I'm embarrassingly susceptible to robots. It's like this glowing geekweakspot right on the front of my brain: show it a robot, and you have my interest.
In the case of Droid Assault, the robots are making me sad. Why? Because I can't save them. Not all of them.
Indie retromancers Puppygames' latest hinges on the gradual acquisition of a small but oddly - given the simplicity of the deliberately lo-fi art - loveable robot army. In practical terms, each one of those bots is one of my lives - each one that's felled by enemy droids or a lurking turret takes me closer to a game over. In thoroughly non-practical, Alec-is-a-milk-eyed-dope terms, each one of those bots means a blow to the heart when it dies. They're my own carefully-chosen little guys, a few of them are equipped with precious, irreplaceable power-ups, and when they're dead they're dead.
There are precisely two things to do in Droid Assault, and yet it's enough to make it satisfyingly overwhelming. You kill, or you capture. The first is standard top-down clicky-shooty, and the second is where all the interesting stuff happens. An awful lot hinges on capture - it stocks up on lives, it generates a force that helps defend whichever Droid you're currently in charge of, and it upgrades your own strength and abilities. Bigger, better bots appear as the levels wear on, sporting harder armour and stronger weapons - clearly, you want them on Team Droid. Gotta catch 'em all. Trouble is, these bigger bots are busy shooting at you and, well, shooting back is usually a lot quicker and safer than the harrowingly short-range, sluggish capture beam. On top of that, you can only capture if you have enough points in the bank - points which are gained by killing. Your every enemy is your potential friend, and vice-versa.
It's an effective enough dilemma that you end up performing these ludicrously elaborate, seat of the pants circuits where you're trying to avoid Big Huge Nasty Bot #23 so a) he doesn't kill you and b) you don't kill him, desperately hunting for something smaller and less desirable to kill so you can build up enough points to brainwash the big fella. Oops, not him, he looks useful. Hmm, maybe not him either - I've got one of the same type, but he's badly damaged, so... Dammit, there must be something worthless in here.
Actually clearing the level - the exit opens up once you've killed or captured everything - is fairly straightforward, at least in the earlier levels, but you're hamstrung by your own greed. My first Game Over was a direct result of a sustained kidnap attempt on a really beefy-looking bot. Every time you die, you transfer to your nearest bot (you can also switch whenever you want, which is an effective means of saving a badly damaged Droid from death). Just one more, I thought. I'll surely get him this time. Oh. my droids. My beautiful droids. All gone.
That's mostly it, a few boss fights, power-ups and high score chases aside - this is a defiantly old school affair, and it works very well for it. It's a game based on a single idea, and it's certainly a strong enough one to prop up the free demo. The full game, all 50 levels and 48 droid-types of it, is £5/$10; I haven't been past the demo content as yet, but based on that I'm confident Droid Assault's more than enough pixel-robot goodness for the price.