R.O.B. - Robotic Operating Buddy

One of the less-known peripherals for the NES system, ROB was part of Nintendo's effort to market the NES as a "toy" rather than a gaming system.  After the Video Game Crash in the years before, more and more stores were becoming reluctant to even stock video game systems and games anymore.  So Nintendo took every effort they could to distance the NES from earlier game systems - the system was given a boxy "toaster" design to differentiate itself from the common top-loading systems, and it touted two major accessories - a light gun (named the "Zapper") and ROB.  Even the name was part of this scheme; "Nintendo Entertainment System" doesn't create an impression of a video game console nearly as much as, say, "Atari Video Computer System."



Basic ROB


So what was the hype behind ROB?  Well, we was just what his name implied - a "buddy" that would help the player within games that supported the peripheral.  That was the idea, though to most gamers the execution left something to be desired.  ROB came packaged with one game, a simple platformer title called Gyromite.


Yes, this is the correct title screen


Gyromite doubtlessly confused a few people who booted up the game for the first time when the in-game title screen read "Robot Gyro".  But here's the explanation: In Japan, ROB was simply known as the "Famicom Robot", and the Japanese version of Gyromite was called "Robot Gyro."  This isn't simply a matter of neglecting to change the title screen, though; in order to cut costs, many of the early NES cartridges actually have the ROM boards from the Japanese games inside the cartridge, fitted with a simple pin connector to make them work on an American system.  Cartridges containing these converters have become something of a collector's item, as the converters can actually be removed from the cartridge, allowing one to play Japanese games on an American system without the need for a third-party device.

I'm getting off track, though.  Let's discuss the game itself.

In order to play, you'd first need to assemble ROB with all the included parts, as seen below:



ROB in the Gyromite configuration


The main menu


Alright, let's explain all of this step-by-step.


 


First and foremost is the Test mode, which will calibrate the ROB to make sure he's working properly.  After hitting Select, his arms should reset to the default position (top center) and the light atop his head should stay lit.




Next is Direct mode, which lets you get a feel for how to operate ROB.  When you press Up, Down, Left or Right, ROB moves his arms in that direction.  A and B open and close his hands, respectively.  Each time you input one of these commands, the screen flashes green briefly; this is how ROB receives the instructions.


Now for the main game itself:
 


The player controls Professor Hector with the goal of defusing all of the dynamite on the board across forty levels.  However, he's impeded by red and blue pillars barring his path, as well as numerous enemy "Smicks" that will kill him on contact.



 ROB comes into play by moving the pillars for you; you must command him to press them down by giving commands to move his arms, pick up the Gyros and use them to press down the two colored buttons on the stand, which in turn push the two buttons on the controller set in the tray.  Each of these commands must be preceded by the Start button, since you're also controlling Hector in this mode.



Once ROB lifts a gyro off the button, the pillar will return to its default position.  This enables you to trap Smicks, as well as open passageways that they would block off while in their other position.



The only other real defense Hector has against Smicks is turnips, which they will be distracted by for a few seconds, allowing him to sneak past unharmed.  These can be picked up and dropped via the A button.



Another way to get rid of Smicks is to use the pillars to crush them, which not only removes them from the board, but earns you extra points.  However, you'll either need to have good timing with ROB or lay a trap with a turnip to do this.


It's also possible to crush Hector, so do try to avoid that




From time to time, you'll also encounter an obstacle that requires both pillars to be moved at the same time.  This is where the Gyro Spinner (seen on the far left of ROB) comes into play:



This little device literally spins the Gyro around at high speed, enabling it to keep its balance atop the button so that ROB's hands are free to lift the other gyro, using it to press down the other button at the same time.  Kind of like spinning plates, really.

Anyway That's the basic gist of Game A, now let's take a look at Game B.

 



In this mode, Hector sleepwalks (and sleep-climbs) through twenty-five additional levels, and your goal is to get him to the end of each one safely.  As usual, this is done by manipulating pillars to clear a pathway and keep him away from dead ends (which usually contain Smicks).  Since you have no direct control over Hector in this mode, you don't have to preface each command to ROB with the Start button; simply pressing the button you want will do the trick. 
Touching the arrow signs will also earn you bonus points.


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ROB's Stack-Up configuration


Only one other game was released that supported ROB, a simple game called Stack-Up which came with its own set of attachments and plastic blocks.  Unfortunately, being marketed towards kids and made for a peripheral that not many people owned to begin with, complete sets of this game are now extremely rare, and have been seen selling for over $250 on eBay and similar sites.  That's just a tad beyond my budget, so instead I'll just give a quick rundown of the game modes via a ROM.


Yeah, this one has the same title screen issue





Test is identical to Gyromite's.  Direct is a bit more elaborate this time, though.





The goal is to arrange the blocks on ROB's pedestals as shown at the top of the screen, done by moving Hector so that he jumps on the on-screen buttons, which in turn tell ROB to move his arms up, down, left, right, open or closed.  The game has no way to detect whether the blocks are properly arranged, so it relies on the player to press Start once the goal is met; once this is done, points are added to the player's total based on the total time taken, and the next round begins.


Next up is Memory mode:


Program it, adjust the speed, then watch it all play out


Memory is the same concept, but a bit harder; here you must plan out ROB's movements in advance, then press the Start button to run the program. If the player successfully arranges the blocks in the indicated positions, they press Start to continue to the next stage, or Select to return to the game menu.  Bonus points are awarded based on how long it took the player to create the program, rather than how long it takes to execute.


Then finally, we have Bingo mode:




This is probably the trickiest one to play.  In this mode, the player attempts to create the block configuration shown at the top of the screen by sending commands to ROB; the tricky part of this is that one must push down a row of buttons on the screen corresponding to the command they wish to send by manipulating Hector to jump upon them.  Jumping upon an already pressed button will "un-press" them, and hopping off the edge of the screen will teleport Hector to the other side.  Pressing A or B will pause the game, which pans the view back up to the top to view the scoreboard and the block setup; pressing Start while paused will indicate that the goal has been completed, add points to the player's total and move on to the next stage.





  While trying to arrange blocks, the player is inhibited by two "Glitches" known as Spike and Flipper.  Spike simply moves slowly around the board, knocking the player offscreen and returning them the starting position if he comes into contact.  Flipper is considerably more annoying; not only will he return Hector to the starting position on contact, but he will also press or un-press any buttons he moves across, which can send unwanted commands to ROB.  The game ends when ROB drops a block; of course, like a lot of this game, it's up to the player to indicate that this has happened.





There is also a two-player competitive mode in Bingo.  In this variation, a second player controls Professor Vector, and each player competes for control of ROB, with the goal of having more blocks on "their" side of ROB's platforms before the time limit expires.  Colliding with Spike or the other player in this mode will not only reset the player's position, but cause them to move slowly for a short period of time.


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While an integral part of Nintendo's early marketing strategy, ROB never really caught on with its target audience; while an interesting novelty, it didn't really bring a lot of innovation to the medium, especially when all that ROB was really capable of was manipulating blocks and acting as an elaborate Rube Goldberg device to operate a second controller.  Nintendo may have had a few more ideas in store for ROB, but with the release (and runaway success) of Super Mario Bros, they likely saw little reason in bothering with an unpopular peripheral.  As a result, the "Robot Series" of NES games was quickly discontinued, and ROB faded into obscurity.

Neither Gyromite nor Stack-Up have been rereleased in any form, most likely due to their reliance on the ROB peripheral.  However, Nintendo has at least acknowledged them in a few of their later games.  Professor Hector appears in the menu screens of Tetris DS, and ROB appears as a hidden character in both Mario Kart DS and Super Smash Brothers Brawl, utilizing several of his trademark accessories in each game.

Video showing ROB in action

Rating: 5/10
One-line Synopsis: An interesting piece of history, but this one's for die-hard collectors only.

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©2003 Spoony