Do me a favor; try and imagine the following scenario: it’s the mid-1980s and you’re a marketing executive at Nintendo in Japan. The company plans to bring their “Famicom” console to North America. There’s just one problem with that idea: the market isn’t exactly welcoming.
In 1983, the North American video game market basically self-destructed. The crash was at least partly due to market over-saturation from several companies releasing low quality games. Former industry giant Atari ultimately split into pieces over financial trouble. At this point, American retailers really didn’t want anything to do with consoles.
With all this in mind, what do you do if you want to launch a new console in this area? Well, in this case, you market it as a toy. That said, how do you convince retailers (let alone consumers) that this machine, designed to play games, is actually more than that?
The answer was: R.O.B. Formally known as the Robotic Operating Buddy, this machine, which could receive commands through flashes from the television, came bundled with the aptly-named NES Deluxe Set. It certainly would have looked cool to the children of the day. So, how many titles were compatible with it? Two. Yes, two; Gyromite and Stack Up.
How did it work? Well, in Gyromite, R.O.B. made use of a special tray for an NES controller. Place the controller in the tray, and pressing some buttons attached to the tray would trigger the A and B buttons on the controller. The goal of the game is to maneuver Professor Hector through a level, opening and closing gates as needed, while collecting all of the loose dynamite. The trick is, R.O.B controls the gates; pressing A or B by triggering the tray controls using tops known as Gyros. R.O.B can just hold a gyro on one button, but if you need one to stay down while you do something else, you need to use the Gyro spinner. This battery-powered device will allow a Gyro to stay upright on its own for quite some time. This might have been a pretty fun control system, if not for two things: R.O.B moves very slowly, and every single command you send him (done by pressing controller buttons) must be preceded by pressing Start. On top of this, keep in mind that R.O.B. like the spinner, requires his own batteries.
The other compatible game, Stack-Up, requires the use of a set of small colored blocks (as well as a pair of attachments for R.O.B.’s hands to make it easier for him to grip the blocks). The gameplay revolves around variations on the theme of moving these blocks to different places, as well as putting them into different orientations, on the bases surrounding R.O.B. For example, one game mode requires the player to set up the blocks in a tower formation, then continually shift them into different formations (each previous “target” formation becomes the new starting point). When you have successfully completed the objective, you can calculate your score using how long it took you, as well as how many moves you had to have R.O.B execute.
If you’re wondering, “How does the game know when I’ve managed to set the blocks up right?” the answer is: it doesn’t. Instead, the player is required to manually inform the game that the objective is complete by pressing the start button. I’m sure you can imagine the possibility for cheating (although, I must admit, I’m not exactly sure what the score would be for a completion that involved using zero moves, and took zero seconds to accomplish).
Befitting a peripheral with the apparent purpose of overcoming retailer anxiety, R.O.B was quietly forgotten a relatively short time into the run of the NES. Although, I guess it isn’t entirely fair to say he’s been completely forgotten. Although he has made no further appearances in his original form, he has continued to show up in games every so often, at least in some way.
So, let’s hear it for R.O.B.; a short-lived peripheral, but one conceived with a very important purpose.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Playing with Power-Ups. Check back next time for another peripheral from the era of the Famicom. I don’t like to give my topics away; so, I’ll leave you with this instead: what if I told you, there was a way to actually save game data (no passwords here) without the need for battery-backed RAM. Have I got you interested? I hope so. If that’s the case, be sure to come back.
I’ll be waiting.