Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Indentured Servants In Disguise (Gyromite)

The Other Nintendo Generation always seemed cooler. Long after reason had concluded it couldn't possibly be as cool as I thought, it still seemed cooler. How could it not? It had a robot.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB, was actually just a bit of marketing. After the 1983 crash, no retailer would touch a "video game" system, seeing them as a dead fad. As the legend goes, Nintendo created ROB so that they could sell the NES as a "toy" rather than a "video game system."Obviously it worked, but once it worked and the NES was launched as a viable product, ROB was quietly relegated to that most ignoble dustbin, completely being ignored forever.

The Nintendo Generation is used to this dustbin, lingering as we do in this abandoned space before the crash. Somewhere, without our consultation, there is the sense that a decision was reached as to where it was decided which generations would be able to live out their lives in a functioning society and which ones would be left to rot, and that the cutoff hit us squarely in the face. This is the driving engine of a society in which the marriage rate is plummeting. Why start a family with no prospects?

Of course, there are perils in chasing this analogy too far. For one thing, it leaves us as the equivalent of ROB. Which is to say, a temperamental piece of plastic used to control a lousy video game like Gyromite. This is, by many standards, a degradation too far. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt spent earning useless college degrees, moving, as far too many of us have, back home, the complete abandonment of any future, these are things we are gradually coming to terms with. Saying we're as bad as ROB? Ouch.

The biggest problem with ROB was not that it sucked, which is an impressive accomplishment for something that sucks. It's biggest problem was that it was actually a viable robot. This is what those of us who were not in the ROB end of the Nintendo Generation did not realize at the time, and still to some extent resist fully wrapping our heads around. Robots, in video games, serve a very limited purpose. They are giant killing machines. This is literally their only function. Yes, in Mega Man Dr. Light screwed up and made a bunch of robots that were not giant killing machines. Then Dr. Wily helpfully came along and repaired them all.

(There is admittedly a slight window for helpful sidekick robots, but let's face it, that's basically just Rush.)

But ROB is actually a robot of labor and utility. ROB's function is... well, actually, he just moves objects around among several stacks. But still, this fits in with our understanding of the world fairly smoothly. He's a glorified forklift. He is less a buddy than a source of cheap - free, even, labor. And in Gyromite, that's basically what he is - the robotic assistant who helps a scientist get his laboratory back under control.

Not that slave labor dynamics are terribly unusual in video games - it's why I was able to mine Gradius for comedy. But generally it's the player who is forced to work for free. The player doesn't usually get to join the ranks of the bourgeois. Certainly the player is not encouraged to take home a friend and exploit their labor as part of the gameplaying process.

Which is perhaps why ROB was ultimately doomed. Designed as he was to make video games masquerade as toys, once the basic deception was completed and people liked video games, he served no purpose. Or, worse, he served a negative purpose. Nobody wants to force toys into a life of cheap labor. Toys are things we form emotional bonds with. Things we love. It is not good to love the face of your slave.

But perhaps the problem is that we ever had a distinction between "toy" and "video game" in the first place. If both are modes of leisure, why the effort to distinguish them? Surely the appeal of something like Katamari Damacy is that it's a video game that acts like a toy, just as the appeal of a Nerf gun is that it is a toy that invites a simulated game. The flaw with ROB - other than sucking, of course - may never have been the frisson of inappropriatness generated by an enslaved toy. It may just have been that the video game required a slave in the first place.


  1. "(There is admittedly a slight window for helpful sidekick robots, but let's face it, that's basically just Rush.)"

    Don't forget Eddy! And Beat! And Tango if he were actually in any Megaman game anyone ever played!

  2. As always - your articles are astute and insightful
    Achat bien