The Robot Operating Buddy! R.O.B. has an interesting history, considering the way Nintendo abandoned him almost immediately.

R.O.B. (Robot Operating Buddy)

Japanese title: ロボット • Robot

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985
Japanese release date: July 1985
Genre: Peripheral
Alternate versions: Smash Bros series amiibo [2015Smash Bros series amiibo (Famicom color variant) [2016]


The U.S. console market existed in a cataclysmic state in 1985. Television games had become a true persona non grata with retailers after the collapse of the Atari 2600 market. That console imploded so violently that competing consoles like the Intellivision and ColecoVision were sucked into the wake and destroyed along with Atari. Nintendo realized, however—thanks in large part to the enormous success of its arcade releases—that the reluctance of American merchants to stock the localized version of their Family Computer console reflected those retailers’ fear of getting stuck with additional millions worth of unsold video game inventory rather than actual disinterest in video games by consumers. The company felt confident that kids would play their games, provided those kids had the opportunity to actually get their hands on said games.

The challenge, then, would be in making that love connection. Retailers stood as the immovable object to the NES’s irresistible force. Hence the system’s 1985 test launch: Nintendo didn’t roll out the system in a few local markets that October because they were afraid of going too big. Rather, the problem was that they literally couldn’t convince retailers across the country to stock the thing. So, they took the grassroots approach. They managed to convince a handful of New York City toy retailers (including F.A.O. Schwarz) to set up NES point-of-sale demo displays with a no-risk promise: Any systems the seller failed to move could be returned for a full credit. Unlike its predecessors, there would be no desperate dollar-bin dumps for the NES.

The NES didn’t quite sell out that holiday season, but it performed well enough that other retailers took notice. That success opened the door for Nintendo to expand into limited markets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities throughout the following year. By the time the 1986 holiday season rolled around, the NES was available across the country… assuming you could find such a hot-ticket Christmas commodity, that is. 

The system’s slow release in the U.S. wasn’t the only stratagem Nintendo employed to convince retailers to stock the NES, though. They also took tremendous pains to obfuscate the fact that, yes, this was a device for playing video games. 

Corporate buyers found that Nintendo’s initial design for the console (a sleek futuristic all-in-one console and computer called the Advanced Video System), looked entirely too much like one of those early ’80s consoles that had been such poison in stores. Plus, the name sounded a lot like the alternate name of Atari’s 2600 console, the Video Computer System. So, Nintendo redesigned and rebranded the system to skirt around the idea of “video” or “games.” It would instead become the Nintendo Entertainment System, with gigantic carts that kids slid into the discreet front panel of the system rather than slamming into the top of the machine—like a VCR! With game boxes that were almost exactly the same size as VHS cassette cases!

Finally, as the coup de grace, Nintendo also dug into its history as a toy maker to create for the NES the most sophisticated gadget it had ever produced. As the AVS’s keyboard and cassette drive went out the window, they were replaced instead by an interactive robot toy, R.O.B.: The Robot Operating Buddy.

R.O.B. was a fascinating piece of work. He demonstrated a brilliant example of Nintendo’s skill for repurposing existing technology in new ways. Fundamentally, R.O.B. used the same tech that powered the Zapper light gun, with a sensor capable of reading single-frame flashes of light as information. However, R.O.B. reversed several key concepts behind the operation of light gun titles. When players fired the Zapper to shoot a duck, the light gun would read the screen, then transmit that visual information back to the console through the controller port for the game software to interpret. R.O.B., on the other hand, was entirely a self-contained gadget. He operated with a set of AA batteries, and he didn’t plug in to the NES the way the Zapper did. When players transmitted information to R.O.B., that was the end of the console’s interpretation of those instructions. 

Instead, the flashes of on-screen light would cause R.O.B. to perform a variety of actions. R.O.B.’s “eyes” disguised a lens containing a sensor setup similar to that of the Zapper. When the NES sent a signal, R.O.B.’s motors would kick into gear and cause him to perform an action in response to the specific instructions coded into the signal.

R.O.B. possessed a simple design, consisting of a base, a stem, a head, and an adjustable shelf with arms mounted on it. His head contained his sensor apparatus, while both the arm shelf and the base housed independent motors. A small red LED on R.O.B.’s head would light up when R.O.B. “saw” the TV screen, giving players a clear indication that R.O.B. was working correctly and could interact with the game. The robot’s general design bore more than a slight resemblance to Tomy’s Omnibot 2000, a remote control robot toy that in turn owed a tremendous debt to R2-D2, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. from Disney’s The Black Hole, and Twiki from the then-recent Buck Rogers TV series. There was a whole lot of zeitgeist happening in R.O.B., and Nintendo’s aim was clear: Sell the NES by presenting it as a cool, of-the-moment robot toy.

It absolutely worked. Despite R.O.B’s derivative design, he gave the NES a face that had nothing to do with pixelated graphics (see front cover). “See,” Nintendo could tell skeptical retailers, “the NES is a toy that you played with your plastic pal who’s fun to be with! …and, oh yeah, also it plays a dozen other games that have nothing to do with R.O.B.” In truth, R.O.B. constituted an almost completely useless gimmick. Nintendo made a whopping two games that made use of R.O.B., both of which debuted with the NES in 1985. No third party ever did a thing with the gadget, presumably because R.O.B. himself was useless on his own: In order to interact with a game, R.O.B. required a small fleet of small, pricey, and easily lost accessories. 

Anyone familiar with Nintendo in the years since the NES launch should recognize the general strategy behind R.O.B.; it’s a Nintendo standard. Create an interesting peripheral to create a sense of unique value for a console, make a couple of games for that add-on, then abandon both the peripheral and its owners almost immediately. (See also: The Famicom 3D glasses, the Super NES light gun and mouse, the 64DD, the Game Boy Advance eCard Reader, the Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen wireless adapter, the Play-Yan media player, an infinite slew of Wii controller accessories, Game Boy Micro faceplates, the Wii U GameCube Controller adapter, and likely the New Nintendo 3DS.) R.O.B. marked the beginning of this frustrating tradition, and by the time the NES properly took off in the U.S., fans had extracted every gram of entertainment to be had from R.O.B. The cute little robot drifted from his place by players’ side to a dusty corner on the TV credenza to a jumbled pile of parts in a box, his batteries slowly leaking and corroding over time to render the forgotten robo-pal a useless heap of plastic. 

Even so, R.O.B. did the trick for which he was created. In an era where the word “video games” caused American toy retailers to recoil and make the sign of the cross, R.O.B. softened their hearts and sat front and center in Nintendo commercials and print ads.

The company offered R.O.B. two ways: First, as a pack-in for the pricey but undeniably cool NES Deluxe Set, where it sat alongside the console, a Zapper, two controllers, packaged copies of Duck Hunt and Gyromite, and a small armada of Gyromite accessories. R.O.B. also came in a standalone variant for those who bought the barebones NES Basic Set and decided later than they wanted to spend a lot of money to play two mediocre puzzle action games. However, while the Zapper continued to appear as an NES pack-in well into the console’s life and lasted long enough to require a redesign, R.O.B. disappeared quickly. Considering the gadget’s size, cost, and lack of ongoing support, there wasn’t much value to keeping him around… plus, the NES had won. R.O.B. had served his purpose.

Today, of course, R.O.B. exists more more a nostalgic tchotchke than something people genuinely use. He’s a great display piece, iconic and charming without taking up too much space, but few ever go to the trouble of setting him up to play the two games he shipped with. On top of the elaborate setup required to use R.O.B., there’s also the small matter that—much like the Zapper—he doesn’t work with modern televisions. R.O.B. is keyed to cathode ray tube technology, which means that unless you’re the sort of resilient retro technophile who keeps around an ancient tube TV, the march of technology has reduced one of gaming’s most memorable emissaries into an unseeing lump.

Even back in the olden days of CRT televisions, R.O.B. was never guaranteed to work. Light interference can prevent him from seeing the screen, and even too-bright TV screens can cause trouble; the robot shipped with an optional filter to affix to his eye lenses if needed.

Not only that, but even Nintendo found R.O.B. vexing. When NES designer Masayuki Uemura spoke about the system’s history in 2015 at NYU’s Game Institute, he laughingly admitted that Nintendo’s designers didn’t really understand the accessory. Nintendo wunderkind Howard Philips has also spoken about the frustrations that R.O.B. inspired during those crucial early retail demos. Nintendo personnel were given detailed instructions about how to showcase R.O.B., but even then those presentations involved a lot of finger-crossing in the hopes that the ambient light wouldn’t overwhelm his sensors and turn the demo into a farce… a tech crisis that a later generation of Nintendo presenters would become familiar with during E3 demos for Wii games.

Despite all of this, R.O.B. remains a beloved memory and a symbol of the NES for millions. As such, you can’t truly call the device a disaster. The NES video robot brilliantly leveraged Nintendo’s experience with toy-making as well as their evolving light gun technology to give their gaming aspiration a foothold in a hostile market. Building a future with the strength of the past—a smart move, and one that Nintendo deservedly prospered from.


Gallery

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dont talk to me or my sons again