On February 7, Nintendo will release the 3DS Circle Pad Pro, a peripheral that will add a second analog pad to the handheld. Coming out only through Gamestop, it looks poised to be another entry in Nintendo’s long list of odd and under-supported peripherals, which includes the WiiSpeak, 64DD, Satellaview, and most iconic of all, R.O.B. However, it may also be the last such first party device from Nintendo or any other major game hardware maker.
Weird peripherals have been around since before the dawn of home consoles. Ralph Baer developed a plethora of such devices prior to the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, including a water pump controller for a firefighting game. However, the success of the Atari 2600 made the bizarre peripheral market an undeniable reality. The Starpath Supercharger, for example, was a RAM expander for the 2600 which also allowed the system to play games from a connected tape deck. Coleco’s tantalizingly named Expansion Module 1 allowed the Colecovision to play Atari 2600 games–prompting a lawsuit that Atari actually lost, showing just how much the American judicial system has changed in the last 30 years. Atari got into the madness themselves with the Mindlink controller. Had it been released, it would have been marketed as allowing you to control games with your mind; in reality, it (poorly) translated the movements of facial muscles into in-game controls.
If Atari’s success created the peripheral market, Nintendo’s allowed it to explode in a shower of plastic junk. Of course Nintendo pioneered this trend with R.O.B., the “robotic operating buddy” who operated precisely two games. However, there was at least a reason for R.O.B.’s existence. Conventional wisdom has it that the flashy add-on was meant to be a Trojan horse to get the NES into retail locations still wary of video games post-crash. Nevertheless, his existence gave a tacit seal of approval to even less functional devices like the U-Force and the Power Glove.
Aside from the Mario Paint mouse and mouse pad, Nintendo didn’t put out a load of strange peripherals for the SNES. However, the Super Famicom did receive the Satellaview add-on, a primitive digital distribution system that even allowed for the production of a live quiz show broadcast, Satella-q. But while the Satellaview was years ahead of its time, Sega was mostly backward or sideways thinking with peripherals for the Genesis. The Power Base Converter made the Genesis backward compatible with the Sega Master System, which would have been fine if anyone in North America had bought that console. The Supercharger-esque 32X was even more ill-conceived, an overpriced add-on that played a handful of mostly terrible games, and competed against the Sega CD.
For the next couple of generations, first party peripherals got a lot more sensible, with the only major exception being Nintendo’s 64DD boondoggle. Sort of like a ZIP drive for the N64, the device seemed to be an attempt to recreate the success of the Famicom Disk System, which in Japan played host to many of the Famicom’s best titles. In practice, though, it was a financial disaster with an even smaller library of games than the 32X (and nothing like Kolibri to help justify its existence). Sony and Microsoft stayed out of the peripheral business more or less entirely until the current generation, when Microsoft trotted out a separate HD-DVD drive for the 360 in a sad attempt to compete with the PS3’s native Blu-Ray support.
Nintendo did return in force, though with some head-scratchers for the Wii. The Motion Plus adapter made some sense, but raised the question of why it wasn’t built into the Wii’s controllers in the first place. The WiiSpeak made sense in the context of the increasingly online-focused gaming world, but its design ensured the hardcore crowd most likely to actually want such a thing would avoid it, and the hoops the Wii forces users to jump through to play online ensured developers wouldn’t touch it.
At E3 2009, though, Nintendo really upped the ante when Satoru Iwata announced the Vitality Sensor, a Wii peripheral that…well, even Iwata didn’t seem all that sure about what it was supposed to do. Maybe it was a heart monitor or something? Of course the Vitality Sensor is yet to emerge, though it could end up being the first piece of useless plastic for the Wii-U.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though, for two reasons. The first is that all the console manufacturers are chasing Apple now, and Apple’s current business model doesn’t include such devices. Second, the inevitable march away from physical media has created a market in which the functionality provided by a lot of the stranger peripherals of the past isn’t in as much demand as it once was. We don’t need a Gameboy camera or printer when almost every device has a built-in camera and nobody prints pictures. We don’t need devices that add backward compatibility when publishers would rather resell you digital versions of your old games.
Call me nostalgic, but I think that’s a little sad. As much as I’ve rolled my eyes at some of the peripherals mentioned above, they still provided interesting and/or hilarious footnotes to the history of video games. And as much as I think the Circle Pad Pro looks like a clunky piece of unnecessary garbage, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up owning one. If enough of us buy in, maybe we can prolong the life of ridiculous peripherals just a bit longer.