Retro Review: R.O.B. Games (NES)


Robotic Operating Buddy? You’re not my buddy, guy!

Release Date: October 1985

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

When you’re trying to differentiate yourself, you’re bound to take some chances. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had that issue from the onset. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the video games than had crashed before it, however, it may have tried too hard. The proof of that lies in two games Nintendo released to justify the add-on they used to separate themselves from their progenitors. Those two games were saddled to a useless peripheral for the NES, the Robotic Operating Buddy. That peripheral, known as R.O.B., was meant to single the NES out from other failed gaming-only systems. The two games attached to R.O.B. – Gyromite and Stack-Up – proved to be nothing more than gimmick games with no longevity. But the crux of their existence proved to have more longevity than the games – or R.O.B. himself – would enjoy.

To understand the existence of these two games, we have to travel back to the Video Game Crash of 1983. I promise that I won’t get as in-depth as I did previously. But it’s relevant to why the R.O.B. games even existed.

Video gaming hit a rough patch in 1983. The glut of video game systems, as well as the amount of shitty games for them, conspired to ruin the industry. The concept of the home video game system died horribly under the weight of substandard systems and games. In the aftermath of the Crash of 1983, it was assumed that video games for the home was a dying fad.

It was this environment into which Nintendo wished to enter the US market. They wanted to brand their Japanese-market system, the Famicom, for North Americans. After initial distribution talks with Atari fell through, Nintendo decided to go at it themselves. Their Famicom, rebadged the NES, would debut at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It would see a limited release, starting in New York on October 18, 1985. A proper nationwide release would not happen until September 1986.

In an effort to separate itself from the video game consoles that consumers lost confidence in due to the Video Game Crash of 1983, the NES marketed itself as more than just a games console. As part of that marketing strategy, Nintendo conjured up R.O.B., a peripheral that Nintendo shoehorned onto the NES’s Deluxe Set as a way to show they were not just a video game console. R.O.B. was hyped as a virtual player that would play with humans.

Of course, the NES was nothing more than a video game console. And R.O.B. was an elaborate ruse to make consumers think that the NES was more substantial. In order to justify R.O.B., though, Nintendo had games developed for the peripheral. Both were released in October 1985. To no one’s surprise, the games for R.O.B. weren’t anything worth writing home about.

The first game is Gyromite. It has you assume the role of a mad scientist who must go through his laboratory and deactivate all the lit dynamite before time runs out. Why is there lit dynamite in his laboratory? BECAUSE HE’S MAD!

The game plays as a two-player game. Player one moves the mad scientist, while player two raises and lowers a series of red or blue pipes that impede the good mad doctor. You could have a friend take controller two and raise and lower the pipes while you blast through. If a friend is not available, though, you must resort to R.O.B.

In order to play with R.O.B., you must set up a controller for player two on a dock that is then attached to the robot. In addition, you must set up another add-on that spins a gyro. Finally, R.O.B. had to be positioned in front of the CRT television where the game was being played. Once set up, R.O.B. was supposed to swivel over to the spinning gyro, pick it up, then swivel over to the correct button – red or blue – and place the gyro there. Then the respectively-colored pipe will raise or lower, allowing the mad scientist through. The commands to move R.O.B. were transmitted via the CRT when the player pressed the Start button.

If that sounds amazingly tedious, just wait until you read about the other R.O.B. game.

In Stack-Up, you replace the Gyromite add-ons with a set of five round colored discs (which Nintendo calls “blocks”) and five bases to place them. When you first start Stack-Up­, you set up the five colored “blocks” in a pre-determined way. During gameplay, you must arrange the “blocks” in a certain pattern amongst the five bases. To do so, the player must guide the avatar, Professor Hector, over some command buttons. The buttons correspond to movement commands for R.O.B. Once the commands are input and R.O.B. places the “blocks” onto the correct bases in the correct pattern, you proceed to the next stage.

Both games have the same common element: relying on R.O.B. to replace a human player. Actually, that’s true only in Gyromite. Stack-Up really requires no interaction by a second player whatsoever. R.O.B. and the NES only communicate movement commands, and the “blocks” have no way of telling the game it’s in the proper place. When all the “blocks” are in their proper locations, the player simply presses the Start button to go to the next stage. Since there’s no way to verify the “blocks” are in the right place, the player can basically just keep hitting Start to advance. R.O.B. is not really needed. Thank goodness the preciseness of the “blocks” is not necessary, because R.O.B. frequently knocks them over. Unfortunately, it becomes a problem in Gyromite.

With Gyromite, using R.O.B. is an exercise in patience. In addition to it knocking off the gyros, the robot mechanically swivels across five stations and raises and lowers through three different elevations. He does this in painfully slow fashion, something that’s exacerbated by the fact that R.O.B. pauses at EACH STATION for a couple of seconds before proceeding. That leads to frustrating pauses as you wait for R.O.B. to swivel to the gyro, pick it up, then slowly swivel to the right spot and drop the gyro. Most solo players will resort to either grabbing both controllers to work them simultaneously or turning off the game in disgust.

Since both were launch titles for the NES, they have the expected graphical and aural fidelity present in launch titles. Of the two, hey have the expected graphical and aural fidelity present in launch titles. Of the two, Gyromite is the better title. The graphics, though not at all impressive, are functional. Stack-Up is absolutely plain graphically. Both games’ chiptune soundtracks are also pretty decent. Stack-Up adds digitized voice, a novel feature at the time.

Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your feelings for R.O.B.), no other games were created that utilized the peripheral. Soon enough, Nintendo got rid of R.O.B. altogether when it introduced the Action Set in 1988. The Deluxe Set was phased out, and R.O.B. faded into obscurity with it.

Does it still hold up? HELL NO! Without R.O.B., Gyromite is at least playable, although who would want to play it is anyone’s guess. Stack-Up is a useless game with or without the robot peripheral. Only the extremely curious – or sadists – would want to play either of them.

If you fit either description, then prepare to spend a pretty penny. Neither of these games were re-released, and for good reason. They would also require purchasing a R.O.B. if you want to play the games as intended. I suggest also picking up some anti-depressants before playing.

Still, the release of R.O.B. was a pretty smart idea. For people afraid to return to video gaming after the infamous Crash, R.O.B. promised something more substantive than just games. It was a lie, but it was a clever lie that helped the NES become the must-have console of the third generation. The games may be terrible, but the peripheral helped establish Nintendo as the king of home video gaming.

Good: Novel gameplay; decent graphics; nice chiptune music

Bad: Almost no real gameplay; not fun in the least

Final score: 2/10

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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