Once upon a time, the world of gaming was so dreary that a yellow circle blew people’s minds. In 1980, Pac-Man became a star almost by default, towering over such gaming “heroes” as the missile pod from Centipede the guns from Missile Command and the cannon from Space Invaders. Apparently, the gaming public didn’t find turrets all that relatable.
Many games followed Pac-Man’s character-centric lead soon after. It’s hard to say which era of mascots has proven most fruitful – the ’80s arcade, the Sonic vs. Mario years or modern stars like Pikachu and Master Chief. They each have unique designs and personalities that have captured gamers’ imaginations.
But none of those were as revolutionary as the most important gaming mascot of all time – and certainly the most unique. After all, only one mascot was your Buddy. You know, your Robotic Operating Buddy.
R.O.B. debuted with the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 as part of the console’s deluxe package, tapping into its release year’s ethos by combining the living-robot design of Short Circuit‘s Johnny Five with the squat, bug-eyed appeal of E.T. The result, at nearly a foot tall, was cute, iconic and hitherto unheard of in the world of videogames. Forget Pac-Man – this plastic contraption promised games that played with you in your living room.
Trouble was, it kinda, sorta, completely sucked. Annoying to set up, annoying to use and supported by a whopping two games, R.O.B.’s rank as Nintendo’s most disappointing hardware release has stood the test of time. Not even the Virtual Boy could dethrone this disaster.
So why is it important? R.O.B., unlike every gaming device before it, delivered a control experience beyond basic directing, aiming and shooting. The cute little bugger typically gets credited as a mascot for the rebirth of home gaming, but more importantly, it blazed the trail as both the first major gaming peripheral and the first artificial gaming “buddy.” When you wail on a Guitar Hero guitar, bounce on a DDR pad or chat up Seaman, know that R.O.B.’s red eyes are watching you.
The Trojan Robot
Among the many reasons we aren’t playing the Coleco Supernova or the Atari Jaguar-128X, the Great Videogame Crash of the early ’80s is the biggest. Before home gaming could get a foothold in American living rooms, those companies, among others, just about killed the hobby through oversaturation.
They released too many games, most of which were at best bland and downright unplayable at worst. Furthermore, each company released incremental upgrades to their hardware, confusing a young market. Those factors combined to flood toy store shelves with unsold product. Atari has its famous story of burying thousands of unsold E.T. cartridges in a desert landfill, but let’s not kid ourselves: Plenty of other lame games landed in that trash heap, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.