Less a game than an interactive demo for R.O.B., Stack-Up feels rushed out the door moreso than any other NES launch title.
Japanese title: ロボットブロック • Robot Block
Considering R.O.B. was nothing more than a kludge that Nintendo’s R&D teams threw together in order to provide a novel retail incentive for the American launch, the accessory’s pack-in game—Gyromite—turned out far better than it really had any right to. Just as Gunpei Yokoi had repurposed Zapper technology to create R.O.B., Gyromite’s lead designer took the popular puzzle platformers of the era and transformed them into a fascinating work that transformed the NES into a convoluted toy. Granted, Gyromite required a fairly cumbersome setup, but its clever design transcended mere novelty and gave NES owners a challenging video game experience like nothing before it… and nothing since, for that matter.
With such a unique creation under their belt, then, you might wonder why Nintendo never made another piece of software for R.O.B. following the NES launch. After all, a huge number of American fans owned a R.O.B., since he shipped with the popular Deluxe Set launch edition of the system; and those who didn’t buy in with the Deluxe could always simply pick up a R.O.B. a la carte further down the road. The robot represented the face of the NES in those early days, as Mario was still growing into his destiny—a great hook for the system. Thanks to Gyromite, the little guy had demonstrable potential to serve as the nexus for entertaining video game experiences. So what was with his quick abandonment? Why would Nintendo never revisit the Robot Series of NES games?
You’ll find an answer in the only other Robot Series game Nintendo ever created: Stack-Up. Where Gyromite turned R.O.B. into a central component of a challenging and well-designed puzzle platformer, Stack-Up feels like the prototype of a game that nobody ever bothered to finish. Maybe it is; Stack-Up launched in Japan a few weeks before Gyromite, and based on some hidden comments in the game code it looks to have been something of a rush job: Composer Hirokazu Tanaka seemingly completed the audio engine or music in May 1985, just two months before the game’s launch! This was the cartridge era, where chip fabrication took several weeks to complete, meaning that Stack-Up and Gyromite were last-minute productions. Maybe that was the case for everything Nintendo produced back in those days; but this game truly feels like a rush job, more so than anything else from the NES launch.
The urgency makes sense; the NES test launch loomed large, and R.O.B. software was of utmost importance for the system’s U.S. debut. The robot played a key role in getting the console into stores, and Nintendo needed something for players to do with him. Unsurprisingly, neither game was even given a localized title screen: The U.S. version of Gyromite opens with its Japanese Robot Gyro title screen, and Stack-Up appears here as Robot Block. Like several other NES launch titles, both Gyromite and Stack-Up simply came to America as Japanese-region Famicom boards slotted into adapters that converted their circuit pinouts to be compatible with the NES board.
In that light, it’s probably less remarkable that Stack-Up turned out to be a pointless pile of garbage than it is that Gyromite somehow didn’t. Still, where Gyromite was a fully formed creation featuring two similar but distinct play modes, Stack-Up lacks a single function that feels complete or even gives the impression of purposefulness. On the contrary, it feels like a development tool hastily tweaked to resemble something reminiscent of a video game and rushed out the door.
The game jumps immediately to a menu screen that offers you five different selections: Test, Direct, Memory, and one- and two-player variants of Bingo. Test mode simply “wakes” R.O.B. to ensure he’s reading the screen, and possibly alerts the robot’s processor to the fact that it’s playing Stack-Up rather than Gyromite. There is, in fact, a minor difference in R.O.B.’s behavior between the two games: In Gyromite, his arm assembly moves vertically across three different heights. For Stack-Up, he makes slightly finer movements and can adjust his arms to five different heights.
Otherwise, R.O.B. is doing the same routine here as in Gyromite: Grasping objects, lifting them, rotating to move them to new spots, then lowering and releasing them. There’s potential for a few different takes on this idea, but Stack–Up turns out to be creatively dead on arrival. Stack-Up abandons the paired gyros of its sister game in favor of five plastic pieces. They’re called “blocks” in the official literature, but what they actually resemble are overweight poker chips, all the way down to the embossed, silver-printed Nintendo logos running the blocks’ perimeter. They’re circular, with a sunken middle divot that forms a sort of peg to ensure the pieces fit together securely. Because these consist of wide, solid objects, R.O.B. requires different hand attachments than the gyro-enabling claws of the other game.
As with Gyromite, the physical goods that accompany the game might be its most clever element. The blocks are solid but have a soft, rubberized texture to prevent slipping, and their triangular divots allow them to slot into one another even if R.O.B.’s lateral movement falls slightly out of alignment. Even more helpfully, the divots act as a sort of guide to nudge R.O.B.’s arms back on track if he drifts during play.
Again, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Nintendo had a long history of toy manufacturing by this point, but it had been in the gambling business for nearly a century at the time of the NES’s launch… and had been one of the pioneers of bringing Western gambling paraphernalia to Japan. Stack-Up’s blocks look like nothing so much as Nintendo’s own poker chips from decades before.
The rest of the Stack-Up peripheral setup, unfortunately, didn’t live up to that same standard. To play the game, you needed to remove the Gyromite gear that fit into the five slots around R.O.B.’s base and replace them with simple platforms. And that was it: Five small plastic platforms on which you placed blocks. Herein lies the problem: Unlike Gyromite, Stack-Up has no physical link between R.O.B. and the NES.
The second controller has no role in Stack-Up.
Where Gyromite used its gyro-activated lever attachment to transmit commands to the controller, Stack-Up isolates R.O.B. completely from the system. R.O.B.’s interactivity is entirely a one-sided affair, and he receives commands from the television but never relays any information back. As a result, Stack-Up fails to be a cohesive work, and the game is incapable of measuring whether or not the player has accomplished their assigned goal. Despite all the complexity of the Stack-Up setup, in the end the game comes down to the honor system: Once you’ve completed a task, you press the Start button to tell the game that, yes, mission accomplished.
This bizarre design oversight demands a high degree of self-motivation from players, which is an awful lot to ask from a game as mundane as Stack-Up. As the title suggests, the entire game revolves entirely around stacking up those blocks. It’s routine robot labor: the video game. And it’s dreadful.
Stack-Up offers several play modes, but all of them boil down to rearranging stacks of colored blocks. Direct mode is the basic game, though that might be a little confusing at first since Gyromite also had a Direct mode that wasn’t a game. Then again, you could make a strong case that Stack-Up’s Direct mode also isn’t a game, since it essentially amounts to the Gyromite Direct mode with an objective tacked on.
That objective is indicated on-screen so subtly that you might not even realize it’s there: A small box in the upper right that shows two small arrangements of colored squares. The leftmost arrangement depicts the initial placement of blocks around R.O.B.—the order of colors, and which of his numbered platforms they’re meant to be on—and the figure to its right shows the target arrangement you’re supposed to be aiming for. You’re meant to work against two numbers here: A target for the number of commands you issue to R.O.B., and a countdown timer. The more quickly and efficiently you manage to shift the blocks into their correct configuration, the better your bonus score. But again, this entire game works on the honor system, so there’s literally nothing preventing you from hitting Start the instant a round begins and earning a maximum score—the game won’t penalize you for even this obvious lie.
The one other difference between the Direct modes in Gyromite and Stack-Up is that this game’s Direct mode doesn’t allow you to command R.O.B. with a simple press of the controller. Instead, you control Professor Hector again as he hops about a set of tile-sized buttons that issue one of R.O.B.’s six commands each time you leap on and depress a button. The middle row of the 3×3 button grid is blank, allowing you a neutral space in which to move between non-contiguous inputs, or to jump off of a button and back on it again in order to issue the same command consecutively. It’s kind of cumbersome, but most likely the idea behind this design was to give players some sort of activity to keep them occupied in the dead time during which R.O.B. slooooooowly executes a command.
Mode three, Memory mode, proves somewhat more interesting as it basically amounts to a programming exercise. It, too, lacks any sort of feedback from R.O.B. and thus amounts to a test of personal scruples, but it’s the closest thing to entertaining you’ll find in Stack-Up. Rather than directly control R.O.B. here, you instead string together a chain of commands necessary to take R.O.B.’s blocks from initial position to target arrangement. This can grow fairly demanding as the arrangements become more complex, and after a while you might even need to make notes on paper as you queue up directions. Still, while this presents a fairly keen mental test, in the end it suffers from the same fundamental failure as Direct mode: The peripheral setup lacks any sort of feedback mechanism, so failure to properly program R.O.B. has the same result as a correct programming sequence. You earn points, you move along. All playing Stack-Up properly can offer is the private satisfaction of knowing you did well… but without any in-game acknowledgement of success or failure, it all rings hollow.
Finally, there’s Bingo mode, which can be undertaken by either one or two players. Bingo mode takes the 3×3 command console grid of the other two modes and turns it into a 5×5 grid in which you have to activate an entire row or column of buttons in order to execute a command linked to that line. Jump across the topmost row to darken all those switches and you’ll issue an “up” command that causes R.O.B. to lift his arm assembly one step. Activate the entire far left column and R.O.B. will open his grip.
As you’re doing this, you have to deal with two hazards: A spike that drifts randomly around the button grid, and an insect that hops in a straight line along an entire row or column, activating or deactivating switches. Professor Hector will be bumped out of action if he collides with either, but Bingo lacks anything like limited lives, so this amounts to a mere inconvenience. The closest thing to a challenge in Bingo mode comes in the actions of the bug, whose actions on the control panel can also issue commands to R.O.B.. If the bug manages to complete an entire row or column of active switches, it’s no different than doing it yourself.
Naturally, the goal of this mode is also to rearrange blocks, though because of the more cumbersome input scheme you’re only shooting for target stack quantities rather than color order. It’s difficult enough to input commands while enemies are playing havoc with the input field, but the biggest danger is that R.O.B.’s input control panel strangely features two different sets of Left and Right commands while there’s only one column or row apiece for the other four inputs. As a result, it’s much easier to tell R.O.B. to move laterally, and if you don’t keep an eye on all the active switches on the field, the bug will frequently cause R.O.B. to rotate before you’re ready, which usually results in stacks being knocked over. It’s annoying to meticulously issue commands only to have your hard work spoiled at the last second because the bug completes a line of commands that upends your stacks.
And that’s really Stack-Up in a nutshell: Meticulous, annoying, hard work. It fails in all the ways that Gyromite succeeded, lacking any sort of inherent ability to check on players’ progress, and offering no real structure or goals beyond “move around colored blocks.” Again, Stack-Up feels like a tech demo forced by circumstances to become a full release, though it’s hard to imagine how it could have been turned into something fun. For Stack-Up to work properly, it would really need some mechanism by which to determine the physical placement of the blocks around R.O.B.—but that would require a weight-sensing device similar to the Wii Balance Board, which was still more than 20 years away in 1985. As it was, Nintendo must have intuited how miserable an experience Stack-Up actually was, because it was the first Black Box game to vanish from shelves back in the day. It was a game you noticed on the poster that came with the NES to advertise other software releases but never actually saw at retail.
Stack-Up’s combination of oversized box, multiple accessories, 50% price premium over basic NES releases, and negligible gameplay made it exactly the kind of garbageware whose abundance during the Atari era made retailers so gunshy about the NES in the first place. That it would be attached to R.O.B., the peripheral designed to assuage corporate buyers that, no, the NES wouldn’t precipitate another market collapse—well, there’s irony, and then there’s irony.
Stack-Up didn’t destroy the NES, though, because the system launched with plenty of genuinely worthwhile releases, and Nintendo quietly retired this dud. It’s impossible to know precisely how long Stack-Up remained in circulation, but several sources indicate that all copies of the game have Famicom-to-NES adapters hidden inside, which would suggest it never saw a second round of production to rework the ROM chip from its original Japanese format to American. Certainly it stands as one of the rarest and hardest-to-find Black Box games, second only to Donkey Kong Jr. Math. Which makes the game an anchor around the necks of the NES faithful 30 years after the fact: Anyone who wants to own a complete set of NES games, or first-party games, or even just Black Box releases ultimately has to come to terms with the scarcity and expense of this dud.
In the end, R.O.B. had only one good game in him. We ended up getting two games, though, and Stack-Up’s poor implementation of the robot add-on and general insipidness ultimately mean Nintendo chose wisely when they decided not to continue the NES Robot Series. Admittedly, kids and parents who longed for something more to do with the bulky R.O.B. peripheral once Gyromite had been mastered probably didn’t see the good in it… but frankly it’s hard to imagine much positive coming from R.O.B. beyond this point. He works better as an icon than as a device, a novelty for cameos and occasional pieces of homebrew software to revisit from time to time.
Note: The images below feature elements of the Japanese version: Red R.O.B. claw attachments (dark grey in the U.S.) and cream-colored platforms (light grey in the U.S.). The peripherals are otherwise identical between regions.