Nintendo Powerglove ACMI videogames exhibition.jpg
An early advertisement for the Power Glove, c. 1989
Stories & Ideas

Fri 03 Jul 2020

The promise of the Nintendo Power Glove

Internet culturePop cultureVideogames
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Caitlin Cronin

Creator and producer of the ACMI Women & Non-Binary Gamers Club

One of the most anticipated alternative controllers was meant to change the world of videogames. What went wrong?

In 1989, Design News ran a cover story on the newly released Nintendo NES Power Glove. Under a dramatic picture of a futuristic child with slicked back hair and dark sunglasses, the opening line claimed it was time to “Throw away your joysticks, kids” and went on to hail the Power Glove as the beginning of a new generation of game technology. Unfortunately, this claim would turn out to be slightly premature, as the Power Glove would go on to become celebrated – not for its achievements – but for how badly it missed the mark.

State of play

In the late 80s, videogames had only just recovered from an industry wide crash that was largely attributed to an over saturation of consoles and their games, as well as split interest between console gaming and personal computers. This crash, taking place between 1983 and 1985, resulted in a devastating loss of revenue and multiple game companies went bankrupt.

However, it was among these ashes that Nintendo, a Japanese company that was already successful with their Famicom system, released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) into the American market. A simple repackaging of their original Famicom system, the NES would go on to sell over 30 million consoles in the US alone by December 1991 and, alongside the Sega SG-100, is often attributed with revitalising videogames in America and ushering in the third generation of consoles.

This new golden age of consoles also spawned multiple new accessories for the NES system, bringing to life alternative controllers such as the NES Zapper, a plastic gun allowing players to shoot things on screen, released 1985; the NES Advantage, an arcade style joystick controller, released 1987; and the Power Pad, a floor mat controller which was used for dancing games, released 1988.
Then, in 1989, the infamous Power Glove was released.

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Powering up

Unlike other NES accessories, the Power Glove was developed not by Nintendo, but by Abrams/Gentile Entertainment (AGE) and toy manufacturer Mattel. Thomas G. Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier, developers who had previously worked on the DataGlove, a hugely successful but expensive product that was often used in research facilities like NASA and MIT, were also brought on to help deliver what was envisaged as the next huge step in gaming.

Modelled and adapted from the original DataGlove, the Power Glove was developed to be worn on the right arm of the player and featured a directional pad, action buttons A+B and a suite of buttons labelled 0-9 that were programmable by the player for things such as special moves and combos. The glove also tracked player movement, much like a modern-day motion controller, and finger movement of all fingers except for the pinky which was, somewhere along the development line, deemed superfluous. Hoping to take advantage of the popularity of the NES, AGE pushed the production of the Power Glove to an almost untenable level, completing the software and hardware simultaneously, and releasing the product after less than a year of development.

The Power Glove was released into stores in October of 1989, with a price point of around $100 ($200 in today’s prices). It was accompanied by an edgy marketing campaign that showed Terminator-reminiscent youths wearing the glove and playing games on huge screens in dark warehouses, a sultry voice over promising that finally “you and the games are one”. Other marketing assets showed the glove sparking with blue electricity while a slogan declared that “everything else is child’s play”. The Power Glove was going to turn a generation of players into superheroes and Tron.

"I love the Power Glove. It's so bad..."

The Power Glove would go on to sell around 2 million units, worth around $88 million USD,  before enough people realised that it just wasn’t any good. Many excited players would be forced to simply put their much-anticipated glove back in its box almost as quickly as they had taken it out.

A large portion of the problem came down to the fact that to make the glove affordable to the general consumer, the gloves parts, which had originally boasted an almost ten-thousand-dollar price point, had been replaced with cheaper versions, resulting in spotty connection, a frustrating lack of accuracy and broken gameplay.

Also, while it was officially compatible with the entire NES back catalogue of games, only two were specifically created to be used with the gloves technology  Super Glove Ball, a game where you attempt to catch objects on the screen and Bad Street Brawler, a beat-em-up where you punch gangsters  neither of which were included with the purchase of the glove. For other NES titles, the Power Glove was simply an alternative controller that didn’t add anything to gameplay except making it harder to play.

More games for the glove were promised but never eventuated, a grim testament to how quickly interest in the product dried up. Not even a 96-minute commercial pretending to be a film, The Wizard (1989) could save it and the glove was officially pulled from shelves after a year. The signature line of the The Wizard’s villain Lucas Barton, “I love the Power Glove, it’s so bad!”, became an unfortunate irony (bad in those days being slang for rad), and eventually a meme.

Hacking the glove

The Power Glove may live on in the memories of a disappointed generation, but it would be remiss to overlook the important role it played in the development of videogame technology, most noticeably that of motion controllers. It was the first “controller to recreate human hand movements on a television or computer screen in real time” and was instrumental in laying the ground for products such as the Wii remote, the Microsoft Kinect, PS4 Move and even to some degree modern-day virtual reality systems. While the technology would take almost another 17 years to properly arrive in the form of the Wii remote, the Power Glove provided a look into the possibilities of videogame controllers and “was the first time someone could feel like they were inside the game as opposed to outside of it”.

Over the years the glove has also become the focus of a prolific number of “hacks”, being repurposed to everything from a drone motion controller to a muscial instrument. Dillon Markey, an animator for the popular stop-bit animation programme Robot Chicken, even uses a hacked version of the Power Glove to manipulate Dragonstop Motion Control software on his computer while remaining close to the figures he is animating. An entire swath of YouTube videos can be found dedicated to showing ways in which to hack the glove, revealing that the cult status of this product continues to hold.

In 2014, a Kickstarter was launched to create a documentary on the “controller that promised to forever change the way humankind interacted with technology”. It would go on to be fully funded and when released in 2019 was met with positive reviews and acclaim. The documentary contains interviews from some of the Power Glove’s key designers and creators, many of whom maintain that given the chance, the Power Glove would have ushered technology for motion controllers sooner, something that begs the question of where we might be today had the circumstances been right.

Today, a Power Glove costs as much as $2,999 USD on Ebay. It is a product with a storied legacy and a contradiction; a ridiculed gimmick, an innovation, a retro gamer dream and a hacker's playground. The subject of ridicule but also a key player in where technology finds itself today.

The Power Glove really is so bad, it’s good.

– Caitlin Cronin

Videogames at ACMI

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