I, Robot

I, Robot
Notorious R.O.B.

Sam Machkovech | 27 Oct 2009 12:53
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R.O.B. may have foreshadowed the eventual peripheral revolution, but for a while he only foreshadowed how awfully add-ons would perform. The NES Zapper, released at the same time as R.O.B., also saw few releases. The same could be said for Sega and Nintendo's other light guns, along with their four-player adapters and many other devices, including mice, the Power Pad and fishing rods.

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For years, most peripherals got caught in a vicious cycle: Developers didn't make peripheral-based games that limited their customer base, and gamers avoided add-ons that didn't work with a bunch of games. Worse, the peripheral market was swamped with bombs like the Power Glove, U-Force and Sega Activator, each of which attempted to mimic standard gamepads in wholly inaccurate ways rather than add anything new. When gaming prodigy Lucas Barton called the Power Glove "so bad" in The Wizard, he wasn't kidding.

The '80s and '90s kids who turned starry-eyed over peripherals have since grown up and gotten jobs, and the game industry has responded with peripheral-heavy games that are actually worth our disposable income. But there's more to R.O.B.'s legacy than a pile of toys.

In hindsight, it's clear that R.O.B.'s ambitions far outstripped his flimsy plastic grasp. But other peripheral-based "buddy" games have picked up where he left off. Did you ever have Seaman read your personality back to you? The Dreamcast cult classic, in which players speak to a virtual, talking fish via microphone, takes account of every statement and offers canned but amusing replies. Likewise, Nintendogs helped popularize the Nintendo DS's touch-based gameplay by giving players a virtual version of man's best friend to interact with.

No one could have predicted it at the time, but R.O.B.'s halfhearted attempt at virtual friendship kick-started a genre that shows no signs of dying off. Next year, Sony's slick EyePet, complete with camera integration, will let players interact with an adorable augmented-reality gremlin. And who can forget Milo, the virtual boy who will understand your speech and gestures via Microsoft's Project Natal camera? If these and other buddy games make their expected release dates next year, maybe R.O.B. will flash a smile on his silver anniversary, humbled that the unrealistic gaming dreams with which he set off 25 years earlier have finally been realized.

Sam Machkovech is the games critic for Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger.

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