This is R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy.
R.O.B. was an accessory for the original Nintendo Entertainment System that was primarily created for the North American pack-in version sold at launch in 1985. R.O.B was included in the deluxe packages of the NES in order to distract from the fact that the NES was a video game system and make it seem more of a toy (which is also why it was called an “Entertainment System” even though it couldn’t do anything except play video games).
The reason Nintendo was trying to distance itself from the North American video game industry requires a bit of background context. In 1983 there was a crash of the entire video game industry in North America. It can be attributed to a bunch of different factors (hubris not being the least of them), but the main cause seems to be that the industry was young and too successful too quickly and so all the traditional ‘bubble’ issues led to horrible mistakes that cost billions of dollars. Companies had more money than good sense and without a history to guide them they made arrogant choices that cost more than they expected.
The two giant flops that are often mentioned during this time were E.T and Pac Man–both for the Atari 2600. Pac-Man was a port of the hyper-popular arcade game and so they shipped 12 million cartridges, even though at the time there were only 10 million Atari 2600 systems in households. They were anticipating it being such a big seller that it would sell to 100% of Atari owners and then also sell 2 million systems to brand new customers. With E.T. they ‘only’ created 7 million units, but the game itself was programmed by one man in two months in order to get it out for Christmas. In both cases they were banking on the popularity of their licenses above the quality of the games, and in both cases they were sub-par games that sold miserably. At the time game cartridges were expensive to manufacture and so the actual hard loss to companies for these giant failures resulted in a domino effect crash of the entire industry.*
Keep in mind that the video game craze was not even a decade old at this point. It had started quickly and spread in such a way that it was labeled a ‘fad’ by most of North America. Yes, it was popular for a few years, but ultimately it would go the way of the hula hoop or flagpole-sitting or coonskin hats. And so when the industry hit hard times, the cultural perception was that this was the natural end of the fad–the end of video games.
Meanwhile, at this same time in Japan, the Nintendo Famicom (Family Computer) was just launching. It hit the right place at the right time and became a cultural phenomenon in Japan, and and so it was only a matter of time until Nintendo started looking at launching it in the US**. However, by the time they had all the necessary deals in place, it was 1985 and the North American video game landscape was still a mess, which is why they felt the need to try and get it into American homes under the guise of something other than a video game system. Enter R.O.B.
I was given this particular R.O.B. for Christmas when the Museum of Obsolete Technology was just starting to take off. I don’t have either of the games that work with him so I’m not actually sure if he still works, but see below for why that doesn’t actually matter that much. He is one of those rare pieces who’s function is secondary to his value and importance.
R.O.B. only ever had two games that worked with him (both of which were not any good) and so most people write him off as one of the first in a long line of failed Nintendo accessories. The thing is that I don’t think that’s actually the case. His purpose wasn’t to be a fun game accessory. He was a trojan horse designed to make North American consumers bring an NES into their homes with the promise of futuristic robotic companionship. Video games were on the out, but robotic toys were all the rage and television shows at the time loved clunky robot characters (see Small Wonder and Riptide for a couple examples). R.O.B. fit perfectly into that milieu and his design has had enough of a cultural impact that you can see bits of him in both Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movies and Wall-E. He didn’t have to work well or even at all, he just had to exist.
*A great source for all the factors involved in the crash is Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. I’ve given a very dumbed down version here that probably is over simplifying things. This book is definitely a recommended read for anyone looking for a detailed background of that era along with lots of interviews with the folks who were there and involved in it all.
**Read the History section here for an interesting story about how Atari almost could have had the rights for the NES in North America. This story is also elaborated on in The Ultimate History of Video Games.