I, Robot

I, Robot
Notorious R.O.B.

Sam Machkovech | 27 Oct 2009 08:53
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At the same time, the Japanese welcomed Nintendo into their homes with open arms. The Famicom (Family Computer, the NES's name overseas) rode the wave of Nintendo's astounding first-party lineup, and after a huge 1983 launch, the time came to make some dollars along with all that yen.


Game historians have chronicled the rest: Nintendo's initial demonstrations of an American-looking system (complete with joystick, keyboard and cassette drive) scared away toy retailers - not another video game; those were a fad! - so the original American makeover was thrown out the window. The word "toy" became paramount, and along with a new name and a new design came a new accessory: R.O.B. the Robot.

Nintendo had a few other tricks to get into wary toy shops in the early days, including a limited launch in small markets, the company's promise to buy back any unsold stock from retailers and a financial partnership with Worlds of Wonder, the makers of Teddy Ruxpin, to guarantee more shelf space.

But R.O.B. was perhaps riskier than all of those business moves, because his face was, for all intents and purposes, the company's face for a short while. R.O.B. had an intense '80s-perfect look, and he dominated Nintendo's earliest advertisements, the ones that eventually won over America's anxious toy retailers. So if the plucky little robot bombed - if little kids couldn't stand playing with Nintendo's most iconic product - then wouldn't the console's American debut have bombed right along with him?

Move It, Buddy!

I hated R.O.B. They named it the Robotic Operating Buddy, right? Someone who helps you semi-autonomously? Referred to in every instruction manual as "he," meaning R.O.B. came complete with a gender and a soul? Not quite. (I checked. No man-bits.)

To use R.O.B., you had to attach an array of game-specific accessories - a battery-powered spinner, circular trays, even its damned hands - and then aim R.O.B.'s red eyes at the TV screen, where it received flashing-light signals (the same way the NES Zapper worked). Pick "TEST" from the game's menu, watch a red light flash on R.O.B.'s head and you're off.

The game that came with R.O.B., Gyromite, is as weird as any other '80s Nintendo title; instead of a plumber jumping on turtles, you're a professor throwing turnips at "Smicks." The catch is that the professor needs help getting past red and blue barriers. Conveniently, R.O.B. had red and blue buttons stuck to his chassis. (It was hard to forget, considering it took forever to attach the buggers.) You sent commands to R.O.B. to move his arms and open and close his hands, thus lifting and moving little tops onto spinners and those colored buttons.

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