Peripherals and Accessories in Retro Gaming
Anyone who grew up through the era of 8 and 16-bit consoles already has a good idea where this is going. Back in the early days of gaming, companies loved competing with one another in every way possible. It wasn’t simply a chase for the best IP or technology: the most wild and outlanding accessories had to accompany the game room of every superfan. Many of these controllers only supported, or were optimized, to be used with only one or a few specific games. Others claimed to improve your ability to set a high score, or increased the precision of your controller universally. Unsurprisingly, most of these were far from what was advertised, and even the best of them were barely functional.
The Power Glove
You can’t make a list about peripherals without including this classic: The Power Glove. Released in 1989 and manufactured by Adams Gentile Entertainment, the Power Glove was featured in that same year’s movie “The Wizard”. It had normal NES buttons on the back of the forearm part of the glove, which of course meant you could only use these buttons with one hand. These buttons were programmable, which on its own would’ve been pretty useful, but really, just imagine trying to play most NES games with just one hand and you’ll quickly understand how this functionality was mostly wasted.
While it certainly looked impressive, unfortunately, that’s about all this iconic accessory did. It does make for a common photo-prop for headshots of major cheese streamers and champion level-memes.
Of course, the main appeal of the Power Glove was the motion controls, as the idea of controlling a game with hand gestures sounded very futuristic at the time. Unfortunately, these motion controls were extremely basic and inaccurate, leading to much frustration and cementing the reputation of this device as the very image of cool looking but mostly useless peripherals.
Now, you might look at this device and think “Hey, isn’t that just a piece of rectangular plastic?” but here’s the thing...you’d be absolutely right. This thing looks like it was made to scam oblivious present-buying grandparents. It’s advertising claimed it would “speed up your game” by holding your controller so you could press buttons more quickly, but placing your controller on this thing would just make it awkward to use. Not much more to say on this one honestly.
You could maybe argue that it allowed you to more easily mash two buttons really fast with your fingertips?
Now this one is really interesting, maybe even ahead of its time in some ways. Released in 1994 by the Aura Systems company, the Aura Interactor was meant to be a sort of full body rumble pak. It consisted of a vest and a seat cushion that translated bass sound waves into vibration that allowed you to better “feel” the game’s impacts using actuators. Compatible with the Super Nintendo, Sega CD and Sega Genesis consoles, it certainly worked as advertised (which is worth mentioning considering some of the other devices on this list) but it had a steep price of $100 at launch, so it’s adoption was very limited.
Some would consider the Aura Interactor to be the first haptic suit to be commercially available.
Unfortunately, while being very impressive from a technology standpoint, haptic feedback did very little to enhance the 2D games of the time. A modern take on such a device could be really useful in today’s much more advanced VR games though.
Another piece of complex tech (for the time) that sounds like a great idea for about 10 seconds. You can look at the box and picture yourself controlling a fighting game such as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter with your movements, but in truth this octagon simply had motion sensors which were each mapped to one the console’s buttons, which means it was effectively a very inefficient early motion controller.
Even years later, many players were dissatisfied with the functional but sometimes quirky motion controls of the Wiimote and Kinect, so imagine what it felt like to try to win a game of Mortal Kombat using this device.
The way you used this was by standing inside the octagon, which had 16 zones where the sensors would pick up movement and map it to a button. This would work reasonably well for the controller’s face buttons, but controlling the d-pad and therefore your character’s movement by waving your hands over a sensor was barely usable. Oh and it cost $80 when it came out in 1993, that didn’t do it any favors either.
You’ve probably heard of this one, and there’s a bit of a backstory to it. In 1985 when Nintendo first brought their NES to the US, the American video game market was in ruins following a huge crash in 1983 which would probably require an article of its own to properly explain. So Nintendo decided to market their console from a different angle, introducing it as a fancy interactive toy. For this purpose, they created R.O.B (Robotic Operator Buddy). This little guy was the focus of Nintendo’s early marketing campaign for the NES and it worked well enough. After a few years they just quietly stopped producing it, but the goal was already met and the NES had a successful launch.
R.O.B didn’t exactly work great in the two games he was made for, but marketing data showed the friendly little robot was the deciding factor in getting an NES for many kids at that crucial time.
Only two games were officially released for R.O.B: Gyromite and Stack-Up. In Gyromite he placed spinning “gyros” on red and blue buttons that pressed down the A or B buttons on the second player’s controller, opening or closing color coded pillars that blocked the way of the player in this puzzle platformer. Stack-up had the player control R.O.B to pick up colored blocks and match the ones shown on the screen.
The early days of gaming were full of little gimmicks, devices and accessories that in many cases were frankly absolutely useless, but many others were early attempts at concepts that came back later when the technology finally caught up, such as motion controls and haptic feedback. Not all of these devices were blatant cash grabs, and it’s important to see the way game developers have been trying to innovate since the very beginning of the medium’s history. Some of the concepts in these devices are still being worked on and explored today, and developers will surely continue to impress us with new and unexpected ideas, despite the inherent risks that come with attempting such innovation in any medium.