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Don't Touch This Horror Of A NES Controller

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This is the U-Force. It's a motion-control peripheral released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the late 1980's. In some ways, it's an amazing piece of technology. In most other ways, it was an absolute disaster.

Unlike Sega's rival Activator peripheral, which we looked at the other day, the U-Force was not a full-body motion-sensing rig. Instead, it was designed to read only the player's hands and arms, translating their gestures into control pad inputs.


It was released in 1989 after a promising CES debut, and while it was a Nintendo Entertainment System controller, it was not a product of the Japanese company. It was instead the work of Brøderbund, the classic (and sadly now defunct) publisher of PC games like Prince of Persia, Myst and Carmen Sandiego.

The U-Force was part of a brief attempt by the company to dip into the home console business, which saw them publish a number of NES games. While some of those were a success, the same could not be said of its sole attempt at console hardware, the U-Force.

Looking like a futuristic version of Battleship (or a GIANT Nintendo DS), the U-Force comprised of two "screens" which used infared to register the movement of a player's hands "over" them. These movements would then, in theory, be turned into in-game actions. For example, if you were playing Punch-Out and wanted to move left, you'd move your hands left and the U-Force would respond.


Or, it would if it worked. Which the U-Force did not. Getting the device to accurately detect a player's movements was something akin to sorcery, the peripheral alternating between detecting a movement and accurately translating it, detecting it and getting the move wrong or just plain not detecting anything at all.

Here's a Japanese guy trying to play Mario using U-Force. As you can see, it's tough going.

And here's a guy playing Punch-Out.

At $70 in 1989 money, the U-Force was not cheap. Though, at the time, it probably seemed like a decent bargain, since it promised the future and would work with pretty much every NES game ever released, as all it was doing was replacing button inputs with your (failed) attempts at hand gestures.


Considering it just didn't work, though, yeah, at $70 it was a raw deal.


While it's easy to point to devices like this and the Sega Activator and laugh, it's important to remember they nevertheless played an important part in the development of motion-based gaming. After all, the road to every successful product is paved with the corpses of unsuccessful ones, so even if all the U-Force did was show companies how not to develop, manufacture and market a peripheral, then the world ended up a better place.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.