Nintendo Labo launches on Friday, April 20, and the make-it-yourself, toy-slash-game kit brings with it a wealth of possibilities, many of which we haven’t seen and may not have considered yet.
Labo, which melds cardboard D-I-Y contraptions with a versatile game-design interface, may seem to be an unusual angle for what is, effectively, video game console peripheral. But longtime Nintendo fans know it fits squarely within the company’s character — a toy-maker’s approach to video games, if you will. Nintendo has always supplemented its consoles and handhelds with more than just alternative gamepads and joysticks or carrying cases. Some of this stuff has been pretty straightforward.
And this post is about the stuff that wasn’t.
Nintendo’s systems lent themselves to, erm, some really weird gadgets, peripherals and doodads over the years, much more than any other competitor’s console (though Sega came close). These things aren’t necessarily “weird” because they flopped, although some did. They’re weird in that it had a very specific purpose, and possibly wasn’t what we were expecting a Nintendo console or a handheld to do.
Here’s a look back at some weird Nintendo hardware as we get ready to welcome Labo.
This conversation has to begin with the Robotic Operating Buddy, a pack-in for the deluxe set of the Nintendo Entertainment System when it launched in North America more than 30 years ago. (It also was available in Japan for the Famicom, where it was known as the Family Computer Robot). It had a grand total of two (2) games built for it, one of which, Gyromite, was included with the set.
In Gyromite, R.O.B. had a novel, if almost Rube Goldberg-esque way of “playing” with its users. He, or, uh, it, or — well anyway, R.O.B., under the direction of the player would retrieve a gyroscope from a motor spinning it up and lay it on one of two oversized buttons. Those pressed the A or the B button on an NES gamepad resting in a housing.
Gyromite was a puzzle platformer that quickly got dull. My friends and I would sometimes work the oversized buttons ourselves, sometimes as a trick-shot way to play something like Balloon Fight or Super Mario Bros. The gyroscopes were neat all on their own; I could spin those things all day, or set one lose in a crowd of G.I. Joe action figures.
Word is that Nintendo developed R.O.B. to ease retailers’ minds about the viability of a video games console following the Great Crash of the mid-1980s. It sounds strange but back then retailers wanted something that was more than just a games console, given how Atari, ColecoVision and Intellivision had just cratered one after the other. If R.O.B. was simply a foot-in-the-door approach to get cautious retail buyers to come along, it did its job in spades. The NES resurrected console gaming in North America and became a cultural landmark.
No list of weird Nintendo accessories is complete without the Power Glove. Reams of copy have been dedicated to this early foray into motion controls, so I’m probably not going to tell you anything new about it. Suffice to say, probably no one at the time was thinking “Hey, I’d really like to play a video game with complicated hand gestures like I’m communicating with the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
My friend Craig had one. There were games built specifically for the Power Glove but I never recall playing them. Instead we tried it with 3D World Runner and Kid Icarus. Yeah, we ended up turned into an eggplant pretty much all the time. You’d figure that something like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! would have been a natural fit for the Power Glove. I mostly remember my triceps burning after holding my arm straight out for three rounds against Bald Bull.
The Power Glove had a short lifespan, discontinued about a year after it was introduced in 1989. It shows up now and then in cosplay and it featured prominently in the 1989 Fred Savage tweenage exploitation vehicle The Wizard. It was later the subject of a 2013 documentary.
This isn’t weird in that it’s not understandable — 12 buttons spread over a mat allowed players to stomp their way through exergaming or dance titles, nothing too hard to get about that. But the Power Pad is weird in that it created one of the rarest and most valuable video game collectibles ever: Stadium Events.
Bandai developed the pad for Stadium Events, which featured olympic style track and field competitions. Nintendo, however, quickly acquired the rights to the device in North America and renamed it the Power Pad, intending to give it a dedicated series of games. That meant Stadium Events had to be recalled from shelves very shortly after launch. Some copies still sold and made it out into the wild.
That has led to some lucrative discoveries in thrift shops and attics. In 2013, a North Carolina woman picked up a copy for $7.99 at a local Goodwill store and turned it around for five figures, paying off some student loans. Sealed-in-the-box copies have also sold for $35,000 and more.
Game Boy Camera and Printer
The idea of Nintendo’s handheld line getting a camera, however primitive by today’s standards, is not so farfetched. But a printer too?
Nintendo being Nintendo, it also couldn’t launch the Game Boy Camera without making some dedicated games for it. These were somewhat forgettable, but they did include the ability to use a picture of yourself as an avatar in the game, establishing that as a kind of interactivity standard that had bigger manifestations on the Wii and Wii U.
The camera fit into the cartridge slot and shot some grainy, black and white images that were still sort of cool for the day (Its lifespan was 1998 to 2002). The printer was connected by a cable. It looked more like one of those receipt printers you see in restaurants when you pay your bill. It used a spool of thermal paper, the stuff fax machines once depended on.
Fans also remember it for a set of disturbing Easter eggs, triggered by pressing the “Run” button in the Camera’s menu screens.
The original Guitar Hero launched in November 2005; Donkey Konga, on GameCube, was actually at the vanguard of the music gaming craze that seized console gaming more than a decade ago.
Players used the bongos to match the beat of the music in the game. Easier songs at the beginning had a slower beat to keep; harder ones had folks slapping the bongos like they were hippies in a drum circle on the Pearl Street Mall.
Donkey Konga had two sequels, and the platformer Donkey Kong Jungle Beat also supported the controllers. But the real fun has been in people using the bongos to play games it was never meant for, like Bloodborne (above) Overwatch, and Dark Souls 3.
The Nintendo 64 had some rather advanced peripherals, including the Voice Recognition Unit, a forerunner of the Wii Speak. There was also the 64DD, a unit that could read and write to disks. It never launched outside of Japan and was a commercial flop. But it came with a game called Mario Artist: Paint Studio, for which the mouse was useful.
One of my rules (which I sometimes forget) is never to say “first” or “only” because there’s always some other example in video game history that slips my mind. But right now, I am scratching my head to think of another console that had a mouse — its own mouse, not compatibility with a mouse in general — even if this one never came to the west.
Wii Vitality Sensor
Though this never launched, it was shown at E3 2009, and who can forget Satoru Iwata explaining the concept, smiling like he was about to crack up halfway through. No specific software or applications were ever announced for it, leaving most folks to scratch their heads about what new experience it would actually offer. Iwata’s pitch centered on using video games to relax. E3, for anyone who has been, is not really a relaxing environment, so it didn’t get much of a look beyond Iwata’s stage appearance.
The Vitality Sensor became something of a running joke as writers and fans occasionally nagged Nintendo for updates on its development and forthcoming launch. Conceivably, people would have slipped their finger into the device and tried to get their heart rate and other vital signs into a calmer range of measurements, in a kind of game-ified chilling out. But Nintendo later acknowledged problems in getting the device to work consistently and mothballed the idea in 2013. At the time they said if they can get one to work on everybody, they might revisit the idea.
Wii Balance Board
This is probably the biggest success among all the “weird” hardware we’re listing here. It debuted in the spring of 2008 in the west as a device for Wii Fit. There were even special no-skid socks for it (available through Club Nintendo). Tons of exergaming titles, first-party and third, were launched for it, but what people probably remember most is the viral video of a guy surreptitiously recording his girlfriend in her underwear, doing the hula hooping game for her morning workout.
The couple in question, Lauren Bernat and Giovanny Gutierrez, both worked in marketing, leading some to believe the video was a set up or guerrilla advertising. Nintendo had to deny it had anything to do with the “Wii Fit Girl” video. Then, just when it looked like that was dying down, Playboy jumped in with its in-house gamer model, Jo Garcia, in a topless parody that blew everything sky high all over again.
The Wii Balance Board moved about 45 million units and hit right as the console’s popularity was cresting. The Wii Fit Trainer later appeared on the roster of Super Smash Brothers for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, one of the all-time great roster choices for a fighting game.
It was just a housing for the Wii remote that allowed people to play Mario Kart Wii with motion control. But even at $15 as a stand-alone peripheral, a lot of players found that to be a little expensive, if not cheesy, for a piece of plastic that didn’t add much functionality otherwise. Some folks kit-bashed their own Wii Wheels, taping their Remotes to paper plates to achieve the same effect. Mario Kart Wii had a bundle that included the Wheel (with a launch price of $49.99) but most Mario Kart diehards preferred to play it the old fashioned way, using the Remote as a gamepad.
Honorable (i.e. Third-Party) Mentions
Nintendo’s has come up with plenty of weird peripherals on its own. But there have also been a bunch of third-party accessories with funny origins or applications, too. Here are three favorites.
Wii Bowling Ball
• CTA Digital of Brooklyn, N.Y. made all kinds of bonkers accessories, housings and attachments for the Wii Remote (they even made a Rowing Machine) But if I had to pick one, the Wii Bowling Ball was its pièce de résistance. And probably the most dangerous, if you remember the days of people flinging their unstrapped Wii Remotes into a flat panel TV. Looking at CTA Digital’s website now, it appears that they have smartly shifted out of the fad video game peripheral market into industrial-purposed mounts, clamps and accessories for different workplaces. But in the rollicking late-aughts, there was nothing CTA Digital wouldn’t do for the Wii, and the bowling ball was the apotheosis of their creativity.
NHL Slapshot hockey stick
2K Sports had NHL-licensed hockey on the Wii first, and held on there even after the series was canceled on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, mainly because Canadian hockey moms were a big addressable market, I guess. I remember one of 2K’s guys telling me that they had proposed a hockey stick peripheral for the Wii version that either Nintendo or the NHL or somebody thumbed-down. So they stuck with standard controls. Then, lo and behold, EA Sports showed up with an idea for NHL Slapshot, which included a hockey stick attachment (complete with a purely cosmetic foam hockey stick blade at the end) and it was greenlit. I understood that 2K Sports was not happy about it. This hockey stick got to the essence of that label’s rivalry with EA Sports in ways NBA 2K versus NBA Live did not. NHL 2K11 on Wii was the last edition of that franchise on a console.
NHL Slapshot was featured in EA’s booth at E3 2010 and I remember it was jammed with people winging those sticks in the air. It was a fun game. To check an opponent, you had to brace the Wii hockey stick with both hands across your body and push out. I played a 3-on-3 pond hockey game against a friend visiting from Oakland and just destroyed him with those checks. He finally demanded the hockey stick controller and repaid the favor. I think the final score was something like 1-0 or 2-1.
Game Boy Pocket Sonar
It did not launch in the west, but Bandai made a sonar sensor for the Game Boy to convert the handheld into a useful fisher’s assistant. Yes, of course, it had a fishing mini-game, but the idea of someone standing by a stocked pond using a Game Boy to see where the fish were biting still tickles me. The Pocket Sonar could go as deep as 65 feet. I tried finding one for sale on eBay and found listings in Russian and from The Netherlands. Both have long since expired.