’t. If you check the page source you’ll see that the Shockwave file on the page is being sourced from archive.org. Now, I’m well aware that “a-r-c-h-i-v-e-dot-o-r-g” is not how you spell “comedycentral.com” but for some reason the game still completes its security check.
This is either because the Wayback Machine has “tricked” the game by emulating the environment that it was originally built for, or perhaps it’s something more nebulous and esoteric like the game’s security check is actually a routine that looks for a specific file within the directory it’s uploaded to. I didn’t really know because even in 2021 decompiling a Shockwave file isn’t exactly an easy task and again this links back into the fact that Macromedia had their own programming language that went into creating these kinds of features in Shockwave files. Even today there is still very little documentation out there; I just don’t know enough about reverse engineering the game in order to sniff out the security checks. I’m not the right man for the job. I am, however, stupidly lucky at times and luck is how I’ve managed to revive the game and host it on “battlebotsupdate.com” without the security check. The secret? There were two files. Hitting the original comedycentral.com page would load “loader.dcr”, a tiny file whose sole purpose was acting as the middleman between the game and your browser. This file is the one that ran the check and then called for a second file which was the actual game. I had no way of knowing what this second file was even named, it could be literally anything. So I guessed “battlebots.dcr”. I was correct. This whole copy-protection routine was defeated because the morons that built the website literally named the game file “battlebots”. They didn’t even try to hide it. It’s been sitting there for 20 years waiting for someone to discover it.
So I did what any enterprising game site webmaster circa 2001 would’ve done: I downloaded that shit and put it up on my own website for people to play!
Now here’s the fine print; getting the game to work on today’s machines is a little tricky. I provided some suggestions on the game’s page and the best I can do is just reiterate them. Basically what it comes down to is A) using a browser that still supports Shockwave content and B) running an OS that still supports Shockwave Player software. I’ve had luck with the Pale Moon browser (specifically the 32-bit x86 version, yes that is important) on Windows 10, Windows 7, and Windows XP. I have also had luck running the game within older versions of Internet Explorer on Windows XP. All of the major web browsers today no longer support Shockwave. You are not going to get it to work in Chrome, Firefox, Edge, etc. There are no “plugins” or “add-ons” for it. It’s frankly ridiculous and appalling that they’ve collectively chosen to phase out support for Flash & Shockwave considering how prevalent that type of content was (and still somewhat is) online but whatever. I’m sure they had a “good” reason that totally didn’t involve sucking the dick of whoever was behind the drive to make HTML5 the new web standard. Like I said on the Metal Breakdown game page if you’re having trouble getting the game to run there isn’t much that I can really do on my end to help you. All I can recommend is making sure you’re using the right browser and that you have Shockwave Player installed. You might also need to make some minor adjustments in OS or browser settings on your end that I did not have to do on mine. Retro PC gaming is not a perfect science.
In an ideal world you could still just load the page and have it fucking work but I guess somewhere along the way we traded in backwards compatibility of internet content for stupid shit like a $700 juicer that costs $5 per glass of juice and was such a piece of shit that you can’t even buy one anymore. Real talk if I’m spending $700 on a juicer that thing better have a blowjob setting. Or not, because it’s a juicer and I just realized how bad of an idea that was. But it was still a better idea than the Juicero in the first place. Zing!
If getting the page to work is a no-go for you then might I recommend BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint, a standalone archive of thousands of Flash and Shockwave games. As of June 2021 Metal Breakdown is represented in the archive thanks to yours truly. Flashpoint emulates a proper environment for these old web standards to function in so Metal Breakdown feels right at home. Granted, it’s not the version of the game embedded inside of a web page that’s an homage to the BattleBots of yesteryear but if playing the game is important to you and my archive doesn’t work then Flashpoint is where you want to be. I did my best but I acknowledge that getting the game to run is a pain in the ass, hell it even stopped working for me and I didn’t change any configuration settings on my end. I use Flashpoint so I can vouch for it. Plus there’s probably tons of other things in there from your childhood that you forgot about, so have at it.
METAL BREAKDOWN’S QUIRKS
This article has been pretty aimless and all over the place but I guess I can end it with some quirks and things that I’ve observed in Metal Breakdown in the months that I’ve been working on putting it back together. Some of these things are pretty glaring mistakes or oversights but you gotta remember that when this game was made there really was no such thing as a 3D game that you could play in your web browser. Sure that doesn’t completely absolve the creator(s) of the game since even back in 2001 there was about 25 years’ worth of video game design standards to source from — and the PlayStation had been out since 1995 — but you get what I mean. Metal Breakdown was among the first of its kind, it was never going to be perfect. It walked so that the games that came after it could run. Metal Breakdown is admirable in that regard.
You can drive around or otherwise control your robot pretty much any time it’s on the screen. The simplest example of this is the one I mentioned earlier about how you can drive around before the fight even starts. The AI fidgets around during the countdown which leads me to believe that if it could move it would but it’s locked in place until the match begins proper. You on the other hand? No way. The joystick controls are locked but nothing is stopping you from using the arrow keys to cruise around to close the distance between you and your opponent. The closest that I’ve been able to get before the fight actually starts is a couple of bot lengths away; I don’t think it’s possible to win before the countdown finishes. You can also drive around on the “victory” screen and it looks like this part of the game is just the same plane you’re already on but at a different camera angle because when you drive around you can still hit the “walls” of the arena even though visually you aren’t running into them. Your ability to turn seems limited in this mode but other than that you can still drive and fire your weapon. You even have some vestige of control on the robot selection screen, too. You cannot drive forward or backward but if you hold the arrow keys down you’ll see the robot either fight against the automatic rotation and slow down or turn along with it and spin much faster. None of these really have any practical use aside from cheating before the fight starts but they’re still pretty amusing nonetheless as it shows just how few assets the game really has and how the creator(s) had to make this whole thing work with as few moving parts as possible.
The only other interesting thing I noticed is how the AI robot “chooses” its color: it will always be the opposite RGB value of yours. Your robot’s color is determined by the three color sliders not unlike the ones you’d see in programs like MS Paint at the time and they operate on a scale of 0 through 255 for the colors red, green, and blue. Whatever color you settle on the AI will take those values and use the inverse of them. This produces an “opposite” color but only in RGB terms and not literal color. For example if you make your robot blue the AI will be yellow (255 green + 255 red in RGB) instead of orange which is blue’s actual complimentary color. Color science is weird like that because programming and literal refracted light are two different things.
When all’s said and done, I hope you enjoy the experience of either reliving Metal Breakdown or getting to play it for the first time. It’s not a very good game and I know I definitely put way too much effort and work into salvaging it but it’s a part of BattleBots history that I felt was still worth saving. It might also be my roundabout way of trying to make up for the fact that I feel indirectly responsible for the lack of a complete collection of Comedy Central episodes being available today seeing as how I lost all of my tapes. In any case here’s Metal Breakdown. I have some plans to tweak the page in the future, mostly to make things like robot pictures and the list of “fights” and stuff load randomly from a catalog of pictures when you visit, but overall the “re-release” that you see today is about what I was aiming for. I intentionally waited until I was absolutely 100% done with it to post about it so that I wouldn’t confuse people by editing a live page at 1 A.M. or something.
Considering the game is 20 years old and hasn’t been remotely available through official means for 17 of those years it’s probably a safe bet that Comedy Central doesn’t give a shit anymore (they discontinued the “Games” section of their website entirely in 2011 anyways). In a worst case scenario the game would just end up in “licensing dispute hell” because clearly BattleBots has retained ownership of their licenses and trademarks in order to negotiate deals not just with Comedy Central but also ABC/Disney and Discovery Networks. If someone at Viacom or whatever takes personal offense at a community of fans trying to revive a part of their history the most they could probably do is make up some bullshit argument over “but we own the rights to the code of the game REEEEEEEEEE watch The Daily Show with Trevor Noah“. And I guess I’d have no choice but to take the page down, until then we’re gold I guess.
Anyways enjoy the experience. A lot of work went into this labor of love, and at some point I’ll put some more into it cosmetically. For now, let’s just appreciate the fact that some dumbass was able to save a nearly lost game from oblivion by guessing a file name.