Saturday, August 18, 2012

ROB, The NES Robot

Late last week, I received my very own ROB, The NES Robot in the mail. Well as usual, the eBay gods giveth and they taketh away, because he looked like he spent the last 25 years at the bottom of the ocean. However, with a little elbow grease, a couple of minor solder burns and two fingers super-glued together, I got the little bugger working again.

ROB, or Robotic Operating Buddy, was an accessory included in the original NES Deluxe Set in 1985. Retailers, still reeling from the video game market crash of 1983 were reluctant to devote shelf space to another failed game console in potentia, so Nintendo hedged its bets by shopping the NES as not only a game console but a toy that could be shelved in the toy section. That's where ROB came in. Ostensibly, he was an accessory used to interact with certain NES games, but in reality, he was just a sales gimmick.

ROB can slide his torso up and down, rotate side to side, and close his arms to grasp and hold certain objects. He receives his instructions from the NES via a series of flashes on the TV screen that are picked up by a photocell in ROB's head. Along ROB's base are a series of slots used to attach the unique accessories that each game uses. Speaking of games, a whopping two ROB games were released: Gyromite, which was bundled with ROB and Stack-Up. When the NES gained popularity, ROB was dropped from the NES lineup and quickly forgotten, save for a few cameos in later games.

In  Gyromite, you play as Professor Hector who has somehow locked his dumb self in his lab with evil dinosaur-things called snicks, and a whole bunch of lit dynamite. Your goal is to avoid the snicks and collect all the dynamite. Controller one moves the professor, while controller two slides columns up and down that allow the professor to pass, reach heights and squish snicks. How does one person play with two controllers, you may ask? ROB is player two! Yep, just as soon as you attach all those damn accessories. To start, you slot the NES controller into a holder with a couple of levers used to actuate the A & B buttons. Then, you attach an electric spinner used to spin weighted tops, called gyros, up to speed. Finally, you attach a holder used to keep the gyros in place when they're not being used. The whole goal of this Rube Goldbergian assemblage is to use ROB to place a gyro on the spinner, get it up to speed, pick it up and drop it on the actuator level with the color corresponding to the color of the column you want to move--and you have to accomplish all of this before you get cornered by a snick, because Professor Hector can't jump or defend himself beyond briefly distracting the snicks with radishes. What fun!

By itself, Gyromite is an amusing, but very simple arcade-style puzzle platformer. Unfortunately, all of the game's challenge comes from manipulating ROB himself. He moves at a glacial pace, and his moves can't be canceled before they complete--frustrating as hell if you accidentally tell ROB to move in the wrong direction. The gyros he picks up will often slip out of his claws and skitter across the floor or lose momentum and fall off the actuator's button. I get the feeling Gyromite was adapted for use with ROB at the last minute, since he never makes an appearance in the game, and all of ROB's functions could have been performed by the A & B buttons on the first controller.

A copy of Stack-Up complete with all of its accessories is one of the hardest 1st-party NES titles to find, so unfortunately I don't own it and have never played it. As I understand, it plays a bit like the old Tower Of Hanoi puzzle, wherein you use ROB to move stacks of multicolored pucks, one puck at a time, from one platform to the other. You're scored on how few moves you take to complete the puzzle, but it's a complete mystery to me how or even if ROB knows when you've succeeded. Maybe it's the first video game to be played on the honor system! Much like ROB himself, that would be an interesting footnote in gaming history.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, the battle for Arrakis begins with Dune II!

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