MindRover: The Europa Project will stretch your mind

MindRover: The Europa Project
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Despite the controversy surrounding his findings, Darwin really did have it right. The strongest, fastest and smartest creatures live. Nowhere I think is this more evident than at a full-blown robot war competition.

If you have never seen a robot war first hand, you should. Whether you are watching robots trying to outmatch each other in soccer games, or beat each other to piles of circuits and frayed wires, it’s always an exciting event. Just thinking about all the programming that went into each robot’s artificial intelligence, not to mention the components and sensors, is mind-boggling.

But unless you happen to be lucky enough to work for NASA or are enrolled in an engineering course at a progressive school, robots are confined to science fiction and battles behind the Plexiglas. And all that hard science remains just out of reach.

Enter MindRover. This game was dropped on my desk because the powers-that-be at GiN figured it was a family title or a children’s game. But when I opened the box I was confronted with the reality that this program is complex enough to train first year MIT students. You have to give your robot all the senses and skills it will need in an arena. Once you get there you are on your own. And one wrong command and your robot will likely not move, not make the right move or generally just get beat up by the robots with better programmers. Multiplayer is a blast in a way that no game of Quake ever could be. Smarts is a much higher attribute than strength or even quickness in these areas.

The premise of the game is that you are basically a bored scientist sitting around a science outpost on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Apparently you and your coworkers are either prone to goofing-off or are in a serious lull between experiments. So what is any bored scientist likely to do? Of course! Construct robots and pit them against one another in battles to the death.

Ok, it sounds cool I thought. The first thing I did was to select a chassis that would serve as the base to my robotic vehicle, in this case a hovercraft. Then I attached some thrusters and two medium range radar units. I programmed the medium range radars to turn the thruster on the opposite side of the craft on when they got a ping, thus turning the vehicle in the direction of the contact. I told them in the absence of any contacts, that both thrusters should be turned on, thus driving the vehicle forward. I angled the radars so there would be a blind spot up front that the vehicle would drive into.

Well, it made sense to me at the time. The first time I got into an arena I was facing away from my opponent, starting positions are randomly generated, and in the absence of a radar ping my robot drove straight ahead, right into a wall. It sat there burning its thrusters till the other robot methodically hunted me down and zapped me with its onboard lasers.

Ok, so driving into a blind spot is not a good idea. I added a sonar beacon and told the robot that when it got a ping it should turn, which would keep it off the walls. But then the robot was turning away from opponents as well, which also triggered the ping. So I had to set up an Identify Friend or Foe device. The IFF filtered out everything but walls, and thus only triggered my turning program when we were actually close to a wall, not when we were moving in for a shot on an opponent.

I then added two missile racks and a long-range radar. With a narrow beam, the long-range radar can be an effective target device. Again, using an IFF I set the radar to ping only when it saw an enemy vehicle in front of the missiles. Since the missile have unlimited range, the long-range radar when tightly focused can act as a great trigger for distance weapons.

For close up kill shots, I added some lasers since they were relatively light and faced them forward. Unfortunately the lasers would shoot at my own missile when it launched, calling for another IFF device.

So now that my robot was "perfect," I took it to a multiplayer arena. Unfortunately I ran into a very smart programmer. He had put a 360-degree radar on his robot and programmed his craft to spin in a mad circle firing machine guns whenever a projectile got close. The result was that he was able to shoot down most of my missile shots. I got lucky few times though, since I had two missile launchers firing missiles at different speeds. He would often get the fast one, only to get slammed by the slower one before his subroutine could reset.

There are also other robotic games you can play, like racing around a track (and keeping your robot on it), playing a modified capture the flag game and finding various objects before your opponents.

Other than the animated violence, and even then it is just vehicles shooting each other, the game should be suitable for any member of the family. The turnoff for most younger members of the family will be the difficulty level. If you like playing a lot of games with your children, then this title might be perfect, but remember this is not Pajama Sam here, you are going to have to do most of the driving. If your kid shows you how to program the robot, grab an MIT enrollment form right away.

CongiToy gets kudos for inventing an entire new genre of game, and for doing so successfully. And here’s a little secret: the game is fun for adults as well. Egghead warriors without a cause will love this fine title. It teaches programming skills, cause and effect patterns and the knowledge that sometimes, you just have to let go and watch your work come to fruition. To an extent this is a parenting skill.

MindRover picks up a perfect 5 GiN Gem score for its innovation, and a fine and fun learning experience.

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