Robot History Month is a time to celebrate the unsung heroes woven into the rich tapestry of this proud community. One such hero is the Robotic Operating Buddy. “ROB” for short.
ROB the Robot was born in Japan* in 1985. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the revival of the video game industry after the infamous crash of 1983. This is his story.
It’s the summer of 1982. Video game manufacturers and publishers are at the tail-end of a golden era in home electronics. However, low-quality games begin to flood the market, lowering consumer confidence that video games would continue to be a reliable medium for entertainment. Sales tumble downward, and several formerly-prominent companies are bankrupt by the following year. The most iconic incident during this dark time for console games is the burial of thousands of unsold video game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill by former kingpin Atari.
Flash-forward two uneventful years later. Toy retailers were still understandably reluctant to stock what they perceived to be poorly-selling garbage. Established Japanese entertainment company Nintendo wanted to bring their new home console to a worldwide audience, particularly in the United States, but they knew that mass marketing the Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System would be an uphill battle in America because of the economic stigma now affixed to all things video game.
Enter their savior: ROB the Robot.
Nintendo’s plan was to get a foot in the proverbial door by pitching the NES as more “toy” and less “video game.”
The NES generated lots of admiration but absolutely no commercial interest among retailers when it debuted at the 1984 Consumer Electronics show. Nintendo of America knew that it would need to get creative in order to bring the retooled version of the Japanese Nintendo Famicom across the Pacific. Part of this effort was to re-brand much of the terminology associated with the NES such that it wouldn’t call to mind the failed efforts of 82-83. “Entertainment System” instead of “console.” “Game Pak” instead of “cartridge.”
ROB was the centerpiece of the strategy. He was a “trojan horse.” ROB and the light-gun pack-in were designed to sell the NES as a traditional toy rather than yet another foray into what was now seen as a dead-end genre. The strategy worked, as major stores such as Toys ‘R Us agreed to carry the NES on their shelves. Nintendo sold one million units that first year, and the industry turned around.
His services no longer needed, ROB was kicked to the curb like so many of his unappreciated robot brothers. ROB was only utilized in connection with two early games: Stack-Up and Gyromite. Once the NES began to sell in decent numbers, Nintendo’s approach shifted towards a more traditional video game marketing plan. ROB was therefore removed from the NES deluxe package in conjunction with a price drop in 1986. Three million NES units flew off the shelves that year, and the crash was officially over. The industry hasn’t looked back since. ROB became Nintendo’s answer to Chuck Cunningham.
Although largely forgotten now, ROB almost literally saved home video games. Without his selfless actions, children in the late 80’s and beyond may have been forced to resort to more traditional forms of entertainment, such as board games, or, worse, possibly even reading or cardiovascular exercise. Because of ROB’s undeniable role in shaping the culture of entertainment in which we’re entrenched today, we honor him as part of our celebration of Robot History Month.