The sad story of R.O.B., the least eligible robo-bachelor in town

Gyromite (1985)

It’s the thing that no man ever wants to hear, especially if it’s the first date. There’s been a lot of build-up to get to that point, a lot of cringe lines from you in particular. The girl’s been waiting to see you in person, and you may have even featured in her e-bathroom – that is, her WhatsApp group with all the other girls. They’ll judge you harsher than Crufts, that lot.

Prior to meeting this girl, who may perhaps become the love of your life (whether she goes out with you or not), all of these factors are racing through your mind. You know that you’ve only got this one chance to impress them, and you absolutely need to do the biz and be on top of your game, if not on top of something else.

This is where you’re going to make your big break, the decisive moment. And then the girl sees you in real life and says, with a level of disappointment that even overwhelms her customary politeness, “Oh… I thought you’d be taller…”

I’ve heard that devastating review being issued to celebrities, I’ve heard of it happening to people on first dates, I’ve heard it from children when they meet their heroes, which I suppose in this day and age is their favourite YouTubers.

You might find people bleating about body positivity and how we’re all beautiful and all that lark. But I happen to know that the reality for men is far different: if you ain’t tall enough, as in if you’re below six foot these days, you might as well give up. You’ll be paid less, laid less and you’re only one cruel joke away from unrecoverable public humiliation.

And I hate to be discriminatory in such a way myself, but that’s the exact same reaction I had when I first saw R.O.B. the robot, an NES accessory released alongside the console in that classic grey plastic finish.

He’s quite is a significant little fella in gaming history is R.O.B, you know, despite his physical stature. I know he may look a bit silly and he’s easy to laugh at. And certainly nobody in our right minds would pick him in Super Smash Bros, that’s for sure.

But if you want to be a bit of a scholar about it, then you shouldn’t underestimate the impact that R.O.B. had in terms of actually bringing Nintendo to the fore of video gaming, and particularly his role in ensconcing the console within American living rooms.

I’ve already alluded to the whole state of video games in the early to mid eighties, and it’s a mind-crushingly dull story at this stage, with E.T. acting the maggot, gaming being more embarrassing than pogs, blah blah blah. But R.O.B. was used as a Trojan Horse to sell Nintendo units, sold as a robot toy, sold as a bit of a lie really, like when I tell women I walk dogs for a living.

What R.O.B. didn’t tell people was that he was actually a video game doodad, and not a long-term relationship kind of guy. Telling consumers that sort of thing at the time would’ve been like my dating profile when I tell everyone that I’m under six foot – basically dirt to the right people.

Suddenly the Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t being sold as strictly a video game system anymore, it was being sold as something to plug your new robot into. And robots were cool as all hell in the 80s and everyone wanted them, you’ve seen Star Wars and Rocky IV.

So, that’s how Nintendo cracked it. They’re a clever bunch of eggs, those Sensible Suits at Nintendo. If it wasn’t Zapper guns, it was teeny robots. This type of thing was pretty far removed from your typical Atari joystick experience. That’s an impressive starting bit of prestige for R.O.B., but what else can he do?

Unfortunately the answer is laughably little, like that guy on his first date. R.O.B. works with only two games out of the seven hundred strong NES library in the States. And those two games, being as polite as possible, aren’t exactly what you’d call GOATs.

There’s one which I won’t be talking about today called Stack-Up, which does exactly as it says on the tin. You get these blocks with the game, and you instruct R.O.B. to stack them a certain way according to what the game tells you. It’s about as much fun as stacking clothes after you’ve taken them down and folded them. When you stack one pile, you move on to the next one.

It is quite literally busy work, not even a game. If you’re gonna sell me that, Nintendo, then have R.O.B. actually be useful. Why not let me program him to stack my clothes, and perhaps take care of my stack of washing up while he’s at it. Those tasks take time, and I don’t have time to be watching R.O.B. slowly wheel around and move a few colourful blocks about.

The one and only other game he works with, Gyromite, is a bit more action oriented. Here’s how it works: you, inferior fleshbag, take the first controller in your hand. You use it with your wretched brain and disgustingly human muscles to control a professor onscreen, who’s trying to gather all the fruit before he gets mauled by the monsters. What kind of a lab is that?

Anyway, there’s also a second controller in play here, and you’ll have your robotic buddy R.O.B beside you operating this one for you. R.O.B. keeps his controller in a kind of tray that sits in front of him. He’s gaming royalty at this stage, you know, so holding the controller is clearly beneath him.

Not having fingers, R.O.B. nonetheless crosses the bot-to-human barrier to press the A or B button by, of all things, dropping a spinning top or Gyro as it’s called onto a pressure pad. This in turn presses one of the buttons, which opens and closes gates for the professor in your Gyromite game.

Sound laborious? Well it is, because this process can take a minute or more. Imagine having to do that in any other game? Waiting a minute to get a bit of electricity going between you and the game. And all this time, you could just press the pissing buttons on the second controller yourself.

Yes, you don’t even control R.O.B. with your controller, you actually control the screen itself. You make it flash blue, which then feeds instructions to R.O.B. through some sort of, I don’t know, primitive infrared? 1G data? Ham radio? Whatever it is, it’s probably the same kind of technology that the Japanese nuclear defence system had, until they decided to do a forklift upgrade to having Hatsune Miku as their nuclear control.

But I had always had R.O.B. in my mind as this massive contraption, way bigger than the NES, almost PS3 sized. A big substantial bugger to have underneath your Christmas tree in 1985, speaking from 2020 when things have gone so digital that it’s difficult to even have a properly stacked tree. But no, he’s just a cute little thing that can’t do much, like a puppy.

He’ll cost you a pretty penny today, especially if you want his full range of weaponry for both Gyromite and Stack-Up – he doesn’t just come alone, he’s got different plastic peripherals for each game, and the ones for Stack-Up are particularly expensive. The game even comes in a jumbo-sized box.

That really drives home the fact that R.O.B. was very much a toy, rather than a regular game experience. As such, Gyromite is playable by yourself with or without the curious little robot. You can decide which method is more painfully boring.

That’s all R.O.B. and his brace of games are really, cute little novelties. I will admit I love the fact that he was able to burst his way into living rooms the way he did. He’ll always command respect for that, and it makes you prepared to overlook how slow, noisy and small he is, and how rubbish Gyromite and Stack-Up are. I’d say he’s definitely worth checking out, but you probably won’t fancy a second date.

5 March 2021

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