You’ve likely heard the story of R.O.B. ‘The Robotic Operational Buddy’ for the NES. The story usually goes like this: when Nintendo wanted to bring their successful Family Computer console to America in 1985, the stores wouldn’t take it because they were afraid of losing money on video games, as there had just been a big video game market crash. So in order to get toy stores to stock the console, Nintendo initially bundled the NES with a toy robot and marketed it as an electronic toy instead.
Some of the story might be true, but R.O.B. was actually released in Japan first, as the Family Computer Robot.
Nintendo was a toy company before they were a games company, and there were many existing examples of the company combining electronics and toys before this. Among the most notable are the original electro-mechanical light gun games: at home (Electro Safari and Electro Bird) and in the arcade (the original versions of Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt).
So really, the robot and its accessories were just part of a long toy/game continuum that continued throughout the Famicom era with peripherals like the Power Pad and all the way through to today with Amiibo and Labo.
The games that were compatible each came with a veritable toybox of additional parts, and are essentially complex mechanical games that use the robot as a central item. Only two games were released, Robot Block and the more elaborate Robot Gyro.
The Family Computer Robot uses pretty much identical technology to the light guns of the day, but in reverse, so instead of the screen responding to the peripheral, the peripheral responds to the screen. Like light guns it relies on the screen scanning display technique of a cathode ray tube, and so will not work on modern fixed pixel screens, even via a scaler.
So for robot games, a CRT is required, luckily I keep one on hand for just such an occasion.
Essentially the robot needs to be positioned so he can see the screen clearly in order to respond to the commands he is sent.
The robot can receive commands from the screen and execute a simple movements based on them. He can move his arms up and down, left to right, and can open and close his grip. This movement set allows him to pick up and move objects.
The two games approach the concept of ‘robot which can pick up items’ differently. Robot Block primarily makes the physical element of the game the primary one, integrating the Famicom software into the mechanical game. Robot Gyro is essentially a regular video game which includes the robot (and gyro) functionality as a physical gimmick.
Robot Block (ロボット ブロック)
Robot Block is the simplest of the two games, in both set-up and software. It comes with a series of attachments which are slotted into the robot’s base, some discs which sit in these attachments and can be stacked on each other, and some hand attachments which can grip the discs.
The physical game involves manoeuvring the robot to pick up the discs and stack them in a particular order.
The game itself features a robot testing tool, and three game modes: Direct, Memory and Bingo.
All the games involve a little professor jumping around the interface. Direct is the simplest, you have to stack up the discs in a certain order as shown on the screen.
In Memory you must set up a series of moves for the robot to execute in order to achieve the required physical result. Bingo is a one or two player game where you have to fill in rows or columns in order to execute commands.
Essentially the software is useless without the accessories, since it’s really just a tool that is used to play with the robot and pieces. It’s also not very fun beyond the 80s robot novelty.
Robot Gyro (ロボット ジャイロ)
Robot Gyro is both the better game, and has the better toys. It also has a much more elaborate set-up. First of all there is a bracket on which the Famicom player II controller sits, with a levered mechanism which can hit the A and B buttons.
There is a powered gyro spinner which gets two tops spinning at high speed.
The robot can pick up the tops from the spinner…
…manoeuvre them over the button levers…
…and release, which presses down on the matching button on the controller.
There’s also a slot over on the right to keep the second top when not in use.
Here’s a closer look at the mechanism to hit the buttons. The mechanisms are coded in blue and red, which ties into the game.
The set up is actually a pretty fun toy in and of itself, due to the spinning tops being pretty fun and the whole set-up being nicely done. But what about the game?
Well it’s a pretty standard 80s puzzle action platformer (think Lode Runner or Crazy Castle), where the same professor character from Robot Block has to collect all the dynamite in the stage while avoiding the critters.
The gimmick is that the stages are full of red and blue pipes which move up and down when the red and blue switches have been hit. In order to get the robot to do this, you essentially pause and issue instructions. It can often take several moves for the robot to slowly get the top to the right button.
Actually playing with the robot is tedious, but the game itself is a decent puzzler if played without it in two player (with the other player hitting A and B). So while the robot toys are fun to play with, and the game is decent, together they are less than the sum of the parts.
Overall, while not being the most fun games to play on the Famicom, the Family Computer Robot games are fun pieces connecting Nintendo’s toy and video game eras.
Another update on this article on my now never-ending quest to collect a series of Konami Famicom character cards from the 80s.
Recap: at some point starting in 1987, Konami decided to include a collector card with all their Famicom titles. Each card had an illustration related to the game; some cards featured screenshots or pieces of screenshots, others had artwork of scenes in the game.
But one lucky day I found a regular small boxed game with the card. And now I have a card for all twenty of the games that came with one!
On top of this, I picked up a beautiful near mint copy of Dragon Scroll (ドラゴンスクロール) in Ikebukuro, which came with a different card to the one I had, so now I have entered the murky waters of collecting multiple cards per game.
Dragon Scroll also came with these great advertisements for various Konami games and sountracks. Pretty cool when you have almost every item on a vintage ad!
This Japanese site (which I found because it flatteringly used this site as a source) has nicely collated most of the available cards, so this journey may go for many more years. Another great site Video Game Den also has good info on the available cards.
Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo well and truly won round 1, and not having a great income stream from their consoles, Sega allowed their games to be released on competing systems like Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine. The games were published by third parties, but nontheless there were several official Famicom/NES releases where the Sega logo could be seen on a title screen.
By the late 80’s everything had changed however. Sega’s third console the Mega Drive was doing very well, and was eventually a solid competitor to the Famicom/NES and later Super Famicom/SNES. As a result, the concept of Sega on Nintendo (or vice versa) faded from memory as a possibility.
But by the late 90s, Sega was in a bad position again. All their Mega Drive add-ons had failed to gain decent marketshare, as had their Game Boy competitor the Game Gear. And their latest main console, the Saturn, had been a borderline disaster. While it managed to establish a decent niche in Japan (even outselling the Nintendo 64), their previously strong marketshare in the west had crashed. Their entire legacy rested on the hopes of the new Dreamcast console.
As a result, their publishing rules started to relax again, and they allowed other non-competing platforms to see their crown jewel property Sonic. In 1997 a terrible version of Sonic Jam was released on the Game.com, a terrible console by Tiger Electronics. More notably, Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure was released on SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color in late 1999.
On March 31st, 2001, the battle was no more. Sega discontinued the Dreamcast, and started developing games for the remaining platform holders, including Nintendo. The first release was a port of Chu Chu Rocket to Game Boy Advance. The end of the very same year the previously unthinkable had already happened – An official Sonic game on Nintendo.
Two Sonic games were released on December 20 2001. Sonic Advance on Game Boy Advance
And Sonic Adventure 2 on GameCube. In a strange twist of fate, Sonic actually beat Mario to a new Nintendo console, as it would be another six months until Super Mario Sunshine.
It went on from there, and the next Sonic game, while multiplatform, was designed primarily for the Nintendo GameCube.
But for long term fans of both companies, it really really hit home when in 2003 Sega developed a Nintendo game.
This splash screen blew my mind the first time I saw it.
The game? F-Zero GX. And it was one of the greatest games of the generation, and still a killer looking and playing title today.
Technically that was about it for Sega. In 2003 they were taken over my Pachinko company Sammy and have continued as an upper-mid-tier third party developer. And over a decade later, despite varied game quality, Sonic is a strong seller on Nintendo.
This is my oldest Nintendo item, a set of original Nintendo Hanafuda. I’m not sure of the exact date of manufacture, the seller said the kit was ‘pre-war’. Given the superb condition it seems likely it is from quite late in that prescribed period.
The set is contained in an unassuming wooden box.
In which fit the gambling paraphernalia and cards.
I have no idea if the the non-card items are Nintendo made, but the kit is clearly built around the box of Nintendo cards and it all fits together very neatly.
Various chips for gambling.
Under the main card box is a tray of other gambling related items.
The card with the woman on it says 百本 or something like ‘a hundred points’.
The small Hanafuda box itself is where we can see the original Nintendo branding.
任天堂 – Nin Ten Do – in the original kanji logo.
The lid lifts off to reveal the beautiful Hanafuda (花札) – literally ‘flower cards’.
The cards themselves are quite beautiful and well made.
These three cards are branded. The left card has the Nintendo Playing Card logo, and the middle is branded with 任天堂 Nin Ten Do.