Here's what that E rating means:
Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.I know I'm just a crotchety old man now, but when did it become acceptable for kids to see even cartoon depictions of robot masscres of Mommies, Daddies, and Mikeys? Or the wholesale conversion of those persons into murderous borgs, which you then have to kill? The ESRB description above doesn't seem quite apt, at least to a Robotron vet.
Then there is the larger statement about Humanity: We will be destroyed by our own creations. As a teenager reading science fiction, this wasn't a foreign concept, but I'm not sure I was ready for that at age six. While it wouldn't bother me terribly for my own son to eventually cultivate a dim (or shall we say balanced) view of Humanity and its delusions of importance and omnipotence, I'm not sure I want him burdened with it when he's just learning fractions and basic English grammar.
Defender and Defender II are also rated E and are disturbing in their own way: alien ships absorb humans to become more virulent mutant aliens.
What got me thinking about this, incidentally, is that the new arcade machine from Target has an ESRB rating of E for all of its twelve games: Joust, Defender I and II, Robotron, Rampage, Splat, Satan's Hollow, Root Beer Tapper, Bubbles, Wizard of Wor, Timber and Sinistar.
I think this is a case of nostalgia trumping accuracy from the ESRB. Games that have been around for a while, been in public places for decades, are probably seen as generally acceptable, regardless of their content.
(Of course, from that point of view, maybe they should be seen as acceptable...)
But going on the definitions, I'd've put Robotron in the E10+ category, if I ran the circus.
Another issue is that the ESRB ratings are predominantly defined by the meaning attributed to the game's output and not to the output itself. Fundamentally, Robotron is about aiming a pixel from one little bunch of pixels to another little bunch of pixels. The fact that you're supposed to get the impression that there's robots killing Mommy is somewhat less threatening because of the unrealistic graphics.
The ESRB ratings try to address this a little bit: there's mild violence, cartoon violence, fantasy violence, and intense violence, in addition to general nonspecific violence. I think it's appropriate to distinguish these(Tom & Jerry is violent, but it's not the same type of violence as the A Team). But still, it's aimed at the sort of violence the story of the game is meant to convey, rather than what violence is actually seen.
Maybe in this modern era of nigh-photorealistic games, there isn't much difference. But the blocky pixels of these retro games have some built-in acceptability (maybe not enough for 6 year olds, but probably enough for 10 year olds).
I wanted to respond to this:
The fact that you're supposed to get the impression that there's robots killing Mommy is somewhat less threatening because of the unrealistic graphics.
That bothers me. When Dr. Seuss wrote "The Butter Battle Book", people were horrified that he would take on the nuclear arms race in the form of a children's book. The "graphics" there were unrealistic. They were line cartoons!
If we're talking about the end of the Human Race in the form of a 1980s era graphics, then we're missing the horror of the story because we only see blocky pixel blobs.