Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What about R.O.B.? - The NES's First Mascot


R.O.B. with all Gyromite Accessories (missing Cartridge)
Nintendo originally released R.O.B. as the Family Computer Robot for the Famicom in Japan on July 26, 1985.  In this form, the Family Computer Robot uses off-white plastic for its body and red plastic for its arms and the bottom half of his hexagonal base.  This corresponds to the colors of the Famicom.  The Robot had to be purchased separately, it did not come bundled with games.  It cost 9,800 Yen.  In 1985, $1 USD was worth an average of 238 Yen.

The first game for it, released alongside the Robot itself, was called Robot Block and retailed for 4,800 Yen.  This game came with five different Colored Blocks (white, red, yellow, green and blue), five Block Trays for the Blocks to be stacked onto and a pair of Block Hands for the Robot with rubber ends.  Robot Block directs the Robot to move and stack the Colored Blocks onto the various stands while the player usually hops around.  It relies on the honor system.  Interestingly, it is one of the few Nintendo games from the pre-Disk System and "black box" eras that reproduces something like recognizable human speech.

Robot Block Box
The second game, Robot Gyro, followed on August 13, 1985 and retailed for 5,800 Yen.  This game came with larger pieces, two Gyros, a Gyro Spinner, a Gyro Holder and a Gyro Tray for the Controller.  It also has a pair of Gyro Hands to grab the Gyros.  Oddly enough, the box for Robot Gyro shows a different type of spinner that is taller.  Robot Gyro requires both controllers and the second controller sits in the Gyro Tray.  The Gyros, when sitting on the red and blue platforms, depress the buttons on the second controller.  A player can still play Gryomite without R.O.B., but most of the challenge is lost.

Robot Gyro Box
Nintendo introduced the NES in the United States in New York City as a test market on October 18, 1985. The console originally retailed for $249.00 and came with the Control Deck, two Controllers, the Zapper Light Gun, the R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), and the games Gyromite and Duck Hunt, fully boxed. When introduced nationally, Nintendo also released the Control Deck and two Controllers as the Basic Set with ($99.99) and without Super Mario Bros. ($89.99) as a more budget friendly option.  The set with R.O.B. was now called the Deluxe Set.  By 1988, Nintendo was pretty much just selling the Action Set with a Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge and a Zapper for $149.99.  Eventually, the Power Pad would replace R.O.B. in the Power Set as the fad peripheral of choice.

R.O.B. was available for purchase separately, as was Gyromite with a large box that came with its accessories.  Both are rare to find today.  Gyromite was the same exact game as Robot Gyro.  Stack-Up was the same exact game as Robot Block and was available to purchase at the initial launch.  In fact, Nintendo did not even bother to change the title screens for these games, because the Gyromite and Stack-Up cartridges boot up as Robot Gyro and Robot Block, respectively.  Also, some Gyromite and all Stack-Up cartridges use Famicom PCBs and a converter that converts the 60 pins of a Famicom connector to the 72 pins of a NES connector.  This extra converter board also adds the lockout chip for the NES.  While not the only games that have these converters, they are often sought after for them.

Stack-Up was never bundled with a console and could only be purchased separately.  On account of this, it is far rarer than Robot Block.  More Japanese consumers bought Robot Block because it was cheaper than Robot Gyro.  Of course, Nintendo bundled R.O.B. with Gyromite with each Deluxe Set sold, and the Deluxe Set probably sold at least a million units, so Gyromite and its parts are far more common than Robot Gyro or anything else.

Physically and functionally, the parts for Robot Block and Stack-Up are identical.  Cosmetically, the Block Hands for Robot Block are red and the Block Hands for Stack-Up are dark gray.  The Block Trays are off-white for Robot Block and light gray for Stack-Up.  Many times on auctions for Stack-Up you will see white Block Trays and red Block Hands, and they came from Robot Block.  

Stack-Up Box
Physically and functionally, the parts for Robot Gyro and Gyromite are identical, with one exception.  That exception is the Gyro Tray.  The Gyro Tray for Robot Gyro is shaped for the rounder, smaller Famicom Controller with the bump in the middle of the edges.  The Gyro Tray for Gyromite is larger and squarer, shaped for the NES Controller.  Here is another example of region locking :)  Cosmetically, all parts use off-white plastic for Robot Gyro and the Gyro Hands, the base of the Gyro Spinner and the top rails of the Gyro Tray are red.  Gyromite uses light gray plastic for its parts except the Gyro Hands, Gryo Spinner base and top Gyro Tray rails, which are dark gray.  The off-white plastic of the Robot and its peripherals are much more prone to yellowing than the light gray plastic of R.O.B. and its peripherals.

R.O.B. works similarly to a Zapper light gun in that it receives information from the TV screen.  The TV screen will strobe green light when it wants to issue a command to R.O.B.  The photo-receptors inside R.O.B.'s head will receive the light stream and send it to a microcontroller for processing.  R.O.B. can accept six commands : Move Torso Up, Move Torso Down, Rotate Shaft Left, Rotate Shaft Right, Open Arms and Close Arms.  The microcontroller sends electricity to motors in R.O.B's Torso and Base which control the movement via gears and grooved tracks.

R.O.B. moves his Torso Up and Down in a shorter distance for Stack-Up than Gyromite because of the way the blocks stack. Stack-Up allows you to stack blocks up to five blocks high, so R.O.B. will move five times up or down the shaft from his head to his base.  Gyromite will only allow you to move three times up or down the shaft, and you really only need to move him up or down one position.  He has five positions to move left or right and his arms either are fully open or fully closed.  He has five numbered slots to insert the accessories for each game which correspond to the positions he can move.

Family Computer Robot box, hands not included
Unfortunately, R.O.B. relies on the speed and intensity of the light being pulsed by the TV screen and will not respond to the strobing on an LCD TV.  In fact, Nintendo included a filter strip for R.O.B.'s eyes should the light of the screen or the ambient light be so intense that R.O.B. would not function correctly.  R.O.B. was later released in the PAL territories.  Because PAL screens refresh slower than NTSC screens, the microcontroller in R.O.B. may have had to be adjusted.  The ROMs for Gyromite and Stack-Up are identical around the world.  The early Zapper and R.O.B. games use the same ROMs regardless of region.  The European R.O.B. and Zappers may not compatible with NTSC TVs.

R.O.B.'s communicates with the robot via a pattern of alternating green and black screens.  When the game issues a command to R.O.B., it always turns the screen black for three frames.  Then comes a green frame followed by a black frame and followed by a green frame.  For every command, this sequence is the same.  Then the sequence of green and black screens alternates in a different pattern for seven frames.  Here is how the commands are encoded :

Up (Short) Down (Short) Left Right Open Close Up (Long) Down (Long)
b b b b b b b b
b b b b b b b b
b b b b b b b b
g g g g g g g g
b b b b b b b b
g g g g g g g g
g b b g g b b g
g g g g g g g g
g b g b b g g g
g g g g g g g g
b g b b g g b b
g g g g g g g g
b b b b b b g g

b = black screen, g = green screen.

The last two frames seem to indicate only whether an up or down movement by R.O.B. is a short (Stack-Up) or a long (Gyromite) movement.  The test feature for both Gyromite and Stack-Up continuously alternates black and green screens in a 1:1 ratio after the first three black frames.  Given that the code is at least five bits (32 possibilities), there could be up to 24 other commands that R.O.B. could recognize by timing the screen flashing appropriately.

R.O.B. takes 4 x AA batteries.  The LED on top of its head lights up to tell the user that it is functioning.  It is not on all the time.  It will turn on when you use the Test mode correctly in either game.  It also turns on when R.O.B. is not moving, indicating that R.O.B. can accept a command.  R.O.B. should be situated as directly in front of a TV screen as possible.  The manual indicates that he should be no further than 45 degrees from the center of the screen and works best within 3 feet of the screen.  More than 6 feet is not recommended.

The gyro spinner additionally takes 1 x D battery.  The spinner is not active until a gyro or other object depresses the black piece.  R.O.B. should keep his hands on the gryo when in the spinner to avoid slowing down the spinning speed.  When you turn on R.O.B., you should notice one thing immediately, he is loud.  The next thing you will notice is that he is slow.  The spinner makes noise as well.  Playing either game as intended is a real challenge because you have to think several moves ahead so R.O.B. can catch up with you.  Once the novelty wore off, and it usually did pretty quickly, then R.O.B. typically got put back in the box or on the shelf.  Children would often ask their parents why they did not get them Super Mario Bros. instead.

The bundling of R.O.B. signaled a shift in Nintendo's strategy.  Nintendo's first attempt at bringing the Famicom to western markets, the Advanced Video System, failed to excite buyers when it was previewed at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Shows.  The AVS included the hardware of the Famicom with a built in keyboard, essentially the Family Computer Keyboard merged with the Famicom.  It also came with a westernized version of Family BASIC built in or bundled with it.  It also had a resdesigned version of the Family Computer Data Recorder and wireless gamepads, zapper and joystick.

Considering the video game crash taking place, Nintendo initially had a good thought to "computerize" its console.  However, the market for cheap home computers was dominated by the $300 Commodore 64.  Retailers were not impressed, perhaps because the Nintendo AVS had a few too many features in common with other failed home computers like the Coleco Adam and TI/99 4A.  (Cassette-based storage was seen as cheap in 1984).  Fortunately, the video game crash had eviscerated the home console market in North America, leading to opportunity in the lower end of the market.  Nintendo took a dual approach.  It went to lengths to distinguish its system from other systems by designing it to look like a Hi-Fi "Entertainment System."  However, it also marketed its product as a toy to toy stores.  Of course, it had to include a toy to make the pitch plausible, so R.O.B. was the "face" of Nintendo at first.

Ultimately, while video game histories may point to Nintendo's marketing of the NES as a toy rather than a video game console, I doubt any consumer was fooled into thinking that the NES was substantially different than the Atari and other systems.  The system used cartridges and hand-held controllers like its predecessors. The Famicom looked more like a toy than the NES, the NES looked like a electronic entertainment device.  Nintendo avoided using previous terms like console and cartridge and joystick, using Control Deck and Game Pak and Controller respectively.  Ultimately, it was the overall quality of the games that sold kids and their parents on the system, it was too expensive for a novelty toy.

Does R.O.B. have character?  Nintendo thought so, because it included him as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS and Wii U and gave him many cameo appearances before then.  Both color variations now have Amibos.  R.O.B. was released a year before a robot with a similar design appeared in in the film Short Circuit and twenty-three years before another similar robot was introduced in WALL-E.  These design successors demonstrate that R.O.B. does have character in and of himself.  He represents a 1980s version of an electronic toy, sleek lines and minimalist function.  Unlike earlier toys, he relies on micro computing technology instead of pure electro-mechanical functioning.  However, despite his empty, soulless eyes. he has a humanoid shape and makes natural noises.  Moreover, he does not suffer from the uncanny valley effect like another 1980s popular toy, Teddy Ruxpin.  So yes, I would conclude that R.O.B. has a good deal of character and deserved more games than he got.  If nothing else, he is always a conversation piece.

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