To listen to the hype surrounding Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, motion control is poised to become all things to all people. This is the explicit message of Sony’s “this changes everything” ad campaign, which rattles off a range of game genres and play styles before concluding that Move “changes everything.” Microsoft’s unorthodox, skeleton-sensing Kinect seems custom designed for more obscure applications – evidenced by the blood-chilling spectacle that is playtime with Skittles the Tiger. This is all well and good if you are a casual customer wondering if you’ll get your money’s worth, or, say, a precocious child wondering if you’ll get to command an adorable jungle cat as your own unholy familiar. But I am a simple man, with simple tastes. I don’t need a device that does everything. I’m on the lookout for one very specific thing.
How does it feel to just up and punch a guy?
I know I’m not alone. In fact, older motion control systems have often boasted exactly this type of gameplay, not that they have always been up to the task; most now have been left to the garbage heap of gaming’s history. Always being up for a bit of the old ultraviolence, I decided to track them down, dust them off, and see how they stacked up against our modern expectations. Not as games, or even as technologies, but as something far cruder – as punching simulators. Which ones pack a punch, and which ones are just punchy? Old pitted against new, literally mano-a-mano. Not for me, or for gamedom in general. For civilization.
Round 1: Platform: NES Peripheral: Power Glove.
Let me just get this out of the way: There was always a part of me that cowered in awe of the Power Glove, thanks to its pop culture canonization in The Wizard. As the villainous videogamer Lucas Barton’s weapon of choice, it looks sleek and lethal, the kind of device that might shoot lightning or force-crush an opponent from across the room. “I love the Power Glove … ” he murmurs with a fierce intensity. “It’s so bad.“
So in strapping the Power Glove on for the first time, I felt a flush of Bartonian awesomeness swell up within me. Somewhere, faint in the distance, there was the squeal of electric guitars and synthesizers. I wiggled my fingers menacingly. Let the games begin.
Or, I guess, just “game.” Because there were only two games specifically made to be enhanced by the Power Glove, and only one of them had anything to do with punching. That little beauty was a beat ’em up called Bad Street Brawler, and in the name of Serious Game Journalism, I had made sure to obtain a copy to try it out. Upon turning it on, the game advised me to “never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,” which is the sort of sentence that reads like a printing error at a fortune cookie factory.
After centering and calibrating my glove, I was good to go. The Power Glove itself boasts a number of programming modes, all of which promise to do something other than what they seemed to do for me, which was to leave the game’s main character in a jittery heap in the middle of the screen, punching and kicking in every direction. After some experimentation, I discovered I could leapfrog forward by flailing my arm in place. So I hopped along, one flail at a time, until I encountered my very first opponent – a bright orange bulldog. Through no manual control on my part, my bad dude continued his hail of punches and kicks, beating that poor dog to death.
And then … nothing. Right after that first dog, the game froze up. So I reset, recalibrated, started up. Never trouble trouble, got it. Jump, jump, jump, another dog pounded to burger, and then another freeze. Third try, third dog, third freeze. It was around this time that I realized that I was being punished for my sins. Thank you, Nintendo, for this dog-punching purgatory.
I hate the Power Glove. It’s so bad.
Round 2: Platform: Sega Genesis. Peripheral: Sega Activator
Having never owned a Genesis as a kid, everything I knew about Sega’s infrared-based motion control system came from its widely-maligned instruction video, a 90s fever-dream comprised of equal parts lies, damn lies, and statistics. The video depicts two extreme gamers with extreme haircuts, harnessing the power of their punches and kicks toward their extreme gaming. In one part, the narrator helpfully explains that the infrared beams are invisible, but hints that if you could see them, they’d look awesome. In another part, a kid is shown jump-kicking in place faster than his friend can press buttons, while the narrator boasts that moves are delivered “at the speed of light.” Now I’m no physicist, but I’m fairly sure that kicks don’t go at the speed of light. Kicks go at the speed of kick.
The Activator itself is a set of eight plastic panels that click together to form a large, interlocking octagon, earning it the distinction of being the gaming peripheral that most resembles a diabolical portal to The Plains of Leng. Next comes calibration, which requires you to keep three feet away from the damn thing for 20 seconds every time you turn the console on. In a brilliant feat of doublespeak, the Activator’s introduction video boasts that “it seems simple … because it is!“
As it turns out, it doesn’t, because it’s not. Adding to this growing list of non-simplicity is the way that you hit the start button: by fanning your arms back into a 270 degree angle, thus requiring you to begin every game with a protracted bout of frenzied flapping. After familiarizing myself with the punch-and-kick based controls, I tried my luck at a few fighting games, the type of game at which Sega boasted the Activator excelled.
We begin with Mortal Kombat. I lose. We switch to Street Fighter 2, and I lose. We briefly try Shaq-Fu, and I lose – though, when it comes to Shaq-Fu, really everyone loses. It isn’t merely a matter of my real-world punches and kicks travelling slower than good old fashioned button-mashing – it’s also that the particular layout of the Activator renders any sort of combo impossible. Directional keys are set at the cardinal points, and the buttons are placed between them, meaning that even a simple command like a down-to-forward punch requires a physical investment of your entire body. I stick my right leg in. I pull my right leg out. This is not kung-fu. This is not even Shaq-Fu. This is the hokey pokey.
Round 3: Platform: PlayStation 2. Peripheral: EyeToy
At first glance, the EyeToy seems to be the direct precursor to more ambitious camera-based motion control technologies. However, its real contribution to motion control canon is much less obvious – it represents that exact moment when game developers began to clue in that motion control itself might not be totally rad. That, it might, in fact, be super lame. In starting up EyeToy Play, the EyeToy’s inaugural bundle of mini-games, there is nary an extreme haircut teen to be seen. Instead, it shows a little old woman tottering up towards the camera, peering at it quizzically through her bifocals. I look at that grandma, and I wonder, is that supposed to be me?
After fiddling with the focus of the camera, I take a few steps back – sure enough, there I am, projected larger than life on the screen. The EyeToy delivers immediately upon its promise to “put you into the game,” because, hey, there I am. I gaze into the abyss. The abyss gazes into me.
That was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. I’m no philosopher, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about the EyeToy.
EyeToy Play consists of a series of mini-games, and I of course choose the kung-fu one. After a moment, the screen is filled with bamboo trees and Shaolin temples. But this game is less Enter the Dragon and more Godzilla – the screen immediately fills with kung-fu fighters, each an inch high to my massive screen-filling bulk, who immediately charge at my colossal frame. I paw at one, and he goes flying, hurtling off the screen like a flicked bug.
A few dozen waves of kung-fu assailants later, I cease to be that paunchy, backlit dude in the centre of the screen. I’m a thousand foot grandma, a titanium colossus with ninja chops like gangbusters. I’m the Incredible Hulk and I know kung-fu. But pretty soon, as the prospect of prolonged physical exertion draws upon me, my five-finger-palm-techniques and eagle claw strikes begin to loosen up. I flick a guy and he goes flying. I do a little jazz hands thing and a troop scatters like leaves. I shrug, and a dragon explodes.
Having spent a day delving through ten years of motion control technology, it’s that shrug that best captures the whole ordeal. From the very first attempts toward incorporating motion control in videogames, the promise was that your physical actions – punching, kicking, leaping – would translate onto the screen in an analogous and meaningful way. And that’s been part of the frustration – the Power Glove works like a “glove” in no sense of the word, and the prospect of jumpkicking inside the Activator didn’t even hold water in the advertisements. Even technologies that give you a chance to exert your body fully will devolve, over an afternoon’s worth of play, into something more restrained and economical. That bone-shattering punch becomes a halfhearted swipe. That devastating swing becomes a limp-wristed swat. Pretty soon, every action dissolves into that basest, most gormless of all motions – the waggle.
In these punch-and-kick applications of motion control, there’s the assumption of something physically fundamental – the connection between fist and flesh, between puncher and punched. Surely it’s that moment that inspires these games, but it’s that moment that seems hardest to nail. In trying to represent that other side, it’s very easy to undermine that sensation – you lash out, and nobody’s there. You strike, and it whiffs. Nothing lands, and nothing connects. Without that moment of impact, any fighting game becomes so much shadow-boxing. This may be the zen of motion control: What is the sound of one hand punching? With nothing and no one on the other side, it becomes so much grasping at air.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the national sport actually does involve a lot of dudes straight whomping on other dudes. He is normally a pacifist, but mama said knock you out.