Machines Don't Fall Down Dead: How Rock'em Sock'em Robots Came To Be

Before Mortal Kombat arrived to satisfy my prepubescent need for button mashing, there was Rock'em Sock'em Robots, the first game I ever played where the objective was decapitation. Here's how it worked: You controlled one of two punching plastic androids—the Red Rocker or the Blue Bomber—by pushing down on two levers as hard as humanly possible. If you managed to knock your opponent's head off, you won. Then you pushed the head back into place and repeated the process again and again and again, until your hands hurt.

The thing was both beautifully simple and iconic. It hit stores in the mid-1960s, and you can buy one today, delivered in time for holiday giving. You can also get a more expensive punching-robots toy, modeled on the movie Real Steel. When I first saw the trailer, I assumed that Dreamworks had decided to make a Rock'em Sock'em Robots movie. Alas, the two-hour ode to robot boxing, which as of last week had earned about $83 million at the box office (against an estimated $110 million budget), was actually based on a short story by Richard Matheson, which was once turned into a Twilight Zone episode.

That didn't stop Rock'em Sock'em Robots from being a point of reference for critics and headline writers. Then there's this clip, in which Hugh Jackman is challenged to a game of Rock'em Sock'em Robots by what appears to be a Very Serious Journalist. The game gets plenty of love; it's also showed up on The Simpsons and in Toy Story 2.

Burt Meyer, a longtime toymaker at Chicago design firm Marvin Glass & Associates, is one of the game's creators, the man America has to thank for its flailing plastic nostalgia object. Meyer, 85, hadn't heard of Real Steel until I asked him about it recently, but anything that gets people talking about Rock'em Sock'em Robots again is fine with him. "We enjoy the staying power," said Meyer, who also helped come up with Mouse Trap and Lite-Brite, two toys I spent hours playing with whenever I failed to blow all the dust out of my Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge. "We don't know if things will last or fold. There's very few ways to tell."

Rock'em Sock'em Robots almost didn't make it to production. Its first incarnation was inspired by a game Meyer and his boss, the late Marvin Glass, noticed at arcades in Chicago. "There were two boxers, human figures," Meyer said. "You put a quarter in and battled each other. Whoever hit the other in the chin first, won." Glass—a friend of Hugh Hefner's, whose mansion in Evanston, Ill., got its own spread in the May 1970 issue of Playboy—liked what he saw, so Meyer began sculpting models of two fighters.

He doesn't remember exactly what they looked like. "We started working on a game, but the mechanism was bad," he recalled in game designer/author Tim Walsh's book Timeless Toys. "We were having trouble getting some realistic motion in it which would allow the figures to fall over."

Then, in March 1963, featherweight champion Davey Moore lost a brutal fight to Sugar Ramos at Dodger Stadium, fell into a coma, and died. Suddenly, two plastic boxers trying to punch each other's lights out didn't seem so fun—or marketable. "We can't go with this," Meyer remembers Glass telling him. "It's just in bad taste now." Meyer, however, wasn't ready to scrap the project. So he decided to change the concept. Robots, he thought, would be the perfect substitute for boxers. "Obviously they don't fall over dead," Meyer told his boss. "Maybe their heads can pop up." Each head was spring loaded and fit snugly over the robot's body. "An edge held down the head," Meyer said. "It had to be moved back about an eighth of an inch for it to pop up." A series of light punches or, as Meyer describes it, "a good solid one," would do the trick. The mechanism created a loud buzzing noise that is instantly recognizable if you've ever played. "People," Walsh said, "know that sound."

Marx, the now defunct company that used to manufacture Rock'em Sock'em Robots, released the game in 1965 and put out this ridiculous television commercial. (The kid who screams, "BOY, THITH IS THE GREATEST!" is the star.) Forty-six years later, the toy is still on sale. Mattel makes a smaller version of the original. "That is the story," Meyer said. "It was a very big success."

Looking back, he's not sure there actually would've been an outcry—or if Rock'em Sock'em Robots would've been a dud—if it featured plastic replicas of human prizefighters. "It's impossible to say," he said. But he's certain that the choice of robots, near accidental as it may have been, helped the game endure. The fact that it was nearly indestructible didn't hurt either. Made of high-impact polystyrene, Rock'em Sock'em Robots was impervious to even the most sadistic little shits. "Kids beat the crap out of that toy," Walsh said. "It took a beating."

Today, Meyer himself remains as indestructible as the Blue Bomber. He's an active airplane pilot who at 69, went on a cross-country skiing expedition at the North Pole. (At 59, he bicycled solo from San Francisco to Charleston, S.C., in 41 days.) Last month in Chicago, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award for toy design.

These days, Meyer said, without any bitterness in his voice, the market for toys like his "is narrowing. They have to be better and better. But there's always room for something innovative. It doesn't have to be on the computer, television, or Facebook." Even in the world of Real Steel, there'll always be room for hand-numbing button mashing and the sound of clacking plastic.

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at asiegel05@gmail.com; follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.

Image via Flickr.