Game controllers are getting completely out of control. You want exhibits A through Z? Just look at the coverage that came out of the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (aka E3).
I already have so many plastic instruments at home, I feel like a roadie for Fisher Price. Add things like replica Beatles gear (coming to moptop loyalists this September); DJ-wannabe turntables; and gaggles of gamepads and Wiimote strap-ons with slightly freaked-out twists; plus everything from new flight sticks and plastic faux skateboard decks, down to the Sony PS3's wacky wands and the Wii Vitality Sensor (perfect for the home version of The Moment of Truth)--and I'm ready to declare 2009 as "The Year of the Peripheral." At least that's what it says on the geek calendar.
How'd we get to this point--a billion pieces of plastic just to play a few games? Well, it's not like this is anything new. Back in gaming's early days, it wasn't much different. I should know, I've played with most of them over the years. Companies were trying to get you to pony up extra cash for meaty peripherals just to play a specific game on an Atari 2600. Or the Nintendo Entertainment System, aka NES. Or...is any of this sounding familiar?
At E3, I asked a Nyko spokesperson for his two cents on this gadget glut, and he saw his company as MacGyver, LLC: "We look at [game consoles], figuring out what needs aren't being addressed. Then, our job is to fill those needs through peripherals." You know, like a big honking zoom lens attachment for your Nintendo DSi.
So, as a cautionary tale, I started digging through gaming's elephant graveyard to find some of my favorite goofy gaming gear. Did I miss one of your faves? Hit the comment box below.
A game controller that reads brain-wave patterns? Sci-fi sweetness, incarnate. Reality, though, hasn't quite caught up. Way back when, Atari promoted (but never completed) the Mindlink in its heyday. Granted, it was supposed to read muscle movement on the head, not brain-wave patterns, but it was a start.
More recent developments have shown some promise. One company, Emotiv, made big noise at the 2008 Game Developer's Conference with its straight-outta-the-movies skull cap, the Epoc. It not only read thought intensity, but emotional responses and facial gestures (smile and your avatar smiles back). It actually worked to a degree--I tried it out for myself. And yet, we're still stuck scratching our heads waiting for it to come out.
A company called Neurosky at least seems a step closer to completion--a gadget it demoed in a game from Square Enix at the GDC 2009 is basically an on-off switch that reads intensity. I could think a lot about hamburgers while playing a game and that could count as me wanting to shoot. Or whatever. So much for a Matrix datajack in the back of my head.
The Birth of Flight
Board-game maker Milton Bradley wanted in on that whole Atari craze--birthing the Flight Commander and Cosmic Commander controllers as a result. They weren't exactly flight sim gear. In fact, it was a jokey plastic mound of a turret that you parked in front of your TV. I have fond memories of using these contraptions as a kid. You'd plug a cartridge into your Atari, plop some eyesore of a mini plastic fuselage on a coffee table, and take aim at on-screen bogies. But did it do anything any differently than you could've done with a joystick? Well, it gave retro nerds something to quest for on eBay.
Space exploration, fighting off the evil Zylons, and protecting your starbases--Star Raiders was about as close as an eight-year old was getting to being on Star Trek. Originally an Atari 800 computer game, it was ported to the Atari 2600 in the early eighties. Their substitute for the keyboard: a little touchpad. (A wasted opportunity for use with other games.)
Then, of course, came the squadron of flight sticks, yolks, throttles, and pedals that have come out over the years. I can't talk too much trash here because a vibrant community of flight-sim enthusiasts still exists, even if Microsoft isn't one of them. The biggest trick was always to find the best combination of realism and affordability. If you're a virtual flyboy, keep your eyes peeled for the Logitech G940 coming out this September.
If there's one symbol for all that is unholy, wrong, and dorky with game controllers, look no further than the Nintendo Power Glove. Depending on whom you asked, it was either the ultimate weapon for spoiled supernerds during the NES era or junk that looked intimidating when used in The Wizard--you make the call. This game pad really wasn't much more than a d-pad with a bunch of buttons on it.
Cue the rebirth of the Power Glove at this year's E3: the Peregrine. Made for PC Gaming's l337, the computer reads it as a human interface device. It's basically a bunch of button shortcuts built into the glove. Crazier part: The U.S. military actually contacted the makers (Iron Will Technologies) on using these gloves for tomorrow's techno-soldiers. If that doesn't sound like the plot for a video game, nothing ever will.
Still, as goofy as gloves may seem, it's pretty hard to top Konami's LaserScope for sheer date-nullifying nerdity. Imagine, if you will, a Nintendo light gun strapped to your head--and instead of pulling a trigger, you shout "Fire!" into a microphone. Technically, the microphone was flawed. You could yell any F-word (or anything else for that matter) and it still worked--if you want to call craning your neck around the screen just to aim as "working."
Honorable Mention: The Upgrade-O-Rig
For the most part, I'm not mentioning odd consoles (because Nintendo's Virtual Boy would take first, second, and third prizes), but Sega gets bonus points for crafting a true Frankenbox solution for upgrading your game console. You bought a Sega Genesis? Good for you! As CD-ROM tech came into vogue, you could dock your Genesis into a Sega CD mothership, giving you access to those "old-fashioned" cartridges as well as those "new-fangled" CD-doohickeys. Wait, don't buy a new console yet! In an effort to keep all eyes on Sega, yet another upgrade eventually plugged into the top of your Genesis. The 32x required its own power supply and was plugged in through the cartridge slot, amping up the few crummy games that came out for it.
By the end, you needed an entire power strip just for one console...or a three-stage rocket.
Honorable Mention: The First Bot Match
An inspired bit of kitsch, R.O.B.--or Robotic Operating Buddy--came with the first Nintendo Entertainment Systems. It was Nintendo's ploy to get gaming back on store shelves after the great Atari crash, but more important, it was my li'l plastic pal when nobody could come over and play. I sat there, amazed while playing Gyromite as my own R2-D2 "helped" me beat levels by shifting weights around and hitting buttons for me. But now that I think about it, was it really necessary to build this automaton and have him litter my living room? A couple months later, it became a seriously funky pen holder. The other disappointment: R.O.B. is in no way connected to the birth of Skynet.
Gamepads Gone Wild
Growing up in New York, all sorts of crazy games appeared in the local arcades. By far the funkiest controller I remember playing: The original Street Fighter's hydraulic punch buttons. Sure, spoiled kids today have their analog triggers and sticks with eight buttons. This manly game came with a joystick and two meaty buttons you had to beat. The harder the hit, the more powerful the blow. It was fun and, more important, helped me vent all those childhood rage issues. I take no responsibility for the fact that the local machine's punch buttons broke within the first week.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Coleco made one major mistake back when it was waging wars against the Atari 2600 and Intellivision: The Super Controller. Creating a controller for a three-handed mutant goon that in no way could ever hope to use this thing? Good call. A huge, knobby joystick on top and a bunch of buttons not only made playing games distinctly unfun, it prepared a generation for the future joys of carpal tunnel problems.
Before consoles discovered dual analog sticks to control the action, Microsoft was dabbling with ways to get first-person shooter players away from the keyboard and mouse. Its solution: the Dual Strike. Imagine a bone-headed boomerang with an awkward hinge in the middle. The left side had a d-pad controller; an analog ball connected it to the right side's buttons. You wound up having to twist and turn the right side of the game pad so much, it caused more strain and pain than the worst mouse youve ever used. One bonus to its aerodynamic design: You could send it sailing out the window.
Speaking of sending things flying, the Nerf-branded gamepads were not only goofy but probably the best stress relievers on the planet. When they came out, I wrote them off as lameness licensed that had no business being made. Then I started getting truly cheesed-off. The first time you chuck a controller at the wall in frustration and it harmlessly falls to the floor, you know they're onto something. Now if they ever make a Nerf universal remote...or a Nerf LCD monitor...or....?
But the award for the most sadistic peripheral ever made has to go to the Mindwire V5. If the Marquis de Sade played games, this would be his weapon of choice: A controller that gives you a mild shock as you get your butt kicked. Talk about negative reinforcement!
Good Bye, Gamepads!
The whole idea of ditching a gamepad all together is nothing new. So, while you proceed to go ape about the notion of using a digital camera to control an Xbox 360 (I'm looking at you, Jimmy Fallon), let's take a step back for a sec and look at some attempts from yesteryear.
A contraption called the U-Force earns a berth on many lists as one of the more oddball NES controllers. This worked with two banks of IR sensors. It was supposed to translate hand movements and gestures into on-screen commands. (Anyone else getting a sense of déjà vu, here?) Of course, this hunk of junk couldn't read a single command. Not even when I tried to give it the finger.
When I saw the Tony Hawk Ride skate controller, I had some flashbacks. Part of the board has four Infrared sensors that react like buttons when you break the light beams--hey, Sega did that ages ago with the Activator! Yep, you'd step into, and calibrate, the video-game octagon, then punch and kick your way over sensors. But why read about what made the Activator so rad, when you can just watch the totally dated tutorial video?
From there I could hopscotch to the Playstation 2's Eye Toy. Really, you should think of it as Natal 1.0 and 2.0--I've seen similar functionality for the PS2 and PS3 through the EyeToy over the past couple years. And I can't imagine it would take much to add the ability to swipe your way through the main interface.
Now pardon a quick mini-rant on Natal: Microsoft needs to bring this Webcam interface to PCs. And slip in a couple lines of code to eventually support Windows 7. Y'know, send a memo to the guys in the other building on the company campus. You can bank on hackers getting it to work if Microsoft doesn't. And here's something else to consider: Not every game will benefit from Natal. Do you have any idea how dumb you'd really feel if you hold an invisible wheel as you vroom, vroom in your living room? And how about air guitaring? Half the point of playing a guitar game is actually pretending you're a guitar god. You need something in your hand! Can Natal enhance the experience in-game? Absolutely, and the right games could make this thing sing. Is it a potential revolution? No doubt! But I have a hard time believing that Natal will be the panacea to all gaming's woes. I have a closet full of failed gear to back me up on this one. End of rant.
Oh, and for anyone keeping score at home, Nintendo's NES wins for hosting some of the most ridiculous gear ever made. Congrats, guys--keep up the great work as we look forward to that Vitality Sensor!
Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for game-swag giveaways, odd links, and time-wasting tips.