A showcase for the NES’s Trojan horse peripheral R.O.B., Gyromite is in fact a lot more fun than it really needed to be.
Japanese title: ロボットジャイロ • Robot Gyro
Robot Gyro, aka Gyromite, debuted in Japan just two months before the U.S. launch of the system, in August 1985. That puts it two weeks after the debut of its sibling release, Robot Block (aka Stack-Up), which launched at the end of July 1985. However, it makes more sense to break from the chronological sequence that drives this book and explore Gyromite first, because Gyromite came packed in with the NES hardware in America. It played a huge part in the system’s early marketing efforts. Furthermore, understanding this game is essential to understanding Stack-Up, too.
You may wonder why that same exception didn’t hold true for the system’s other American pack-in, Duck Hunt, which shipped after Wild Gunman in Japan. The difference: Wild Gunman had a remarkable legacy of its own that served as valuable context for Duck Hunt. Stack-Up has no legacy, and it is in no way remarkable… save for the fact that it shipped only in an exceedingly rare accessory pack and has become tremendously expensive on the aftermarket. That is to say, its only notable trait was its failure.
Gyromite, on the other hand, helped make the NES a hit. It’s also a difficult game to play properly in this day and age. As such, it has become the most unfairly misunderstood NES launch game.
Gyromite was one of the two games Nintendo ever produced for R.O.B., and it uses the robot’s limited interactive capabilities in a completely different way than its counterpart Stack-Up. It also requires a completely separate set of accessories than R.O.B., which only adds to the general frustration of the NES Robot Series.
In a nutshell, Gyromite was a puzzler platformer very much in keeping with the games of the early ’80s. Think Mappy, Nuts & Milk, Flappy, or Door Door, and you’re on the right track. As it happens, all four of those games had already made an appearance on Famicom by the time this game launched in Japan. So, while Gyromite feels like a bit of an oddity to Americans who missed out on the PC/arcade puzzle action conversions of the early Famicom days, to Japanese fans the game only really stood apart from a crowded field on account of requiring an elaborate and expensive peripheral to play.
Gyromite tasks players with guiding a professor through a maze to collect sticks of dynamite before they explode. Professor Hector and his player-two counterpart Professor Vector have no offensive capabilities of their own, and the mazes they must navigate have become infested with odd birdlike creatures called Smicks, which are deadly to the touch. The challenge becomes to collect all the dynamite scattered throughout each maze without stumbling into a Smick.
You have only two resources at your disposal: First, you can distract the Smicks by dropping fruit in their path. This strategem comes with a number of limitations. Professor Hector can only use the fruit he actually finds in the maze; he can only carry a single piece at a time; and each piece only works as a temporary distraction once—when a Smick has eaten a piece of fruit, it’s gone for good. So this tactic is quite limited, but it’s essential, as a feasting Smick becomes immobile while it gobbles its food, remaining motionless and passive so that Hector can slip past to safety. Dropping fruit in tactical spots becomes a key to surviving Gyromite’s mazes.
However, that’s not Hector’s only survival resource. The other comes in the form of R.O.B., the Robot Operating Buddy. Hector has the ability to pause and send instructions to R.O.B., turning the console-robot interaction into a part of the game itself. By pressing Select, players put the game into “transmit” mode, which involves Hector standing still and fiddling with a remote control that relays commands to R.O.B. Note that while Hector stands motionless in transmit mode, the game itself doesn’t stop. The countdown timer continues to tick down, and Smicks continue to rampage through the stage. You’re vulnerable while in transmit mode, but you can’t complete the game without using it.
But what, you may ask, is the point of transmit mode? How does R.O.B. have any impact on the game? This is where the “gyro” element of Gyromite comes into play. R.O.B. plays the role of gatekeeper here, opening and closing pipe-like red and blue gates that divide the stages. R.O.B.’s accessory set for Gyromite consists of a pair of gyros, a spinner, and two colored levers. The levers in question correspond to the gates, and by placing a gyro on a lever, all gates of the corresponding color will descend. Lift the gyro, and the gates will rise. Entering transmit mode allows you to feed R.O.B. the instructions required to control the games.
Working with R.O.B. proves to be far more involved than simply raising or lowering the gates, though; the basic play process involved in using Gyromite correctly requires a complex series of actions. There’s a reason each stage gives you a counter of 999 to work with: Playing Gyromite with R.O.B.’s assistance proves to be a slow and arduous process.
Note that I say “playing Gyromite correctly,” because you can very easily play the game “wrong” and render it weightless and trivial. In fact, it’s several orders of magnitude easier to play the wrong way than to experience it the way it was designed to be played. After all, the proper way requires R.O.B., his accessories, real NES hardware, and a CRT television—none of which are easy to come by three decades later. And for all R.O.B.’s convolutions, in the end he amounts to a Rube Goldberg device to perform a single task: Pressing the A and B buttons on controller two.
The gates in Gyromite correspond to the two buttons on the second controller, which slots into a holder facing R.O.B. The robot interacts with the game like a person would: He “presses” a button on the second controller to lower the gate activated by that button, and releases in order to raise it. The red and blue levers on R.O.B. Gyromite attachments are connected to separated hinged rails, and when the robot places a gyro on one of the levers, the weight causes the rail to press and hold a button, which triggers an in-game gate.
In other words, if you want to play Gyromite without the hassle of setting up R.O.B., you can just have a second player activate the gates for you. Heck, it’s a simple and slow enough game that you can do it yourself with your off-hand. Professor Hector only needs to tap the A button on controller one to pick up and drop fruit; besides that, the only time you’ll use controller one’s function besides the D-pad is to trigger transmit mode… which you don’t need if you’re not using R.O.B.
The problem is that if you’re not using R.O.B., Gyromite becomes laughably simple and lacks anything even resembling challenge. Since the overwhelming majority of NES fans today have experienced the game through emulation or without a proper robot setup, Gyromite seems like a pointless exercise. In truth, though, the game played properly is actually a lot of fun. Gyromite is cumbersome and R.O.B. was a big waste of plastic, no question. Yet this all has a purpose: R.O.B. creates a wholly unique NES experience by reversing the relationship between software and hardware.
See, you don’t use R.O.B. to play Gyromite; you use Gyromite to play R.O.B. The challenge of the game comes not from trying to outwit the stupid, slow-paced Smicks but rather in juggling R.O.B.’s mechanisms while avoiding threats to Professor Hector. R.O.B. can have two gyros active at once, and balancing them—literally—with the on-screen action and the slow, methodical movements of the robot becomes the true challenge of Gyromite. Nintendo’s marketing line for R.O.B. was that he’d “help you play” the game, but no; R.O.B. is clumsy and awkward, and your role is to help him.
The Gyromite setup for R.O.B. worked like this: You’d place the robot somewhere with a clear view of the television, then attach his game-specific add-ons. Those consisted of the aforementioned controller tray with gyro lever-and-rail mechanisms, a pair of shafts to the side for storing inactive gyros, and finally a gyro spinner. The spinner is a remarkable piece of work: A small, motorized device that triggers when a gyro is placed in it and sets the gyro spinning. Powered by its own D-cell battery, it sets the gyro to spinning at incredibly high speeds.
The gyro element of Gyromite is actually pretty impressive as a gadget. Nintendo engineered the gyros remarkably well, and a fully powered gyro can remarkably keep itself upright for about five minutes before losing balance.
Playing Gyromite involves a lot of gyro-swapping—grabbing the devices from their holders, spinning them up, placing them on the levers, and moving them to a more stable location before they start to run down. It’s a literal balancing act that requires you keep an eye on the in-game situation, the status of the gyros, and the actions of the robot itself.
You can use Professor Hector’s transmission device to send six different commands to R.O.B.: Up, down, left, right, open, and close. The first two determine the height of his arm assembly, which in this game can be positioned at three heights (high, medium, and low); left and right cause his entire body to rotate through five different positions, while his head remains fixed to watch the television; and open and close control his claws, which can grip the central shaft of spinning gyros without affecting their momentum.Gyromite is easy. Gyromite played while paying heed to R.O.B.’s gyros and methodical movements, though… that’s a true challenge.
Besides the standard game, Gyromite offers a B mode in which you have no direct control over Professor Hector. Instead, he sleepwalks, marching methodically left to right, and you have free control over R.O.B. Your task in B mode is to simply position the red and blue gates in a way that will allow the somnambulant professor to reach the exits of each stage. There’s no timer in this level, and instead you’re awarded points based on how many steps Hector takes. The professor comes to a halt when he hits a wall or gate, which affords you time to set up your gyros and plan your moves.
A big part of this mode comes down to timing: You need to master the art of lowering a gate for Hector, then immediately raising it so that it propels him upward to a higher level. Smicks patrol these stages as well, and mode B’s main challenge is to prevent Hector from wandering mindlessly into them. That’s more easily said than done, unfortunately.
You can’t scroll ahead to look at the stage layout in mode B the way you can in the main game, which means there’s a heavy element of blind luck and memorization in mode B that undermines the integrity of its design. It’s a neat idea—it’s basically Mario & Wario a decade early, or the precursor to Lemmings, and it features a musical theme remarkably similar to Ballon Fight’s “Balloon Trip” mode. These are all great traits to have in a game’s favor. But ultimately, Mode B feels somewhat too reliant on trial and error to be an unqualified success.
Despite its shortcomings, Gyromite nevertheless stands out as one of the most unique and inventive games of the early NES launch cycle. Yes, it arose from a marketing gimmick, and Nintendo did an execrable job of supporting R.O.B. beyond those first two games… but Gyromite itself is a fascinating feat of engineering, cleverly blurring the boundaries between toy and game in a way that today’s amiibo can only gaze upon in envy.
Would it surprise you to learn that R.O.B. was an invention by Gunpei Yokoi, the designer who had created Nintendo’s most innovative and influential gadgets and devices since the ’60s? R.O.B. embodied Yokoi’s design tenet of finding creative uses for established technology: It converted the NES light gun’s tech into an elaborate bit of gadgetry nonsense. You can also see Yokoi’s signature in the combination of fascinating high-tech wizardry with the decidedly low-tech physical mechanisms that were the gyros.
In fact, R.O.B. was arguably Nintendo’s last great toy creation. He stood as a perfect symbolic bridge between the company’s two eras, really, so the fact that R.O.B. has become such an iconic part of Nintendo lor seems wholly appropriate. Gyromite, and R.O.B., were evolutionary creations joining the company’s analogue past to its digital future. And Gyromite’s pretty great, too. If you ever have the chance to play it properly, be sure to give it a try. You just might be surprised by how much you enjoy it.