I, Robot

I, Robot
Notorious R.O.B.

Sam Machkovech | 27 Oct 2009 08:53
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On-screen, this eventually made the barriers lift up and down. Off-screen, this made ... a lot of noise. For every button press, R.O.B. took three seconds to move his arms a short distance - zzzzzzzzsht! - then stopped, eagerly awaiting your next order. Move two inches. Zzzzzzzzsht! Lower hands one centimeter. Zzzzzzzsht! Holy crap, R.O.B. You're not making a watertight seal over there. Hurry up.


Even sadder was the realization that R.O.B.'s painfully deliberate movements were largely theatrical in the grand scheme of things. A young, bright-eyed Nintendo fan would watch R.O.B. take nearly a full minute to activate just one barrier in the game, buzzing noisily between each jerky motion. This process would repeat, barrier after barrier, level after level, until the kid noticed the second gamepad stuck in R.O.B.'s chassis. He could've bypassed all this crap with a single button press.

The only other R.O.B.-compatible game, Stack Up, makes a little more sense. You're asked to stack colors in a certain way on one of R.O.B.'s trays, then rearrange the colors on the other trays. Here, at least, R.O.B. visually tracks puzzles that the 8-bit NES can't quite produce on a screen. Of course, his slow arms haven't gotten any quicker between games, so players may as well detach the arms and do the work themselves.

Clearly, R.O.B. was crafted with form over function in mind, as he required the aforementioned gamepad-poke setup to affect gameplay and his movement is limited to rotation on a five-point axis. What could Gyromite 2 have done better? Added more tops? Hence, Nintendo quietly took its "robot series" of games behind the shed only a year after the initial launch.

This disaster of an accessory could've stopped Nintendo cold in its tracks. Lucky for them, packed next to every stupid robot was a copy of Super Mario Bros., and getting America to try out its plumber's adventures was persuasive enough to keep Nintendo in the fore.

R.O.B. has been called Nintendo's Trojan horse before, but the tactic wasn't just to trick toy stores into stocking another videogame system. When Teddy Ruxpin was sold out at toy stores in the mid-'80s, R.O.B. convinced more than a few parents to snap up an NES - including mine. Guess I owe the little guy a beer.

Red Eyes Stare Back

R.O.B. did get one thing right: As a marketing tool, he blurred the line between videogames and toys; but as a product, he also blurred the line between a passive hobby and a tangible form of entertainment.

Prior to the NES, game controllers were limited to joysticks, light guns, steering wheels and trackballs. Some were flashier than others, but all were basic manipulators of whatever happened on screen, and the flashy ones certainly weren't available on home consoles. R.O.B. was the first piece of gaming hardware to challenge the input device status quo, to suggest that gaming could feel very different than the prior decade had led us to believe.

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