Back at E3 2009, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata showed off the Wii Vitality Sensor, a device that promised to read your heartbeat to determine if you were excited or afraid. Nintendo hinted at a number of game concepts during the unveiling, but the device was never seen or heard from again. In a recent investors Q&A, Iwata put the final nail in the Wii Vitality Sensor's coffin. We all probably suspected that the peripheral was never going to come out, but Iwata laid out the reasons the company shelved the product. In the end, it came down to the Vitality Sensor just not working for everyone.
"The Wii Vitality Sensor is an interesting device, and we did various experiments to see what is possible when it was combined with a video game," explained Iwata. "But, as a result, we have not been able to launch it as a commercial product because we could not get it to work as we expected and it was of narrower application than we had originally thought."
"We would like to launch it into the market if technology advancements enable 999 of 1,000 people to use it without any problems, not only 90 out of 100 people. I actually think that it must be 1,000 of 1,000 people, but (since we use the living body signal with individual differences) it is a little bit of a stretch to make it applicable to every single person."
That's probably a smart decision by Nintendo. A bad peripheral doesn't just fade away. Its darkness festers at the corner or your local game store, that clearance sticker just daring you to pick it up and see how bad it truly is. Bad peripherals never look like a good idea after the fact, leaving companies to wonder what they were doing releasing such products in the first place.
In that spirit, I present four peripherals that probably should've been killed prior to release.
The Sega Activator
In 1993, Sega took a tentative step into what could roughly be called "motion control" with the release of the Sega Activator. The accessory was billed as a "full body controller," giving players the "ultimate edge" in fighting games. Ads and commercials made it seem like you could kick and punch and have your chosen fighter to do the same in real time. The Activator even came with three fighting games as a pack-in: Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition, and Eternal Champions.
In reality, the octagonal peripheral had the Sega Genesis controller's inputs bound to one of the eight directions on the device. Players could trigger the Activator by breaking one of the eight infrared beams either at knee height or shoulder height, leading to sixteen total inputs. Unfortunately, those inputs didn't necessarily correspond to whichever game you were playing, leading players to have to low kick left in order to walk forward. In addition, the infrared sensor was inaccurate, letting objects on the ceiling count as high moves. Fun!
For something that was sold as getting players into game, the Sega Activator was as far from the game as possible. As a child I remember seeing a commercial for the Activator and wanting it so bad. I'm so glad my parents were there to destroy my childish dreams.
Once again, infrared rears its ugly head. The U-Force was a controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System that opened like a laptop, developed by Broderbund and released in 1989. Once open, the peripheral created an IR field that attempted to interpret your hand motions as actual gestures. It also came with a larger, ungainly joystick that you could slide into place for additional "control" options. Like the Activator, U-Force's advertising said that with the controller "nothing comes between you and the game."
That wasn't true. The U-Force came between you and the game. Before the U-Force, you had a perfectly decent working NES controller; after the U-Force you had only tears and a wallet that was $70 lighter. Like the Activator, the U-Force had an advanced AI that decided if the device wanted to see your gestures or not, generally leaning towards "not."
The Power Glove
You're probably beginning to see a trend in all of these peripherals: promises of improved game control dashed against the rocky reality of shoddy technology. The Nintendo Entertainment System was home to a second painful controller hyped to children as the next coming in game control: The Power Glove. The Power Glove promised that it could read your every hand gesture and put you "in the action."
For the time, the Power Glove was pretty impressive technology, but that technology didn't really help you play games. Some of you remember the Power Glove from the 1989 movie The Wizard. (The movie starred Fred Savage who a new generation of viewers will only know as the guy who looks like the dad from Girl Meets World.) The Wizard straight up lied to an entire generation of children, making the Power Glove look like something akin to virtual reality. And it worked, because the device was considered a modest success sales-wise.
When it came time to plug in those newly-sold Power Gloves, children everywhere were beset by the darkest nightmare: the idea that movies and television could lie to you. The Power Glove worked well with a single game, Super Glove Ball. Using it with any other game was an exercise in frustration. Hand twists and finger curls didn't match up with the action onscreen and sometimes those gestures weren't even interpreted correctly.
The best thing you can say about the Power Glove now is that Isaiah "TriForce" Johnson wears one to all Nintendo events.
Tony Hawk Ride Skateboard
And lo, there came a day when Tony Hawk needed something to draw players back in for another installment. Perhaps seeing the success of the Guitar Hero series, Activision and developer Robomodo turned to a skateboard accessory that came with the game. The wheel-less board featured infrared sensors (these ones were reasonably accurate!) and accelerometers to determine if you were popping ollies and doing grinds.
The problem was the game was only playable with the Ride controller. Doing simple things like skating straight without faceplanting were nearly impossible. Games like Tony Hawk rely on precision, allowing players to do trick combos of ever-growing size as they improve. The Ride controller threw that all out the window, and pushed the price of the game up to $120 to boot.
It was everything players didn't want from Tony Hawk and stands as one of the franchise's worst entries. Ride and its sequel, Tony Hawk Shred, pretty much killed the series, with the last major release being the HD remake of Tony Hawk Pro Skater.