Techno Games 2001: Day 1 Review

Here we are, everyone. About two weeks later than I had planned due to some unforeseen circumstances, and some more I definitely should have seen coming, coverage of Techno Games 2001 can finally begin. 

The 2000 edition certainly set a bar for what we can expect from the show moving forward, and since this was the one series I hadn’t actually watched before starting this series, I was incredibly curious to see what the quality was like in between the below-par DT projects of 2000, and the engineering extravaganza of 2002. To say the results were mixed would be accurate, but there were a whole lot of changes.

The first change I should mention is that the show now has twice as many episodes, meaning we have ten episodes to slog through instead of the barely passable five that we were treated to last time. This not only means extended coverage of the previously held events, such as the swimming and the sprinting (with some actual good robots this time), but some cool new events too, such as cycling, rocket car racingAnd guiding us through these ten episodes, along with recurringboffins Noel Sharkey and Martin Smith won’t be IKEA’s finest, Ulrika Jonsson, but instead we have thegloriously northern Jayne Middlemiss, who, as it turns out, did more than just co-present the seventh series of Robot Wars, much to the astonishment of my seven-year-old self.

Why aye lads

We’ve also moved out of the Millennium Dome, presumably to find somewhere that was less vigilant on health and safety protocol, and from now on we’ll be seeing the Robolympics from the “Technodrome” at Shepperton Studios, as the announcer at the start of series 3 and 4 calls it. And in one final change to the presenting line-up, professional Philippa Forrester lookalike Sophie Blake has been replaced by professional Philippa Forrester replacement Julia Reed, famed for her time on the fourth series of Robot Wars, as well as Robot Wars Extreme. However, instead of being awkwardly shoehorned into out-of-place segments because the producers realised they needed to give her screen time, Reed will instead be off vlogging in Japan. That’s right, if there’s one thing Techno Games set the standard for, it was vlogging, and every episode we’ll see Julia gallivanting around the Orient exploring the latest advancements in technology, as the show begins to actually find a balance between entertainment and information.

Battery-Powered Sprinting: Heats One and Two

To start things off, the star of the last series, Skeletron, opens the games by climbing down a rope and setting some fireworks off, so you can already tell the production team have ramped up the budget for this one. As for the first event of the games, it’s the battery-powered sprint, which was, of course, “won” by Waddle last year, whose world record stands at just over three and a half minutes. With every word she says sounding toonorthern (if there is such a thing), Jayne introduces us to the new-fangled format with a whopping thirtyrobots taking part. Surely at least one can come close to breaking that abysmal excuse of a world record?

Ed Hall makes a much-welcomed return to the show to introduce us to the first four (hopeful) runners. There’s Tet II, a mechanical dog that’s apparently made out of actual dog hair, Cheeky Boy 1, which looks like a disposed part of the pie-making machine from Chicken Run, Kerminator, a hopping horse-type thing being ridden by Kermit the Frog, and Salsa, coming at us from the minds of the Calypso team from last year, with their answer to the question “what if a doorstop knew how to move?”. So far I’m not filled with hope, but Cheeky Boy 1 does at least look like it’s going to leave the starting gate.

And when the race begins, I’m mercifully proven right. Despite some trouble with the steering, Cheeky Boy 1 glides elegantly down the track, making bumping into the railings seem like an art form. It’s the pie machine that crosses the line to win, obliterating the world record to finish in 24.42 seconds. This race will also mark the first time two robots have (legally) crossed the finishing line, as Salsa hobbles along to finish in 58 seconds. Tet II is put out of its misery after barely making it a quarter of the way down its lane, while Kerminator never actually made it out of the starting block, but watching it hop about on the spot did make for some quality viewing.

The cheekiest of cheeky boys

Martin declares his love for Kermit, and Jayne moves us on to the second sprinting heat of the day, featuring the return of Scuttle. You probably remember Scuttle from last year for exploding all over the track, before being flipped upside down to drive its way to the end, earning itself a disqualification and a place in Techno Games folklore. However, Team 101 have returned with the assurance that the technical issues have been fixed, replacing explosive entertainment with hyper-speed. Noel reckons it’ll be able to complete the course in under four seconds (maybe three!), and makes me slightly angry that if it could have worked fine this whole time, we wouldn’t have had to sit through three and a half minutes of Waddle. Twice.

Anyway, we’re taken “live” to the track to be introduced to its opponents, in the first of many cases in which we’re clearly not being taken live to the event, and what ensues is an awkward interaction between Ed and Jayne where they have to pretend as if they’re talking to each other through Ed’s earpiece. Robot Wars regulars Scuttle will be put through their paces against Creepy Crawler, a Kleenex box decorated in sparkly stickers and some sort of UFO, the brilliantly-named Pharaoh-Dynamics, an off-balanced, peg-legged, Egyptian-themed monstrosity which the team predict will finish the race in half an hour, and Grinsect, a tiny beast made out of “a well-known construction material” so the team don’t get done for copyright infringement. It’s Lego, for the record. 

I’m not convinced that any of these three will pose much of a challenge to Scuttle, and as the race gets under way I’m quickly proven right, because the race is over almost before it’s had time to begin. Scuttle storms away, much to the delight of the audience, the team, and Barry (I forgot to mention that Barry’s also back, the bloody legend), and smashes the newly-set world record with a time of 5.40 seconds. Noel is understandably devastated at being a second out with his prediction. Scuttle does a few lengths of the track while the other three have barely even left the starting gate, with Creepy Crawler hugging the wall, while Grinsect and Pharaoh-Dynamics both topple over spectacularly.

Struck down by a plague of bad design

Cheeky Boy 1 and Scuttle are officially the first battery-powered sprint semi-finalists. We’re only two heats in and already things are a thousand times better than last year. 

Cycling

Sadly we’re going to have to wait until the third day of events to catch more of the sprinting, but to compensate, for now, we’re going over to the first-ever cycling event. Apparently this is an exhibition event, meaning that there’ll be no consequences whatsoever for whoever does worse, and we can all pretend like this event never happened. There’s two experimental bicycle-shaped things taking part here, and they basically just have to do a lap of the circuit as quick as possible, with a ten-second penalty for human intervention. After an annoyingly impressive opening event, Ed is back to being his confused and pessimistic self at the prospect of seeing this event unfold.

There’s Wizz Bang, a tin foil bicycle controlled by Lance Murdock, indicating this isn’t going to be a very successful run. Even the guy who built is embarrassed by it, and given the standard of robot on this show that really is saying something. It genuinely looks like it’s going to just fall over with no one to prop it up. It’s up against Curves, which is literally a child’s bicycle with batteries attached to it. Literally no f*cks were given in the making of this entrant. They’ve even put f*cking stabilizers on it to stop it falling over, which should surely be illegal, but I don’t think the production crew put too much thought into the rules.

As expected, Curves’ exploitation of the rules means it beings to glide its way around the course, whereas the unstable Wizz Bang gets underway by literally driving off course and into the crowd. It’s literally noped its way out five seconds into the race. That’s pretty much how the rest of the race goes, with Curves finishing with a time of 42.43 seconds, and Wizz Bang smashing itself into every wall it can find. Unsurprisingly, the team with control and stability win the race, and although Ed tries to reconcile the Wizz Bang team with kind words about how impressive their machine is, the sad truth is, it wasn’t, and they fully know it. Although it turns out Curves was built by a team from Cambridge University, making this even more of a hollow victory than it needed to be.

Must’ve spotted a mate in the crowd

We’re now treated to our first installment of Julia’s travel blog, exploring the weird and wonderful technology from the hidden global superpower of Japan. Whether this entire segment was intended as a warning to western audiences about lagging behind the technology of the east remains a mystery, but the important thing is that Julia seems happy, and I’m happy knowing she got to travel around a bit before falling off the face of the Earth.

The segment in this show serves mostly as a preview of what we can expect in the coming episodes, with androids, fish, dogs, bagpipes, and robot bugs with nerf guns on the back of them, all apparently at the disposal of the Japanese. It’s a wonder they haven’t yet fully engulfed our culture. However, in all of this, Julia seems most excited about meeting “robot firemen”, so whether this actually turns out to be some sort of weird acid-induced anime also remains to be seen.

Jules (as Jonathan Pearce calls her on Robot Wars) does actually get to meet a robot this episode, Wameba (I think that’s how you spell it), a fully autonomous robot that has feelings and acts how it wants to. It’s surprising we haven’t seen more of these things integrated into society as of yet, although I do know people who have less emotional awareness than this thing, so maybe they already have and we don’t know it yet. Maybe we haven’t seen any more of these things because all it can do is plod around and ask people to charge its batteries. So maybe that’s why the revolution hasn’t come yet.

“Life is meaningless and I have no purpose”

Back in the studio, Skeletron and its team appear for a minute-long interview (if that) to basically tell us that NASA was a nice trip, as shown by a short video of a rocket. Lovely.

Shot Putt: Part One

Anyway, we’re moving swiftly on from high-tech rockets and autonomous robots to things that can lob a ball a bit far, otherwise known as the shot putt. Last year’s event was a bit of a clusterf*ck, with Kluk coming up trumps with a record throw of 6.18, recovering after throwing the ball at itself on the first throw. Kluk won’t be back to defend its crown this year, not unlike several gold medalists from last year, presumably because they know life wouldn’t get much better for them and they should just quit while they’re ahead. 

The event itself seems to have spawned some sort of mass following in the year between the games, expanding from three competitors to, well, a lot more than that. It’s also indoors now, which is exciting. Today we’re going to see the first three competitors set the benchmark for what’s to come, with each of them throwing twice. Ed chucks the shot putt 6m as a demonstration for what they have to live up to, in a segment which definitely involved no editing whatsoever.

First up is a device known as Twigworth Breaker, built by a team that will be very familiar to Robot Wars viewers, the Pussycat boys. Seeing as this thing would’ve been built at the peak of the team’s success, you’d home that this sideways record player would be able to easily bring back the gold medal. It manages 2.62m, in a wonderful display of underachievement. Following on from that is Mighty Midget, taking the classic approach of trying too hard to make a machine that will replicate human movement on a shoestring budget. It’s basically some springs that will push forward on release to make it look like a human throwing the putt, and it also has a cartoon head stuck to it, just for a bit of extra realism. The Midget manages 3.85m, and it’s looking all the more likely that we’re in for a long old event. 

Finally, there’s Armstrong, which bears no relation to either Louis, Neil, or Alexander, but is actually a distant cousin of Lance. It’s basically a pole that spins around really fast and when the time is right it releases the putt, yeeting it down the sand in spectacular fashion. Sometimes, it won’t even do it at the right time, such as this first throw, as it launches the putt into the cage, resulting in a no-throw. So glad to see the step-up that’s happened in the off-season.

Nice angles bro

Instead of chronicling the specific ins and outs of the second throw, I’ll save all of you some time by giving you a quick recap of each. Twigworth Breaker ends up shooting the putt straight upwards, elegantly coming down into the hands of Alan Gribble, and while the catch was probably the best thing about this event so far, it’s still a no-throw. Mighty Midget gracefully throws the putt right onto the four metre mark, resulting in the best throw of the day, after Armstrong once again chucks the putt straight into the cage, and almost takes off with the starting platform as well. It’s probably a good thing it went straight into the cage though, as it looked like it was headed straight for the audience rather than the sand.

So Mighty Midget sets the pace for the shot putt, with a distance two metres under the world record. It’s not been a great start to the event to be honest, and the world record so far doesn’t look in any immediate danger, and I never thought this series would struggle to give us something better than Kluk. But there you go. Noel assures us that the next three rounds (yes, there really are that many) will bring us better results, and also goes off on a tangent about the moon, much to the confusion of both Jayne and everyone watching at home.

Artificial Rope Climb: Heat One

There’s only five minutes left of the first day of the games, so we may as well finish with the first heat of the artificial rope climbing. Yes, you’re right in thinking that’s a very specific kind of rope climb we didn’t see last year, and that’s because the rope climb has now been split into two events; the “natural” rope climb, to make sure Skeletron wins an event, and the “artificial” rope climb, to keep naughty robots on wheels like Simian away from Skeletron. Simian is another bot that won’t be defending its crown this year, so let’s go and meet the first two climbers attempting to become the new lords of the rope.

There’s High Climber, which looks like an upgraded Simian, and Great Escape, which is a literal circuit board and some sponge. According to the Great Escape team it can make it up in “about four or five seconds”, which is certainly an ambitious statement given that it looks like it’ll disintegrate about twelve milliseconds into the race. The canned crowd noises that the production team also use for Robot Wars (trust me we’ll be hearing it a lot) begins to swell as the teams power up. And as the race starts, High Climber soars away and tears the world record a new one, reaching the top in 1.91 seconds. If Cheeky Boy 1 and Scuttle were impressive in the sprinting, this somehow tops their performances. Great Escape meanwhile, lays dormant at the bottom of the rope, having failed to perform the basic act of movement in the time taken for its opponent to make its way up the rope and back down again.

Yes, that blur in the top right is indeed High Climber

And with that astonishing display of rope climbing wizardry, the first day of Techno Games 2001 draws to a close. It’s been an overall mixed bag, with some genuinely outstanding devices showing their worth at the top of the spectrum, and Wizz Bang at the bottom of it. Tomorrow’s event promises us pretty much more of the same, with the return of the swimming, more eggs-travaganzas in egg lofting, and more adverts for solar energy.

At the very least, we should be grateful the quality’s gone up in some way. Thanks for reading, and remember, if you see a robot asking for help on the street, please don’t charge its batteries. Good night.

Help meeeeee

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