The rise and fall of our robot friend.
Here at Sumonix, we look back fondly on gaming’s early years. Sure, in the eighties we had pixelated graphics and the sound was comprised of repetitive 8-Bit synthesizer, but there were some truly memorable, ground-breaking games released. Designing a successful title (with the technology available at the time) showed real ingenuity and dedication.
By the early eighties, the Atari 2600, also known as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) had made gaming consoles a household item, having sold over 25 million units. This was the first system to utilize programmable ROM cartridges, as opposed to previous versions of home consoles that only played a single in-built game (Pong was an absolute hit). But the console powerhouse that was Atari was already beginning to show signs of decline. A of group Atari game designers, disillusioned after being left out of the credits and receiving no paid royalties for successful games, quit to form their own third party company. This spawned the birth of the modern powerhouse publisher Activision. Every game that they designed for the VCS was a notable hit, with a selection popular titles such as the Pitfall! series.
This defection bespoke the beginning of the end for Atari. Even though they had no proper licensing measures in place, desperately, they still attempted to sue their ex-employees at Activision. Unsurprisingly, they failed to secure a restraining order and eventually lost the case in 1982. The court case set a precedent for third party game developers for the VCS, causing a rush of companies (yes, Quaker Oats actually dabbled in gaming) to jump on the video game bandwagon. Many of these companies had no experience designing games and were only interested in profits on the back of the video game boom.
Get Off My Screen!
Hundreds of shovelware flooded the market, some with such blatant commercial intentions such as Chase the Chuck Wagon, bankrolled by pet food company Purina. Players mailed in proof of purchases of their dog food products in exchange for a game cartridge. Luckily for the sake of future gamers, the marketing strategy failed and the unshipped cartridges were eventually destroyed. A slew of other blasphemous games surfaced, like Mystique’s adults only title Custer’s Revenge. This infamous game depicted a naked General Custer dodging arrows before achieving his evil goal of raping a bound Native American woman. Various Women’s Rights and Native American groups quickly got the game banned.
The glut of absolute crap that came out during the twilight years of the VCS resulted in the documented North American Video Game Crash of 1982 and 1983.
The glut of absolute crap that came out during the twilight years of the VCS resulted in the documented North American Video Game Crash of 1982 and 1983. Consumers had lost all confidence in video games. The toy stores tried desperately to ship cartridges back to the publishers (who were starting to declare bankruptcy) and were resorted to reducing the cartridges to bargain bin prices. Atari, which had been under the corporate direction from Warner Communications since its acquisition in 1976, put everything on the line by hastily releasing E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in the same year as the successful film. Costing over $125 million in an attempt to release the VCS game by Christmas, E.T. is today widely regarded as the worst video game of all time. Atari had finally fallen on its sword, the industry was in a shambles and video games were declared dead in North America less than two years later.
Meanwhile in Japan, Nintendo had just come off of a great success with their Game & Watch series of handheld devices and were ready to throw their hat in the ring with the NES. The Famicom (the original Japanese version of the NES) had sold remarkably well in Japan, mainly attributed to legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. creator). But getting the NES into North America in 1984, just months after the Atari-fueled crash, wasn’t going to be easy.
Nintendo America combated fierce scepticism with one of the smartest moves in video game history. Toy stores that had sold the 99c Atari cartridges were afraid of anything resembling another video game console. But the first NES consoles that shipped to the US came with a very subtle Trojan Horse; R.O.B. – the Robotic Operating Buddy. R.O.B. the robot didn’t really do much except turn on one axis and lift and place a couple of spinning gyros. The kicker was that he could receive optical flashes from the TV screen (much like the Zapper) and play the game himself! The catch was he could only play Gyromite and Stacker, two truly mediocre titles released by Nintendo. But that wasn’t the point as far as consumers were concerned. R.O.B. gave Nintendo the perception as being a novelty, not a video game system. The American retailers gave the NES a chance in a test market in New York and by the end of its first year it had sold one million units. The following year, after having served his purpose, R.O.B. was subsequently dropped by Nintendo, who went on to sell over 3 million units. It was clear that consoles were back in the video game business.
I was 7 years old when I first saw R.O.B. in action at my cousin’s house. I thought it was so cool that a one foot tall robot was able to participate with our gaming sessions. The problem was that Gyromite sucked and we quickly tired of watching the repetitive levels. Besides, Super Mario Bros. was out by that time and there was no question as to which game we wanted to spend our time on. While R.O.B. did what he did well, he unfortunately spent most of his life gathering dust in the closet or garage.
It wasn’t until I began to research this article that I became aware of R.O.B.’s true purpose. While he did relatively little for gamers, he did whole lot for the gaming industry. NES eventually would have made it into the US, but R.O.B. gave jilted gamers some much needed novel relief. 20 years later I look back fondly at ‘The little R.O.Bot that could’ and acknowledge this unsung hero, relishing the rare cameo he makes in Nintendo games like Super Smash Bros.
R.O.B., Sumonix salutes you.