RetroVision – R.O.B.’s American Adventure

Most people these days will know R.O.B. as one of the final unlockable fighters from Super Smash Bros.  However, R.O.B.’s history goes far back, back to even before the NES saw its American release.  In fact R.O.B. can quite legitimately be argued to have been critical in making Nintendo what it is today.

Back before Nintendo released the NES, the American industry was in the midst of a crisis following the crash of the market in 1983.  Atari had once been all powerful, and the video game industry very popular thanks to the success of its Atari 2600 console.  However, thanks to a wave of poor quality products such the now infamous E.T., complete market saturation, and the complete loss of publishing control which led to numerous games of a very poor quality flooding the market, a complete crash of the North American video game market occurred in 1983.  Alongside this Atari were dealt a crippling blow from which they wouldn’t recover.  This, as far as Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi was concerned, was Nintendo’s big opportunity to strike in order to take control of the entire market.

NES VS Famicom
Famicom & NES

Just as the market was crashing in America, Nintendo released the Famicom in Japan to huge amounts of success.  The Famicom was developed with the ambitious aim of being both affordable, and more advanced than its competitors, something which it easily achieved.  As such, Yamauchi believed the product was perfect to take advantage of the new gap in the market left behind by Atari’s fall from grace, and set about planning an America release.  But before this could be done critical changes needed to be made.

These changes that were made alongside Nintendo of America (NoA) included; the addition of the 10NES chip that would mean that Nintendo maintained all publishing control, and a redesign that would make the machine look far more like VHS player than a games console.  With the latter being caused due to the public’s loss of confidence in gaming machines.  However, as far as the American market was concerned, Nintendo needed something a little bit extra to convince the market, especially the retailers.

it would be easier to sell popsicles in the Arctic

Following the alterations that were made to the product, Hiroshi Yamauchi’s son-in-law and President of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa, set about launching the Famicom in America.  However, after being famously told by a leading toy industry executive that thanks to the market crash “it would be easier to sell popsicles in the Arctic”, Arakawa realised the low consumer confidence could severely affect the launch, and decided that a new method was needed to sell the NES, something further than the changes already made.  This resulted in R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) being created to act as a proxy product to aid in launching the NES.

NES Marketing
Original NES Marketing Materials

The idea for R.O.B. was created by Yokoi Gunpei’s R&D team in Japan.  R.O.B. was a legless, grey robot who would work hand in hand with games designed for use with robot.  This works by having players programme R.O.B using the controller, with R.O.B.’s actions then impacting on the in-game world.  However, R.O.B. was compatible with only two NES games.  These two games were Gyromite and Stack-Up.

Gyromite was the first game to work alongside R.O.B., with the two coming bundled together.  In Gyromite players must help guide the Professor through the lab to stop the dynamite, programming R.O.B. to open the gates along the way.  A similar mechanic was employed in Stack-Up, the final compatible game, as players would programme R.O.B. to move the blocks from their starting position to the goal.

ROB
R.O.B. alongside the NES and Zapper

The development of R.O.B. was a successful move for Nintendo.  R.O.B. allowed Nintendo to convince many big name American retailers such as ‘Toys ‘R’ Us’ to stock the NES, by marketing the product as a toy.  This in turn successfully alleviated many consumer fears about video games that had come about following the market crash.  However despite this, R.O.B. didn’t have the same impact on the players as it did on the the retailers, being only officially supported by Gyromite and Stack-Up.

Nevertheless, the importance of R.O.B. in helping the NES take the American market by storm  should not be under-appreciated, and on top of this R.O.B. continues to live on through guest cameo appearances in other Nintendo franchises such as Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.  He even has an Amiibo coming later this year, cementing his place among the elite of Nintendo’s creations.  R.O.B. may seem like a small footnote in Nintendo’s history, but it can easily be argued that the little robot played a critical role in building Nintendo’s global empire.

Simon Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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