The History of Motion Controls

The History of Motion Controls

The minute that mankind invented the video game and gaming controller was the same minute that humanity began looking for ways to throw that selfsame controller away. Trackballs, joysticks, keyboards, mice, wheels, d-pads… Despite their effectiveness at helping Mario get from Point A to B, these accessories have long been regarded as some breed of beast that stands between the player and a truly immersive gaming experience.

Enter motion controls and active gaming. The Wii’s remote was arguably the first accessory to successfully stand in for a traditional video game control scheme. Sony and Microsoft have since clambered onto Nintendo’s shoulders and launched the PlayStation Move and the Kinect with their own tweaks. It looks like controller-free gaming may finally be a pastime that’s worth touching with a ten-foot pole–albeit a virtual pole.

But the road to hands-free playability has been anything but smooth. Let’s have a minute of silence for the precursors of successful motion-controlled video game hardware. We can’t deny their contributions to the modern gaming market, though sometimes we’d prefer to leave their memories in the gutters of game history.

Le Stick (1981, Atari 2600, Commodore 64) – The industry’s first attempt at motion control can be credited to DataSoft’s “Le Stick.” Unencumbered by a base and a mere eight directions of movement, Le Stick just required players to hold on and direct the fate of on-screen characters with a mere wave of their hand. Unfortunately, DataSoft neglected to design any games that took advantage of Le Stick’s unique capabilities, and lacking an example, no other software developer felt compelled to try. The great-great grandfather of controller-free gaming was subsequently crushed under the Video Game Crash of 1983.

Power Pad (1986, NES) – Maybe Nintendo had a premonition about video games being blamed for child obesity in the not-so-distant future, which led the company to develop and release the Power Pad. In some ways, the Power Pad was Wii Fit before Wii Fit was Wii Fit; the idea was to use the Pad to run and jump through a game called World Class Track Meet. However, as acidly pointed out by longtime games writer Seanbaby, the Power Pad was incapable of differentiating between a player’s hands and feet, which led to “Power Pad sessions quickly degenerat[ing] into fat children slapping the mat with their hands and making their track and field guy run so fast they ignite.”

Power Glove (1989, NES) – We know, we know–the Power Glove is “So bad.” Lucas, the antagonist in 1989’s flimsy “Tommy” rip-off, “The Wizard,” wasn’t trying to pitch the Power Glove to audiences when he donned the admittedly slick-looking accessory: He was actually trying to warn us away from the junky peripheral, which was supposed to put players in the game by letting them uppercut Mike Tyson’s jaw with their very own fists. However, using the Power Glove required framing the television set with a L-shaped piece of plastic that was supposed to capture the player’s movements, but slipped off the TV and clattered to the floor more often than not.

U-Force (1989, NES) – The U-Force, which looked not unlike the fold-open plastic board for Battleship, was, according to its ad, “So hot, no one [could] touch it.” Players waved their hands through a “power field” that was theoretically supposed to sense their movements and use them to make Mega Man go. Key word: “Theoretically.” U-Force was an engineering disaster, though it was admittedly quite smooth and pleasant to the touch.

Sega Activator (1995, Sega Genesis) – The Sega Activator was a “martial arts simulator” that required the player to stand in an octagon and pass his or her hands over infrared beams that took the place of controller buttons. This essentially turned the player’s whole body into a game controller, meaning the Activator can be considered a precursor for the Kinect. You will never, ever hear Microsoft admit to this, however, and be assured that any higher-up who does mention the connection between Activator and Kinect will have his or her tongue ripped out. The Activator is universally considered one of gaming’s most pathetic, unresponsive peripherals–and it set suckers back $80 for the privilege of flailing in front of the TV. Yikes.

Samba de Amigo Set (1999, Dreamcast) – Samba de Amigo was a charming little rhythm game (a genre that’s a bit low on charm these days), but it came with a lot of baggage. Players had to schlep out maraca-shaped controllers, a sensor bar, and a mat that helped position them for maximum maraca efficiency. Future releases of the game on the PlayStation 2 and Wii freed up the player by substituting the EyeToy and Wii Remotes for Amigo’s accessory bundle.

PlayStation 2 EyeToy (2003, PlayStation 2) – PlayStation Move for the PlayStation 3 requires the PlayStation Eye camera in addition to the Move wands (and, as you can see, a lot of PlayStation branding). But Sony’s earliest attempt at controller-free gaming actually looked and played much closer to the Kinect by requiring players to get into games using their bodies. The EyeToy for the PS2 was a USB camera that plugged into the console and captured players’ movements. The camera was considerably low-res and the games were lackluster, but it obviously didn’t take long for Sony to build on its idea.

Sources: CoreGamer, The Kartel, About Classic Games, Seanbaby

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

1 Comments

  1. There was another accessory for the NES made by LJN called the “Roll N Rocker”. This device was a small platform with a semispherical base beneath it. This allowed you to maneuver your characters by tilting either forward, backward, left or right.

    It was effectively useless, but I always feel sad to see it this far forgotten.

Leave a Reply