Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#148 – Gyromite

As they used to say in Good Times, Gy-ro-mite!

People didn’t care about box and title screen discrepancies.

To Beat: Beat Game A and Game B
To Complete: Beat Game A and 3 Loops of Game B
My Goal: Beat the game using R.O.B.
What I Did: Beat the game with R.O.B. and completed the game without R.O.B.
Played: 2/3/20 – 2/16/20
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Gyromite Longplay

Good old R.O.B., our Robotic Operating Buddy.  This robot toy was something of an icon for Nintendo in its early days in the American market.  Since then, he has mostly faded away, sometimes appearing as a period piece in media or as a reference in some of Nintendo’s own games.  It’s good that he gets to join the battle in Smash Bros. though, that was a nice minor renaissance for him.  Today, R.O.B. will get a little bit of the spotlight back as I review one of his games, Gyromite.

R.O.B. played a key role in both Nintendo’s entrance to the North American market as a return-to-form of video games in the home.   The video game crash of 1983 was still looming large as Nintendo wanted to get a foothold in the gaming market.  Their idea was to brand the NES as an “Entertainment System,” placing more focus on the toys, i.e. the Zapper and R.O.B. than on the games themselves.  R.O.B. was intended to be the centerpiece of the marketing for the NES.  The move worked out for Nintendo as the NES became a massive success throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  R.O.B. though did not fare as well, only receiving two compatible games at launch, Gyromite and Stack-Up, and nothing more.  These games released alongside R.O.B. and NES in October 1985 in North America.  Gyromite also released in Japan as Robot Gyro in August 1985 and in Europe in 1986.

There were a couple of ways to acquire R.O.B. back in the day.  The most common way was through the NES Deluxe Set.  This was a very large box set that contained the NES, TV hookups, two controllers, a Zapper, R.O.B, all the parts required for Gyromite, and boxed copies of both Gyromite and Duck Hunt.  The Deluxe Set retailed for $179.99, which in today’s money closes in on $500.  R.O.B. could also be purchased standalone for $49.99, but he did not come with any parts and couldn’t be used as-is to play a game.  Gyromite has a standalone big-box set containing all the pieces and the game.  This set is really tough to find and very expensive nowadays.

Here’s my good buddy hard at work!

Here is how R.O.B. works in practice.  R.O.B. sits in place with his two arms outstretched.  He has the capability to raise and lower his arms, turn his arms left and right, close his arms, and open them.  R.O.B. is powered by 4 AA batteries, and when you turn him on, he goes through a calibration routine.  He raises his arms and opens them all the way while turning to the right.  Then he rotates back to the left to position himself facing forward.  Now you don’t trigger any movements from R.O.B. directly, rather you send him signals through the TV screen.  The NES generates a series of screen flashes that R.O.B. can read and translate that to his basic movements.  There are some considerations when getting him to work.  R.O.B.’s head must be pointed at the TV screen for this to work.  There is a Test mode within Gyromite to ensure he can read the signals.  If he’s positioned properly, a red LED light on top of his head will be lit.  Furthermore, A CRT TV is required for R.O.B. to work.  Similar to the Zapper, he cannot read the signals from a modern TV.  Certainly, there is a lot of setup required to get R.O.B. up and running in the year 2020.

Getting R.O.B. set up to play Gyromite takes even more work.  There are several required parts that need to be set up.  First up are the gyros.  There are two of them in the set and they are spinning tops.  You can hold the top piece and the rest of the gyro below will spin freely.  Along the robot’s base there are evenly spaced notches numbered 1 through 5 where you attach the parts to R.O.B.  In slot 1 you place the gyro spinner.  This takes 2 D batteries and has a power switch to turn it on.  There’s a motor inside that you’ll hear rev up.  If you place the gyro through the hole on the top it will get it spinning fast.  The next piece goes into slots 2 and 3 together.  It is a rail with blue and red concave buttons and a shallow rectangular slot on the far end.  You take the second controller (don’t forget to plug it in) and stand it up in the rectangular slot.  The arms with the red and blue buttons, when pushed down, also press the A and B buttons on the second controller.  The idea is that once a gyro is spinning up, you can rest it on top of the red and blue button keeping the controller button pressed down.  Another rail goes into the remaining slots 4 and 5.  This is just a holder for the two gyros to get it in R.O.B.’s reach.

Now that R.O.B. and the NES are all set up, it’s time to launch the game and see what we can do with it.  An interesting thing here is that this version of the game is exactly the same in all regions, which is why the title screen reads Robot Gyro, the Famicom’s release name, instead of Gyromite.  After the title screen you get to the main menu.  Press either Up, Down, or Select to choose a menu item, then press Start to select it.  The A and B buttons update the phase number at the top, cycling from 1 through 40.  These are the levels in Game A, so you can choose any stage you want.  The Test mode puts the game on a flashing screen which is used to ensure that R.O.B. is facing the TV correctly and is ready to go.  The Direct mode allows you to test all of R.O.B.’s movements.  You press a directional key to issue Up, Down, Left, or Right commands, A to open his arms, and B to close them.  If the robot responds appropriately to all actions, you are ready to play Gyromite!  Press Select to go back to the menu.

This is probably the most viewed screen in the game.

Game A is the meat of this game.  It be played solo or with a friend in alternating play.  Here you control Professor Hector (or Professor Vector as Player 2) directly to help him remove all the dynamite in the room to prevent a big explosion.  Use the D-pad to move Hector around.  He can climb ropes with Up or Down.  Right off the bat in Phase 1 you are stuck behind a blue column.  To get anywhere in this game you will need to move the red and blue columns littered around the room with R.O.B.’s help.  Press Start to get ready to issue a command to the robot.  This turns the screen a tint of blue and Professor Hector will face the screen awaiting your command.  Press a button after that to do the screen flash and move R.O.B.  You will need to control R.O.B. one movement at a time to grab a gyro and place it on top of the blue button.  While held down, this lowers all the blue columns in the level, giving you a path forward.

There are some other things you’ll need to know to play this game.  The object of the game is to collect all the dynamite to advance to the next stage, simple as that.  This game has one enemy type, named Smick.  He can walk around and climb ropes and is generally in the way.  You lose a life if you touch him.  Smick’s one weakness is turnips, which you can find in the stages.  Use either A or B to grab a turnip off the ground and carry it, then press the button again to set it down.  If Smick finds a turnip he will sit down and eat it for a long time, allowing you to pass by him safely.  You can also fight Smick with the columns themselves.  If timed just right, you can smush him against a wall with a moving column removing him altogether.  You might need some time to strategize how to approach a level.  Press Select to pause the game, then use Left or Right to pan across the entire level.  Be careful when unpausing.  Use Select to resume play or press Start while paused to go back to the main menu.  Each level is timed at a generous 999 that ticks down fairly slowly.  Usually this is more than enough time even with the slow process of using R.O.B.  You get five lives to complete this game.  Lives are kind of useless here because you can select any level you want at any time and the only penalty of losing them all is that your score resets back to 0.

Game B plays differently.  This is another level-based game where Professor Hector is sleepwalking and you have to move the columns to guide him through the level.  Here you control R.O.B.’s movements with the controller exactly like in the Direct mode.  Many of the stages have branching paths, some of which lead the professor directly into a Smick.  Arrow signs along the course help point you in the right direction.  The professor only moves to the right or climbs up a rope any time he finds one.  You can predict where he is going to go and can plan ahead to set up the correct path in front of him.  Some levels even have two exits, a high and low path, that influence where the professor enters the next stage.  This mode has 25 levels, but there are only three lives and you can’t select your starting stage like you can in Game A.  

Sometimes you have to lower both colored pillars together.

I didn’t spend much time with Gyromite prior to playing it here.  I remember playing the game at a babysitter’s house long ago, but there was no robot and I didn’t understand that you needed the second controller to play the game without him.  This is a very common game that is inexpensive, however finding every little thing needed to play this game does not come easy or cheap.  Browsing eBay one day, after I had finished my licensed cart collection, I found a listing for a R.O.B. with all of the Gyromite parts in a lot for $80.  Most sets you’ll see online are incomplete, and the ones that have everything can run you $150 to $200, so this was a very good deal for me.  The Gyromite cart itself also has some more expensive variants.  As an early NES game, some copies have the 60-pin Famicom board inside with a converter to the 72-pin format the NES uses.  You can harvest these converters to play Famicom games on the NES.  These used to be more valuable as these were pretty much the only Famicom-to-NES converters you could find for a long time, but loose Gyromite carts with them still go for around $15-$20.  There is also a 3-screw variant where the Canadian version is relatively common while the US version is quite rare and valuable.

When trying to play this game with R.O.B. for the first time, I soon found out that my robot was not ready for prime time.  During setup he went through all his motions just fine.  During playtime, however, I noticed at times he would struggle to lift a gyro.  I could hear the motors working (My R.O.B.’s motors were particularly loud) so I wasn’t sure what the issue was.  I figured out that if I applied very slight pressure with a finger from underneath his torso when he was going up that I could give him enough of a boost to lift all the way.  I played through several levels this way and was making progress.  I just wasn’t happy with the state of affairs and so I decided to take to the internet and figure out how to go about repairing R.O.B.

The next thing that I learned is that there’s not a plethora of documentation out there on how to do repairs.  I went down just about every rabbit hole I could to figure out the complete picture.  A few links I found led to dead pages.  There were some forum threads and blog posts, some with pictures which was helpful.  Probably the best source is YouTube as I found maybe 8-10 videos of varying quality.  Putting it all together, through many attempts, I was eventually able to get R.O.B. back in order.

Definitely save this stick of dynamite for last.

To the best of my understanding, here is how R.O.B. works internally and how I was able to fix my problem.  There are three motors inside R.O.B.  One is inside R.O.B.’s base.  You can set him upside-down, remove the battery cover, and unscrew the bottom plate.  There’s a covered section inside that you can open up with your screwdriver further that exposes gears and the motor.  This assembly is responsible for twisting his torso left and right.  His control board and wiring are also around here as well.  The remaining two motors and gears are inside of R.O.B.’s body.  For this you still want the robot standing on his head with his arms facing you, but you will also need to support his arms or they will fall out when you open him up, probably scattering several gears on the floor too.  Four NES carts stacked are just the right height to rest the arms while you look inside.  When unscrewed, the bottom cover of the torso has to be held up so you can work inside.  I used a couple of big rubber bands to hold the cover against R.O.B’s base.  Inside here are the remaining two gear sections both connected to an axle in the front.  The left motor opens and closes the arms, while the right motor is responsible for up and down movement.  At first, it’s a little confusing because both motors connect to the common axle.  On the left side, the gear assembly is supposed to be attached to the axle so that it turns the axle which connects to the arm assemblies to open and close the arms.  On the right side, this motor connects to the vertical track that moves the torso vertically, so that gear assembly must spin freely around the axle.  I realize that these text descriptions may not be all that helpful in an actual repair, so please go to YouTube and watch some videos in that case.

The common method for repairing R.O.B. is to super glue some of the gear assemblies together.  The final gear opposite the motor is supposed to be connected to some round metal plates.  Over time the glue can dry out and become brittle, and when it breaks free, it causes R.O.B. to either function poorly or not at all.  The other thing specific to the arm movements is that that gear assembly must also be glued down to the axle for it to work.  That was not my issue, but it is a common one.  This glue fix for the gear assembly connected to the vertical track was what worked for me.  I just applied a few tiny drops of glue to hold together what was supposed to be held together and let it dry for a few hours before trying it out.  I have read however that you really aren’t supposed to do that. There is a thin, curvy metal plate in between some of the parts that is there to apply pressure to help with R.O.B.’s function.  Evidently the proper fix is to get that plate loose and pinch it down a little so that it applies the proper pressure when put back together.  I think those curvy plates are there to help the gears slip if the motors are forced, like if a little kid grabs it and starts pulling or pushing his body or arms the wrong way.  I am probably not explaining that or understanding that correctly.  I’m just mentioning it as a caution that I read about that made sense at the time.  In my opinion, since R.O.B. is so sparingly used as intended these days, the glue fix is fine.  I won’t have any trouble applying more glue if he breaks again down the line, plus I only use him when my kids aren’t around so I’m not worried about forcing the gears.

Do the juggling column act.

My repair experience was not the best, to say the least.  Getting R.O.B. opened up and messing around inside was no trouble at all.  I looked inside before I realized I didn’t have any super glue.  I guess the tube we had dried out.  I made a special trip to the store just for super glue.  (This was before all of the social distancing measures were in effect.)  My wife does not seem to get the importance of repairing a R.O.B. to play NES Gyromite, so explaining this to her was half the battle.  Anyway, I got me a tube of Gorilla Glue.  Unfortunately, I misinterpreted the glue fix and glued the wrong gear assembly to the axle, the one that was not supposed to be stuck to the axle at all.  When put back together R.O.B. didn’t move much at all.  I thought I messed it up for good and was convinced I burned out the motors, which I would not be able to fix or replace.  I took it apart again and managed to break the glue so that gear spun freely again.  At this point I decided to leave things alone as R.O.B. went back to his normal state of good movement but not lifting the gyro.  I got pretty far into the game with giving him lifting assistance like I had been doing.  Then one time out of nowhere, his torso fell all the down and didn’t lift at all.  Great, now he’s broken for real, I thought.  I opened him up one more time, and now I finally saw what came loose.  This time I got the glue in the right spots, put him all back together, and now he works just fine.  I finally have a fully working R.O.B.  I am not a repair kind of guy, so looking back I should have known these tribulations would have happened.

Actually playing all of Gyromite with a functional R.O.B. as originally intended was an interesting experience.  Not necessarily good, just interesting.  You have to train your brain a little to do this.  Getting past the initial blue pillar in Phase 1, for example, takes 10-20 individual movements to pull it off.  Each one requires pressing Start, then a direction or button, then waiting a few seconds for R.O.B. to finish moving so you can trigger the next action.  If you want to spin the gyro for this, that adds another 10 steps or so.  This for me was an obvious strategy, but most of the time you don’t need to spin up a gyro at all.  R.O.B. can hold a gyro and lower it enough in his hands to press the button.  Only in situations where you need both buttons held down together do you need to spin up one gyro, leave it on a button, then go grab the other gyro and hold it down on the other button.  The latter scenario happens far less often than I would have expected. Because of the deliberate nature of the game, I was incentivized to plan ahead and figure out the least amount of movements to grab all of the dynamite. It is also beneficial to play consecutive levels because you may already be set up from the last level to grab some dynamite in the next.  Occasionally there were missteps, such as a gyro falling down or me knocking it over with R.O.B. by accident.  In those cases, I reset the setup by hand and just restarted the stage.

I got the hang of Gyromite pretty quickly and I didn’t think it was a very difficult game.  The first level in Game A is a little bit unfair, especially to kick things off.  Being trapped behind the initial blue pillar is a safe playground to get acquainted with using R.O.B. in a gameplay setting.  Once you get past that though, you are face-to-face with a Smick.  Depending on the timing when you lower the pillar, he might be already on a crash course with you.  At least then the pillar should already be lowered for the next life.  Many levels require only one button pressed to clear the whole thing.  Some later levels have a stick of dynamite placed in a spot where you’ll have to grab it last, otherwise you’ll be stuck and have to reset the level.  A few times you’ll have to set the professor on top a pillar, instruct R.O.B. to raise it, then walk off while it’s moving to grab dynamite in the air before you get squished.  Those parts are a little tricky.  The final level in Game A gave me the most trouble for sure.  It starts with two Smicks nearby and a set of red and blue pipes that require you to juggle two gyros to position them properly to pass.  The way the level is structured you will have to loop through that pipe section twice to get all the dynamite.  This takes a lot of time and I almost didn’t have enough left on the timer to complete everything.  I ended up employing a pause buffering technique to clear it.  Once you issue a command to the robot, you can pause the game to halt the timer while he finishes his seconds-long movement.  I did this for several consecutive moves toward the end of the stage to help keep the timer from running out.  I don’t prefer pause abuse as a strategy in general, but I did it anyway, and I hope this ends up the lone exception across this project.

Game B requires some intuition and some trial-and-error.

Game B is a nice twist that is simpler to play but was more challenging to clear.  Focusing only on moving R.O.B. makes the game more straightforward.  Having only three lives and no level select makes this the harder mode to clear.  In a few stages, I was naturally drawn to the incorrect path leading to a Smick, so I had to memorize those.  Sometimes the professor sleepwalks into a pillar, locking him into place and giving you enough time to open the path for him.  In other cases, you must set up the pillars before he gets there lest you lose him to a Smick.  You’ll have to track out where he is going to end up walking to properly do the necessary setup.  This mode took me a few tries before I cleared it with R.O.B.  The second loop of the game has the professor walking faster.  I only got a few levels in before losing and not trying again.

For my recorded playthrough, I decided to replay the game using both NES controllers by hand and going without R.O.B.  I did borrow his rail and set the second controller into it so I could hit the red and blue buttons.  It just seemed appropriate and a little easier than trying to remember which button does which color.  The game is a lot easier and quicker this way.  I managed to clear all 40 phases in Game A on my initial set of five lives, though I did have to play the last dozen levels on my final life.  I ended up clearing three loops on Game B, though that was on my second R.O.B.-less try.  The professor clearly moves faster between Loops 1 and 2, and on inspection at runtime I thought he also sped up at Loop 3.  I used my recording to time it and found that Loop 3 was 2-3 minutes faster than Loop 2, enough to say that he did walk faster.  Loop 4 did not appear noticeably different and so I let my run end there, but it is certainly possible that he keeps walking faster there too and I just didn’t catch it.  Three loops of Game B are more than enough for me to feel good about completing it.

Gyromite is a pretty good introduction for using R.O.B. despite the fact there are only two games for him.  Gameplay is unique for sure, and I could see how it turned heads at its time.  In reality, the novelty wears off quickly.  Gyromite with R.O.B. becomes tedious.  Without R.O.B., there is really no substance to the game.  As an early NES game, it is a simple game in all aspects that is at least competent in all of them.  The graphics are clear, the music is catchy but repetitive, and the controls work.  That’s really all it has to offer.  For me, it was cool to play this game in its purest form.  It was a neat change of pace from my normal playing and I did enjoy my time with it.  It’s just that there’s no reason to go back to it and no reason for me to recommend playing it.

#148 – Gyromite (Game A)

#148 – Gyromite (Game A)

#148 – Gyromite (Game B)

Posted In: Finished
  1. Calavera Candy

    A haiku:
    This game looks so lame.
    Wait, did you say, “a robot?”
    …Let’s play Gyromite!

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