The hottest toy of the 1985 Christmas season was an Extraordinary Video Robot that could play games through your television.
Except it wasn’t.
The “robot” in that 1985 commercial was R.O.B. (Robot Operating Buddy), which shipped with early copies of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to test markets in New York and Los Angeles. The NES proved to be a big hit in those test markets, and so the console rolled out throughout the U.S. over the next year – but without R.O.B. Why?
The best way to explain R.O.B. is to show him in action. It’s a collector’s item today, available on eBay for anywhere from $20 to $500 depending on its condition. To use R.O.B., power it on, plug in the second NES controller into the base unit, and load onr of the two games that works with it, Gyromite or Stack-Up.
The youtube channel videogamecollector shows what it looks like running, and it’s very cool:
…but beneath all the spinning and blinking and robot noises, here’s what R.O.B. was really doing: pressing the select button on the second controller. Which means that you could play the same two games much more easily without R.O.B., simply by pressing the select button on the second controller.
Why would Nintendo design something so complicated and so utterly pointless? It wasn’t a robot, it was a trojan horse. R.O.B.’s entire purpose was to hide the fact that the NES was a video game system.
And why would Nintendo of America want to hide the fact that their beautifully designed video game system was a video game system? Remember that this was fall 1985, before the wild success of the NES. But for a full answer, we need to look back even farther into the history of video games.
The first commercially successful video game was Pong, released in 1972 and still bizarrely addictive today. Following Pong, many other of these new “video games” were released to the new video arcades that were springing up all over the United States. As arcades became more and more popular, video game makers began to wonder how to bring the experience into their customers’ homes. After a few false starts, the first massive hit was the Atari 2600, released in 1977.
Manufacturers created hundreds and hundreds of games for the Atari system – and that was the problem. With so many titles clogging store shelves, and with a medium so new that there were not yet any reviews, customers had no way to tell good games from bad games.
The final indignity was the officially licensed E.T. video game, released in time for Christmas 1982. Atari spent millions to acquire the rights to what was at the time the highest-grossing movie of all time, and millions more on marketing, but left the game to a single developer to rush out in six weeks. The results were famously terrible:
Millions of American children woke up on Christmas morning to a shiny new copy of Atari’s E.T., only to have their joy turn to despair within minutes of starting up the boring, bug-filled mess above. Word quickly spread, sales dried up, and retailers were stuck with millions of unsold copies sitting on shelves. They sent the cartridges back to Atari, who had no choice but to take the loss and bury them in a New Mexico landfill.
It wasn’t just E.T.; every other game and even every other video game system completely dried up. Atari nearly went bankrupt, staying in business only by reorganizing and selling off its software division. Industry analysts declared that the fad was over; there was no more consumer demand for video games. That state of affairs continued for years. And that was the situation that Nintendo of America found itself in in fall 1985.
Nintendo had good reason to believe that video games would take off again – there was no video game industry crash in Japan, and their Famicom system had sold steadily there since 1983. And they thought they knew the cause of the crash and what to do about it. They would have strict quality control over all the games on their system, made possible by a licensing agreement and enforced by a lockout chip preventing unlicensed games from playing. They would create an in-house magazine to offer reviews, previews of future games, and strategy information to players. But even with all these efforts in place, they still had a major hurdle to overcome to get their new system to consumers.
This was 1985, years before online shopping was even a dream. To even get the chance to sell to customers, Nintendo knew it first had to sell to retailers who were understandably skeptical of video games after the crash of 1983.
So how do you sell a video game system to people who don’t like video games? Tell them it’s totally not a video game system! It’s an ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM! And R.O.B. was a key part of that strategy. It looked like a toy, so retailers concluded that it must be a toy – and they marketed it like any other toy. Nintendo proved to be absolutely right about the NES. And as you can see below, thirty-five years later: the rest is history.