After hearing about Neal Stephenson’s amazing-sounding Kickstarter project for Clang – a realistic, peripheral-based sword fighting game – we got to thinking. Videogame history is absolutely littered with “non-traditional” peripherals.
From the more logical takes on racing wheels, flight sticks and even dancing pads to the more outrageous fishing rods and “sensor” devices, a great number of them have been, well, not so great.
Remember the U-Force? What about the “rocker” chairs of the 90s? Let’s not even talk about the “peripherals” involved in Boong-Ga Boong-Ga, a Japanese arcade game that tasked players with shoving a finger into an arcade… behind. The history of gaming is littered with wacky, unwieldy devices that are now taking up space in basements across the world.
But that’s certainly not true of all of the weirder and wilder input devices we’ve used over the years. Each of the following peripherals proves that sometimes, if they’re done right, outlandish and expensive pieces of plastic can truly enhance a game experience.
The original Steel Battalion’s massive mech controller
We’ll start with one of the most beloved and hardcore examples in history – which is all the more relevant now, since the game was just re-released with Kinect support. Steel Battalion is perhaps the world’s most “realistic” mech game, and pilots who wanted in had to plunk down some $200 for the privilege of sitting behind the mini-cockpit of this behemoth. Featuring an insane number of separate inputs (including the infamous “windshield wiper” and “eject” buttons), this puppy approximated mech warfare with a fetishistic eye for detail.
The game has a starry-eyed, hardcore following, most likely because the controller was just that awesome.
Rock Band 3 Pro Controllers
We’re going to honor the whole evolution of Harmonix’ peripheral-based music games with this entry, since the RB3 pro controllers represented the zenith of that effort. From Guitar Hero 1 and 2 on to the funky drum controller and Mic set up of the first Rock Band games, the developer actually made good on the promise of making people feel like rock stars. The controllers themselves were sturdy, and the approximation of actually playing music felt good. It was a revelation to pick up a fake guitar in 2005 and “strum” along. It felt awesome in 2007 to hit the drums in an even closer approximation to the real thing. And it felt fan-freaking-tastic to learn real techniques (and real songs) playing the pro keyboard, drums, or guitar back in late 2010.
While pro mode – and its complex peripherals - weren’t for everyone, they represented something special. Whenever a game offers the opportunity to learn real-life skills (especially in areas as badass as this), and it does so with engaging gameplay, we’re all winners.
We also wanted to include a nod to Activision’s DJ Hero turntable with this entry, since it also approximated the fine art of mixing and mashing with style and flair.
The Deep Sea Mask
Robin Arnott’s experimental, utterly terrifying exercise in sensory deprivation and sound-only gameplay, Deep Sea, works because of the creepy custom mask used to play the game. Styled after a World War 1 era gas mask, with the light blocked out entirely, it’s a set up that’s miles away from anything else we’ve ever used to play a game.
If you’ve never heard of the game, picture this: you put this oppressive mask over your head, grab hold of a joystick, and try not to breathe too much. You heard right. The terrifying invisible monsters in the game are attracted to the sound of breathing, which the mask picks up (Arnott used an ingenious in-mask mic solution to work that up). You hold your breath, fire missiles at horrible monsters, and usually, die quickly.
It's such an intense experience that it actually caused one player to faint. Talk about playing with power.
Image courtesy of: GeekUnique
So many of us have fond memories of 8-bit Nintendo games that it’s gotten to be a bit (ok, perhaps more than a bit) of a cliché. Some people, however, have made custom objects that are so cool that they’re worth mentioning for this piece, if only because they fit into the concept of “non-traditional” controllers in such a fun way. This brilliantly designed custom Coffee Table is a massive, working NES controller, complete with beautifully rendered character sprites on the sides.
Going in the other direction, some creative folks have made non-traditional devices out of traditional controllers. The fine folks at this site created iPod docks and MP3 players using recycled NES pads. That’s what you call going green with style.
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja in San Francisco.