From the NES Zapper light gun to Microsoft’s most recent version of the Kinect, peripherals have been a constant fixture throughout the history of video game hardware. Though some—a great many, arguably—have been undeniably gimmicky it’s easy to understand their appeal to more mainstream audiences, making video games more accessible through the use of a familiar shape or item (like a gun) or by way of an intuitive device (as with motion sensing). A few also cater to more niche tastes. The following list is a celebration of the various ways developers have tried to spice up the comparatively normal gamepad or mouse and keyboard.
6. Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts’ Fearmaster
Fish and game retailer Cabela’s Incorporated has had its name attached to hunting video games since Elsinore Multimedia’s Cabela’s Big Game Hunter, released for PC in 1998. Since then, dozens of games have been released under the Cabela’s handle, including its Dangerous Hunts series, which combines the hunting mechanics seen in their previous games with the movement and objectives of more typical first-person shooters. The latest, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013, was bundled with its own peripheral: a light gun based on a double-barreled shotgun called “the Fearmaster.”
Apart from tracking the player’s physical aim, the Fearmaster contains heartbeat sensors that affect the on-screen display whenever its wielder’s heart rate increases. Players can also “load” the Fearmaster as one would a traditional shotgun by breaking open the breech and inserting batteries like they’re shotgun shells. The version released for the Nintendo Wii had players insert the Wii Remote into the Fearmaster’s frame, like with the Guitar Hero controller. While the device was novel, the game itself received middling reviews at best.
5. The Power Glove
Though the Wii is Nintendo’s biggest success to date, it was far from the company’s first foray into motion-sensing technology. In fact, their first experiment, the Power Glove, was released as a peripheral for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. (It was also arguably one of the first wearables, a trend which seems to be growing currently with the introduction of Google Glass and the Sony SmartWatch.)
The Power Glove used a TV-mounted sensor frame to detect movement, like a larger version of the Wii’s modern sensor bar. Players could use hand and finger movements to control movement or dictate actions on screen—or so it was intended. Only two games were released to intentionally complement the Power Glove’s features—other games could be made compatible by typing certain codes into the Glove’s keypad, pictured on the device above. Though promoted along with Super Mario Bros. 3 in the video game-centric movie The Wizard, the Power Glove was both commercially and critically unsuccessful, with its motion controls being described as imprecise.
4. The TrackIR
Created by NaturalPoint , Inc., a company based out of Oregon, the TrackIR is a combination camera and sensor array capable of tracking a computer gamer’s head movement, allowing players to alter their character’s first- or third-person perspective without having to use a mouse, keyboard or joystick. According to SimHQ, NaturalPoint President Jim Richards said that the TrackIR began its life as an assistive device for physically disabled computer users. In time, a user alerted suggested that the company could adapt its technology for use in flight simulators, and TrackIR as we know it was born.
The TrackIR works through the use of a small camera mounted on the top of a computer monitor, which uses infrared to detect small sensors attached to the head of the player (such as on the hat brim of the ecstatic gentleman seen above). According to the official TrackIR website, this allows for six degrees of freedom, coming close to emulating actual head movement in game. Games compatible with the TrackIR include Bohemia Interactive’s ArmA military simulation series, Microsoft Flight Simulator X and the online, subscription-based iRacing, among quite a few others.
3. The Super Scope
Nintendo helped make light guns famous with the NES Zapper, most notably paired with Duck Hunt. The Super Scope, released as an accessory to the Super Nintendo, was very much the Zapper’s progeny. Unlike most light guns, the Super Scope forwent the typical handgun design and went with a shape more akin to that of a Bazooka or other shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. And also unlike the Zapper, which would detect the relative lightness of its target, the Super Scope used an electron beam to scan the television’s cathode ray tube display (as a result, it won’t work on today’s plasma/LCD/OLED TVs).
The Super Scope was compatible with only a relative handful of games during its lifespan, namely Yoshi’s Safari, T2: The Arcade Game and bonus scenarios in The Hunt for Red October. The light gun has lived on in various fictional and virtual forms, however. Perhaps infamously, it was repainted and used as a “de-evolution ray” in the notoriously panned Super Mario Bros. movie. It has also appeared as a useable item in the second and third Super Smash Bros. fighting games, with characters like Mario, Link and Samus Aran able to pick it up and fire it at opponents.
2. Steel Battalion Console
Designed for use with Capcom’s “mech” simulator Steel Battalion, the special edition Steel Battalion controller was less your standard gamepad and more a prototype vehicle control system intended for military use. Utilizing two joysticks, three foot pedals and roughly forty buttons, the console could easily take up most of a desk. A device of that size would normally be considered merely inconvenient, but in this case it was especially so as the game was an original Xbox exclusive and intended to be played in front of a TV rather than a desktop computer. As if the device wasn’t already immersive by itself, Capcom and its partner studios designed Steel Battalion to be an especially “realistic” mech simulator, factoring in overheating, centre of gravity and emergency ejections.
Upon its release in the fall of 2002, Steel Battalion was roundly praised: GamePro called it a “thinking man’s shooter,” and Electronic Gaming Monthly noted its realism and uniqueness. However, Steel Battalion’s nuanced style of play and its pricey controller—roughly $200 when bundled with the game itself—weren’t exactly a boon for sales, though producer Atsushi Inaba later said that the game broke even. Two sequels were made: Line of Contact, released in 2004, also utilized the controller console; Heavy Armor, released in 2012, made use of the Kinect for the Xbox 360 rather than a physical controller, but the sensor’s lack of fidelity led to the game being panned by critics.
1. The Oculus Rift
What was previously the stuff of 1980s science fiction—to say nothing of Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy console in the mid-’90s—might now actually be having its first big break. The Oculus Rift is a wearable computer monitor (technically known as a head-mounted display) that uses dual screens to emulate three dimensions, as well as create a sense of immersion for the player. Created by Oculus VR, the Rift was initially financed through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign; the company asked for $250,000 in its initial pitch and has, as of this writing, raised nearly $2.5 million on Kickstarter alone. Prototype kits have been made available to developers and backers, and according to Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Lucky a proper retail version might be available later this year or in early 2015.
The Rift recently made the news when Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire Facebook announced they would buy Oculus VR to the tune of $2 billion. The device has many proponents and advocates throughout the gaming industry as well, including Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski, Half-Life creator and Valve co-founder Gabe Newell and original Doom programmer John Carmack (who had previously built VR devices of his own design and joined Oculus as Chief Technology Officer last year).