The Little R.O.B.ot That Could

January, 1984. Fledgling startup Nintendo of America is attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's handing out flyers with three images on it. One is of a television playing Pong, one of a TV playing an Atari 2600 style tennis game, the next is a veiled box with the legend "The evolution of the species is now complete." What were they showing? A new game console that was all the rage in Japan. There it was known as Famicom, here it would be known as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Plenty of buyers and executives from all over the business world stopped by Nintendo's tiny booth to see this new video-game console in action. The brochures didn't lie. The graphics and games available for the NES were light years beyond anything the Atari 2600 or any other game console was capable of producing. Everyone agreed that the NES was a fantastic piece of technology.

Number of orders for the system? Zero.


Do you know me? I saved videogames!
It was 1984, the year after the entire American video-game market had crashed. Consumers, burned way too many times on a glut of truly horrendous software created for the Atari 2600 in previous years, decided to react by not buying any more games. Many third-party companies went out of business, others lost millions of dollars, and executives who had invested their careers in the meteoric rise of video-game culture lost their shirts, and often their jobs. The conventional wisdom was that video games were a fad whose bubble had finally burst. Nobody was going to waste valuable store space on a product that would never sell. "Consumers have moved on" everybody said, "Video games are dead." It didn't matter how good the NES was, it would never take off.

That was the inspiration for the creation of one of the most reviled and vastly unappreciated gaming peripherals ever created. R.O.B., or Robotic Operating Buddy. R.O.B. was gray, one foot tall, spun on a little axis, and didn't do much else. He was ostensibly designed to work with two truly awful games: Gyromite and Stack-Up. That, however, wasn't R.O.B.'s true purpose. R.O.B. (along with a light gun that also came packaged with the system) was a product designed for one thing and one thing only -- to allow Nintendo's salespeople to approach big retailers like Toys R Us and say "Oh, no this isn't a video game. It's a toy." They even built a whole marketing campaign around it that drastically de-emphasized the role of the TV in the product and played up the robot and light gun.

It worked. Not entirely, of course. Buyers aren't stupid, even when they're being remarkably shortsighted. The strategy of marketing the NES as a toy (along with favorable consignment terms), convinced enough retailers in the New York City area in the summer of 1985 to stock the product for a valid test market. Everyone assumed that would be the end of it. New York City was the area that had been hardest hit by the crash, it had been the dumping ground for millions of discounted Atari 2600 cartridges that were still cluttering up bargain stores and .99 cent bins. If the NES could sell here, there was a slight chance it might work elsewhere. The smart money had Nintendo of America out of business by January.

How did it work? Beautifully. The commercials touting the R.O.B and the light gun as "The Toy of The Future" didn't fool any kid under fifteen for a second. They knew what they were seeing -- this was a video game! Consumers weren't tired of video games, they were tired of bad video games. The commercials also gave kids a powerful argument to convince their gun-shy parents to purchase the product. "Oh no, Mom, it's not a video game -- it's a toy robot! See the robot? Can I have it, Mom? Please, please, please, please, please?!?"

By the end of its first year, Nintendo had sold one million NES systems. Retailers, analysts, and consumer electronics journalists remained skeptical, considering it a temporary aberration. The second year, the company dropped R.O.B., and just sold the gray box on its own. "Aha!" the smart people said, "Here's where the rubber meets the road! Video games are dead and you don't even have R.O.B. as a cover anymore." That year Nintendo of America sold three million systems. There was no longer any doubt, video games were back and Nintendo was the future.

ferricide: The whole R.O.B. thing totally worked on me. In 1986, I was nine, and I'd just been completely bowled over by Short Circuit. Say what you will, but I still like Ally Sheedy to this day. The first time I saw anything about the NES I didn't even pay attention to anything about the system besides the simple fact that it came with a robot. I had trouble falling asleep that night, so excited was I for a system that wouldn't even be in my hands till that fall at the earliest. (I ended up getting it for Christmas, in fact.) I quickly learned that R.O.B. was valueless, but that didn't matter when I discovered how great the rest of the games on the system -- that ignored the robot, of course -- were. It was what got the NES' foot in my door.

Ben: Could Nintendo of America have succeeded without its Trojan horse R.O.B. strategy? Maybe. Probably. Eventually. But it wanted immediate success, and that's close to what it got thanks in part to this brilliant little marketing trick. Creating a weird robot peripheral might seem pretty out there, but I guess you have to get pretty drastic when you're told the market is dead and buyers aren't touching your product.

Delsyn: I didn't really notice the crash as it was happening. True, I got burned on as much crappy Atari 2600 software as anybody, but after a few months, I just gave up on the console side and moved on to an Atari 800 and played a whole lot of Star Raiders. That was my genesis as a PC gamer. Nonetheless, I distinctly remember the day I first saw the commercial for the Nintendo Entertainment System on WPIX, the local New York City station. It was like a bolt from the blue and I never even noticed the robot or the light gun. The only thing I had eyes for was the maybe five seconds of game footage. I had never seen graphics this good outside of an arcade, and when my best friend got the system, I spent a whole lot of time at his house playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. 2. I never actually owned an NES myself, but Nintendo saved the American gaming scene, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.

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