Don't Touch This Horror Of A NES Controller

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 $US70 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 $US70 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.


    The world ended up a better place with motion based gaming?

    Which world, exactly, are we talking about here?

    Sorry mate, you just suck at using it. I've got one. It's an inferior solution to a traditional controller for most games, but it works the way it was designed. I've beaten SMB with it quite a few times.

    The flight stick actually works very very well for games like Rad Racer. Sure, it's a glorified solution for a joystick when you're using that, but it's also part of the peripheral.

    I'm getting the impression you've never touched one, or if you did you never read the manual. Congrats on lowering your journalistic credibility a few notches for the sake of a filler piece trashing a very strange piece of tech.

      Ignoring the douche below, thanks for commenting Ty. I was considering getting one of these and was going to pass it off. I'll buy one now.

    Dude lay off we are talking about a controller for a game console.

      Yeah, that's true, but it's just plain ignorant. It's a sore point with me, I collect this type of junk and it irks me when someone starts bagging on it without knowing how to use it.

      I'd never recommend some flashy crap like Kinect to control a platformer, but they compare it to something that actually works for anything beside dancing, and it sucks because it doesn't control every game in the world?

    Ignoring the douche above, very interesting read. I've never seen or even heard of this controller before. I can see it being pants but I sure would love to give it a 2 minute punt...

    The Angry Video Game Nerd did a thing on this, if I recall correctly he got it working really well. Infact if I'm remembering correctly he managed to land on the carrier in Top Gun, a feat he (and myself) had not acheived previously.

    As much as the U Force sucked, I'm glad this article points out the necessity of maintaining the proper context, and realizing that this peripheral truly did play a part in paving the way for motion gaming.

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