A History of Nintendo’s Most Disappointing Accessories
It’s a point that I’m always sure to make when describing Nintendo’s role in restoring video games’ popularity in the United States: Nintendo is a toy company, and has been for over a century. They never made electronics or computers before they started working on arcade machines, and their philosophy as a company has always seemed to embody the mission that accompanies that status -- making things based first and foremost about having fun and finding new ways in which to do it. It helped them greatly with the NES, making an “entertainment system” that at its most robust included a light gun with its own devoted series of games, and a robot that seemed as appropriate in the toy aisle as it did in electronics. And that was just for the first edition of their first console, the coming years would see Nintendo themselves, along with a few too many cash-hungry third party companies, constantly releasing new peripherals, both good and bad, for the little gray box and starting a trend of evolution and continued devotion to strengthening their console experience that seems to be continuing even with the Switch going forward.
But where Nintendo gets a bad rap in all this is for their missteps, and probably unjustly so. For every great innovation like the Advantage or the Game Boy Player, they will introduce something like the E-Reader or the GameCube microphone which are either largely forgotten or simply underwhelming even to the retro gamer who attempts to implement them in one way or another. While every generation of Nintendo consoles and handhelds has their greats, none have ever been truly safe from the influx of accessories that unfortunately gets Nintendo labeled as the purveyors of useless crap. Starting way back on the NES, here is a history of the gadgets that Nintendo has wasted time and money on and caused the gaming world to take their hardware announcements even today with a grain of salt.
Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.)
Yes, I do actually love R.O.B. He’s an adorable little robotic buddy that stands as a great monument to a period where cute and quirky robots were everywhere you looked in pop culture. His marketing strength was of massive importance to Nintendo and their strategy of selling post-crash gamers an “entertainment system” rather than a game console, and since his return to public consciousness via Super Smash Bros., he’s become a high-tier favorite among the plentiful Nintendo roster. But have you ever played either of his games? Gyromite and Stack-Up, the only two games Nintendo ever produced in the “Robot Series” to utilize R.O.B.’s functionality as a gaming accessory, are just lame. Between all the extra pieces each game requires to even be playable, and the convoluted control schemes that are only there as an excuse to use R.O.B., rather than a game enhanced by his presence, there’s little reason to pick up a R.O.B. beyond collecting purposes, and one of the first examples of Nintendo’s “cool and original” vibe to be exposed for its shallowness and misdirection.
NES Max Controller
The turbo buttons on this controller may offer a pretty decent boon as far as its usefulness and functionality goes, but even that doesn’t warrant choosing the NES Max controller over its rectangular cousin. Billed as some kind of “professional quality controller” intended to give better control via a “cycloid” d-pad that involved players sliding their thumb around a 360-degree field to trigger movement, despite the fact that that movement was still 100% digital, meaning that unless you exclusively used the outer ring to simply press the desired direction like a standard controller. Deceptive marketing and design on this otherwise innovative controller (it also introduced players to wing-shaped handles on controllers) persists to this day as its sleek look, and futuristic-looking d-pad can easily fool retro gamers who haven’t actually plugged one in and tried it.
Super Nintendo Mouse
Maybe I’m just sour that we didn’t get to play Mario & Wario with it like they did in Japan, but I’m really not a fan of the SNES Mouse. Although the list of compatible games is a lot more extensive than most people might realize, including games such as SimAnt and Advanced D&D: Eye of the Beholder, there still aren’t that many titles, either that give you the option to use the mouse or that were designed for it outright, that are particularly noteworthy. A few rail shooters, including Tinstar and T2: The Arcade Game get a boost from it nowadays for the majority of us who don’t have TVs compatible with the Super Scope, but even the most ambitious PC ports the SNES could offer still have a pretty low ceiling that the SNES Mouse isn’t raising by much. Other than the still-cool Mario Paint, the mouse is one of those peripherals that could have been a must-have if games were designed for it, rather than having the functionality of it tacked on, and needing Nintendo to set the example of how to utilize it with good first party support.
N64 Transfer Pak
Another peripheral that has surprisingly more functionality than is commonly known, the Transfer Pak for the N64 is a necessary piece of hardware if you want to get the most out of the Pokémon Stadium games, but can also be used with the Game Boy Color versions of Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Mickey’s Speedway USA, and Perfect Dark (plus a handful of Japanese titles) to connect to their N64 counterparts and unlock some extra content. As is the story with most titles on the N64, Nintendo and Rare did a decent job of embracing the full power of the hardware available to them, but the Transfer Pak was so late to the party that nobody else could actually use it, despite dozens of other N64 games with Game Boy counterparts, including Cruis’n Exotica, NFL Blitz, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Disney’s Tarzan, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, just to name a very select few. Although this paved the way for some great interconnectivity in the next generation between the Game Boy Advance and a decent number of games on the GameCube, the beta version introduced in early 2000 when the Game Boy Color had a lot to offer in its short lifespan comes off as a real disappointment, considering that it’s still mostly known as “that thing for Pokémon Stadium.”
N64 Voice Recognition Unit (VRU), Nintendo GameCube Microphone, and Wii Speak
Two separate microphone accessories that could only ever have had so much implementation, but are especially dubious in which games they do work with. Succeeded by an online chat accessory made by a company that seems to abhor online voice chat.
The N64 VRU only works with one NTSC title and one Japan-only title, virtual pet sim Hey You, Pikachu! and train driving sim Densha de Go!, respectively (I get it, they both have exclamation points in the titles because they both involve yelling). Based solely on experience with the former, I can pretty much say it doesn’t work very well, easily making it one of the lowest priority items for an N64 collector.
The GameCube microphone, thankfully, would get at least a little bit more use, though still only with four titles in all (plus an easter egg in Chibi-Robo): Karaoke Party Revolution, Mario Party 6 and 7, and Odama. While I don’t know a single person at this point who’s ever played either of those Mario Party titles and made sure to enable the microphone-based minigames during play, some credit should actually be given to Odama, a completely bonkers mix of real-time strategy and pinball set in feudal Japan, where the mic is used to shout out commands to your troops. Definitely a title worth playing, but only makes the mic approximately as successful as the DK Bongos, but with more potential.
Finally, Wii Speak arrived well into the lifespan of the Wii system when extensive online play options and voice chat were the norm, but somehow still only ever received about a dozen titles that supported it, including Animal Crossing: City Folk and The Conduit. Although it was designed, interestingly enough, to capture the whole room with a high quality voice filtering ability, the feeling of a microphone that was seemed to bereleased begrudgingly and only to moderate complaints of garbage online play would make for a third consecutive failure at doing anything right with voice recognition technology, a feature that Nintendo still doesn’t seem all too keen on even now.
For a console that did such a tremendous job of resurrecting the arcade shooting gallery genre in the flat screen era (where classics like the GunCon and NES Zapper are all but useless), the Wii’s first party gun peripheral sure was a piece of garbage. Between not looking like, well, anything, let alone a gun like you might find hanging off of an arcade cabinet or a crossbow like you’re supposed to shoot in the pack-in game, Link’s Crossbow Training, and being too cumbersome and unyielding for the majority of games that could use it, the Wii Zapper simply doesn’t hold a candle to several third party peripherals for the system. It would have been much better if its design were a little less bland (an effort to be as inoffensive as possible while developing a gun peripheral) or versatile, allowing players to remove the nunchuk half when they aren’t using it, but as you might expect with the Wii, third party companies went all out in getting their own pieces of pistol-shaped plastic on the market. In this case, however, some of them did a damn good job, including, oddly enough, the Switch Shot EX-3 by Nerf (which doubles as a Nerf gun), and, of course, the actually perfect Nyko Perfect Shot.