I’m back. Somehow it’s been 3 months since my last post, despite the fact I was finally getting into the swing of writing. But as soon as I got going with my Nintendo playthrough goal, I picked up a massive project at work—I ended up running a safety investigation, based on a series of observations, that lead to a huge line of chasing rabbits down holes. The end result was a 25000-word written report. Which basically is a novella. So I finally get writing for fun, and then I write more for work than I had in the previous few years collectively. I spent National Novel Writing Month completely burned out. There was also some sort of election that took a lot out of me. And there’s STILL a pandemic. So now it’s been almost exactly three months since I wrote about Miyamoto and Mario and his brother Luigi. I’d apologize, but there’s nobody out there actually reading this to apologize to.
(I fully realize I’m shouting at the void…but I’m pretty sure Jimi Hendrix started playing the guitar for nobody in his bedroom, and I’m willing to bet Monet threw away a whole bunch of canvasses before he sold one. There’s not a chance in hell I’m ever Hendrix or Monet…I’ll be happy to be read by somebody I don’t know. Small goals, right?).
Anyway, back (again) to your regularly scheduled programming.
When Nintendo tried to break into the American video game market in 1983, the video game environment was in shambles. Atari had previously controlled the video game market with a large percentage of consoles sold, but other companies were also in on the second generation of video gaming…Colecovision, Intellivision, and the Magnavox Oddessy competed with the Atari 2600 (and later 5200). Games came fast and furious, and semi-legal ports (and completely illegal hacks of games) were all over the place. A new game would come out, and within months, the game would be ported over to another system (with or without permission from the game’s creator), or a knock-off clone would be made and published on a rival system. While this could have been an arms race of creating better and better games, the opposite happened: it became a race to produce games faster and faster. The end result was that the quality of games started to dip. And then dip further. And then crater altogether.
The classic example of this was the game E.T. The game was ordered in July of 1982, in order to tie in with the movie. It was expected to be sold by Christmas that year. The end result was the game was created in a marathon of just six weeks. While that seems like something to brag about, anybody who has ever played E.T. will tell you that maybe, just maybe, they should have spent another 6 weeks on it. The game was simply janky, and awkward, and not very good. (play it HERE and tell me what you think.) The game was famously so bad that Atari literally buried unsold copies of the game in an Alamogordo New Mexico landfill.
(Really. Somebody dug them up a few years ago. You can find a copy of the “recovered” game on eBay. They aren’t cheap.)
While E.T. has become a punchline of horrible games, it serves a great purpose in demonstrating how poor video games had become. The games were being created for the sake of creating more games, not for the sake of creating GOOD games.
This was the market Nintendo wanted to enter—a market saturated with crappy games and knockoffs of decent ones. As I talked about earlier, the FAMICOM was successful in Japan; Nintendo knew they had a winner in a solid system to run games Nintendo carefully crafted themselves. What they needed was a way to sell a new system to a country more or less overwhelmed with gaming systems. They decided to do it in a way completely different from any of the other games; they were going to sell the Nintendo as an “Entertainment System.” I’m not exactly sure how to describe the goal of Nintendo’s American launch, except that it was a combination of two or three ideas. The NES wasn’t just going to be a video game console. It looked different, like a VCR, not an Atari. It had a variety of peripherals—instead of just a simple joystick controller, it also had a light gun. And it was educational: it came with a robot.
The Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B., was supposed to be the next big thing in home gaming: a robot that gamed with you. It wasn’t just a part of the system; it actually played along with you while you gamed. And it kind of (just barely kind of) did what was advertised. Looking at the R.O.B., you can see the big bulbous eyes…they were actually an offshoot of the lightgun tech that watched the T.V. along with you. The game was coded to briefly flash certain signals (usually color patterns) that R.O.B. would pick up on, and then he would help you play the game, by moving part of the in-game world to allow you to continue gameplay.
It seems to have worked. The R.O.B. was a hit when the NES started to be sold in fall of 1985; Nintendo sold the gaming press of the value of the system, and it was incredibly unique. Nobody else was selling a robot who sat on the coffee table and helped you play your games.
The problem, however, was three fold. First, the R.O.B. wasn’t always helpful. I myself vividly remember a friend trying, for at least a half an hour, to make the game work when she was showing off how to play Gyromite. It never worked. She wasn’t alone in her challenges. If R.O.B. wasn’t perfectly aligned, he wouldn’t work. And if he did, he had to be set up perfectly to work, which didn’t always happen when you were a kid, which the NES was marketed for. And finally, even if he was set up perfectly, he wasn’t fast. He moved walls and objects back in forth the games released as part of the R.O.B. system, but the robot took time to spin up to speed and moved slowly; competitive players found R.O.B. to be too slow for the games he was supposed to help with. The second challenge was a bigger one—the games R.O.B. played weren’t very exciting. The system released with two games, Gyromite and Stack-up. Gyromite involved guiding an absent-minded professor around his laboratory to collect dynamite (which is the definition of absent minded—who leaves lit clusters of dynamite on the floor?). R.O.B. helped you raise and lower red and blue columns, moving (and creating) obstacles to help you through the levels by spinning a gyro and pushing red and blue buttons. It’s a nifty way to involve the robot, adding a sense of “playing along” with a robot. In Stack-Up R.O.B. (unsurprisingly) helps you stack colored blocks that start laid out around R.O.B., and the player controls the robot to collect, order, stack, and move the colored blocks. Unlike Gyromite, however, Stack-Up has doesn’t feel like you’re “playing along” with a robot…it feels like you’re using the NES to tell the robot what to do. And that’s stack colored blocks. The final issue with the R.O.B. is surprisingly simple…R.O.B. wasn’t needed to play the games. In Gyromite, there was physical linkage between the red and blue buttons R.O.B. pressed…they pushed the A and B buttons on the second controller, tucked in behind the robot. Players quickly learned just pushing the buttons on the other controller was far quicker than counting on R.O.B. to do the pushing for you.
And that’s where the R.O.B. games stopped. Two were released with the Deluxe system sold at launch, and no more games were ever released. That turned R.O.B. into an expensive paperweight…it was a system linked to only two games, one of which (Stack-Up) wasn’t any good, and the other didn’t need the robot to actually be played. (there was an unofficial game released in the late 1990s that used R.O.B. to play Christmas music).
The Nintendo R.O.B. was, in all likelihood, intended to be a Trojan Horse: it was a fancy peripheral device, but Nintendo never truly meant for it to be a long term part of the NES system. While Gyromite is a fully formed game, Stack-Up apparently went from final code to release in less than a month, a needed second game to put some weight behind R.O.B.’s game library.
Nintendo’s effort with the R.O.B. worked. I’m sure there were dads out there, shopping for Christmas presents in 1985, who conned a mom into letting Junior have an NES because “there’s a robot, and it’s an entertainment SYSTEM, not a gaming console.” That said, the robot ended up being a footnote to the success of the NES instead of the hallmark.
I still, really, really want one.