This week marks the latest release in the Rock Band series. It features one of the biggest names ever in music--The Beatles. It also features pack-in instruments that are looking closer and closer to their real-life counterparts.
Rock Band was definitely not the first video game to necessitate special hardware, nor will it be the last. We've put together a list of some the most innovative peripherals and game titles that have helped change the way we play games.
The Joyboard was an Atari 2600 accessory designed by Amiga. Players would stand on top of it and shift their balance to control what was happening in a game. And by "a game," we mean there was only one title, called Mogul Maniac, that worked with the peripheral. It had players shifting their weight on the pad to control a skiier trying to go through slalom gates.
While the Joyboard did not spawn an entire franchise series of games, in many ways it led to the creation of Nintendo's Wii Fit Balance Board, which was released in mid-2008. Nintendo's version uses pressure-detecting pads that feed information to the console through Bluetooth and offers a far higher degree of precision than the Joyboard ever did. It also has more enjoyable pack-in games, including a fitness trainer that tracks your weight and workout progress.
Back in the golden age of gaming--and even into the early 1990s, game controller cords were short. The answer for many was to use infrared technology. This worked great for remote controls, but when it came to accurate button presses and directional data, there were shortcomings -- especially if you had the controller sitting in your lap.
Atari's solution was to spin off a set of radio-controlled joysticks, which could be used across the room without a cable. The radio base station they used plugged into the console and a wall power jack, and would allow the controllers to send information even when out of line of site of the base station.
Atari's use of radio frequency instead of infrared led to many modern-day controllers taking advantage of the technology, including Nintendo's Wavebird and the Xbox 360. Other controllers, like Nintendo's Wiimote and the Playstation 3's dual-shock series, use Bluetooth instead, though they retain the capability to play without a line of sight to the console.
Beginning with use for the Amiga personal computer, then quickly branching off to home game consoles, the Action Replay offered a number of features that let players quickly edit game code to cheat or manipulate the design of games.
Over the years, the devices have been able to do this in various ways--from those that have players manually enter codes, to newer versions that simply let you choose from a list of existing codes that can be updated for new titles.
Datel's creation sparked a wave of competitors, including Galoob's Game Genie, which got into a legal battle with Nintendo over its editing of game code. It eventually came out on top, and helped shape the legal precedent for video game copyright law.
While not the first "light gun" ever made, the NES Zapper is one of the most recognizable in gaming history. Originally offered as a system pack-in, the gun allowed gamers to shoot at their TV screens; the game's software would detect where they were aiming.
It's most famous for use in the NES game Duck Hunt, but light guns continued to be produced for more recent systems, including the Super Scope for Super Nintendo and Namco's GunCon whose latest version uses newer technology that lets it be used on non-CRT TVs.
Bandai's Power Pad (which was later licensed by Nintendo) had gamers using their feet instead of their hands. It mapped special controls to a large plastic pad that could be laid out on the floor of the living room.
While it was only compatible with less than a dozen titles (many of which were only released in Japan), the Power Pad helped pave the way for the home game mats used in late-1990s series Dance Dance Revolution.
For all intents and purposes, the PowerGlove was a failure. It didn't sell all that well, nor did it lead to any must-have games that would utilize it. But it was the technological forerunner for the Wii's innovative controller system, and it became a pop-culture icon.
Using a mix of touch sensors and visual sensors it was designed to turn human movement into onscreen controls, but it never quite got the point of being accurate enough to be fun. In fact, in many cases it outright failed.
In the heyday of 2D console platformers, Sega pulled out the big guns with Sonic & Knuckles. This special game cartridge had a game slot of its own, which would let you strap on previous titles in the Sonic series. Doing so let you go back and play these original titles with the secondary character, Knuckles, who could go places Sonic couldn't. To accommodate this, the game code was tweaked--adding new items and power-ups that changed the way you could cruise through levels, and allowing players to dust off those old cartridges and play them once more.
This practice might have continued in other games, but the industrywide move to optical media over the next few years (including Sega's follow-up consoles) left little room for the same kind of technology.
Nintendo's Rumble Pak was a controller add-on that came in the early part of the Nintendo 64's lifecycle. It could be plugged in to the add-on slot of the controller to add vibration to games that supported it.
Despite being an afterthought instead of a built-in feature of the N64's controllers, its addition allowed game developers to create more advanced titles that provided force feedback. It also led to the practice of selling add-on rumble packs in portable gaming systems like Nintendo's DS.
Nintendo's Game Boy camera and printer combination could turn your ailing, 9-year-old Game Boy into a digital camera that could print on the go. Its black-and-white camera offered a live view on the Game Boy's screen. It also packed editing tools that would let you make minor modifications to your images, including the use of stamps and themes.
The special cartridge could be coupled with the Game Boy printer, another peripheral that could print out your shots on receipt-like thermal paper when connected to the system. This paper, which Nintendo sold at a premium, could be peeled away from its backing and used as stickers.
Nintendo has since integrated digital cameras into its latest handheld system, the DSi, which includes its own built-in editing software.
Sega's Dreamcast followed the practice of other game systems at the time and shipped without any kind of internal memory. Instead, gamers were forced to shell out for memory cards to save their game progress.
Sega's solution, though, was not plain and boring memory cards, but "visual" memory units. These added miniaturized game controls and a small LCD screen. This secondary screen could then be programmed to be utilized in games.
One of the most innovative uses for this was in sports games, where players could cycle through plays without the other person in the room seeing what they were choosing. Some developers also created mini games that could be played right on the unit, then transferred back to the games to enable new features, or extend the player's progress.
Nowadays when people see a plastic guitar controller, they instantly associate it with Guitar Hero, but Konami would like you to think otherwise. Years before Guitar Hero hit the shelves, Konami had its own virtual guitar arcade game called Guitar Freaks, and it had similar gameplay elements.
It, too, featured a controller with colored buttons that users would have to hold while flicking across the strum bar. However, it could only be found in arcades leading up to a 1999 home console release in Japan for the PlayStation. This kept it from the U.S. audience, something Harmonix and Activision would capitalize on with the first Guitar Hero game in 2005.
The Eyetoy was a relatively inexpensive USB video camera for the PlayStation 2. A number of software titles released for it allowed players to interact with onscreen objects using their body.
More impressively, though, game developers could integrate the Eyetoy into their creations, which led to a number of neat uses. One in particular was the "cameo" system, which would take a photo of a user's face and map it onto the 3D head of an in-game player. This was used mainly in sports games.
More modern-day versions of gaming cameras include Microsoft's Vision camera for the 360; the follow-up to the Eyetoy, called simply "Eye," which features an "HD" camera; and the upcoming Natal, which shows up later on in this list.
/ Photo: Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Innovative plastic gaming peripherals
The Amiga Joyboard (1982)
Wireless Atari 2600 controllers (1983)
Datel Action Replay (1985)
NES Zapper (1985)
Nintendo's Power Pad (1988)
Nintendo PowerGlove (1990)
Sonic & Knuckles (1994)
N64 Rumble Pak (1997)
Game Boy camera/printer (1998)
Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit (1999)
Guitar Freaks (1999)
PlayStation 2 Eyetoy (2003)
Boktai: The sun is in your hand (2003)
Guitar Hero (2005)
Nintendo Wii remote (2006)
Rock Band (2007)
PlayStation motion controller (2010)
Wii Vitality Sensor (TBA)
Project Natal (TBA)
Boktai, a game series for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, featured an integrated solar sensor that could detect when a player was in ambient and direct sunlight. This was built into the game to allow players to recharge their character's weapon.
The two sequels that followed had solar sensors as well, although the fourth title did away with the feature, allowing players to go back to where they belong--the dark.
The original Guitar Hero was in many ways just an evolution of developer Harmonix's gameplay found in previous titles like Karayoke Revolution, Amplitude, and Frequency. But instead of having gamers plug in a microphone or mash buttons on their controller, it brought with it a simple-to-play guitar peripheral that came bundled when customers bought the title.
Guitar Hero was a breakout game for home consoles, bringing mass appeal to the idea of using specialized musical instrument peripherals for home gaming. It brought with it a slew of licensed music, along with covers of popular songs, but the real hero was the guitar peripheral itself. It had the usual features of a guitar-themed game controller with colored buttons for notes and a strum bar. It also packed a whammy bar that let players adjust the pitch of any given note, and a tilt sensor that would let them aim the neck of their guitars to the sky to activate in-game bonus scoring. This feature was used in later games to help bail out someone you were playing with if they missed too many notes.
Nintendo's Wii remote made a big splash when it was unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show in 2005. It did away with the classic two-handed approach of game controllers and allowed players to use just one.
Built into the Wii remote, or "Wiimote" as it's also called, was an accelerometer, as well as Bluetooth and infrared transmitters. The accelerometer could detect which way players were holding the controller, while the infrared transmitter would let players point at the screen to select onscreen objects. The use of Bluetooth simply let it transfer data when it was out of the line of sight, so that the system could send button presses and directional controls when not pointed at the system or its IR receiver bar.
Beyond some of the sensing and transmitting technology, the Wiimote included a small speaker that allowed game and menu sound effects go through it instead of the TV speakers. It also featured force feedback through a built-in vibration unit, as well as on-board memory that could be used to save user avatars. Finally, it brought back the Nintendo tradition implemented with the N64 in the mid-1990s, making the controller expandable with other accessories, either from Nintendo or third parties.
When broken apart, the gameplay elements that make up Rock Band were, in themselves, not revolutionary. For instance, there had been karaoke games that made use of a plug-in microphone for more than a decade. There were also virtual drum and guitar games like Guitar Hero, and the Guitar Freaks and Drum Freaks series from Konami. What made Rock Band so innovative is that it found a way to combine the direction for up to four instruments on the same screen. It also sold the entire package in a single box that cost close to $200 in a time where most new games were selling for $50 to $60.
Rock Band's instruments also brought with them a few refinements. For instance, the bundled guitar had an additional set of frets that were closer to the body of the guitar. These were narrower than the main keys, which made for slightly easier play on face-melting solos. And because there could be up to four instruments plugged in to make the game work, the game bundle came with a USB hub for systems where there were only two controller ports.
Announced and demonstrated at this year's E3 game show in Los Angeles, Sony's PlayStation motion controller is in many ways a "me too" product to the motion-tracking capabilities of Nintendo's Wii remote. But Sony adds several new features.
For one, the controller mixes internal sensors with Sony's Eye camera to track movement, which Sony says will make the device more accurate when it comes to things like twisting and back-and-forth movement. It also employs a colored ball on top of the controller that offers developers an opportunity to program an extra layer of interactivity into their games.
We still don't know which games will work with Eye out of the gate, how much it will cost, or what the final design will be. But if you want to see how it performs in a live demo, you can watch this video.
Announced though not demonstrated at this year's E3 show in Los Angeles, little is known about what Nintendo plans to do with this odd peripheral.
The "vitality sensor," as Nintendo calls it, is actually a pulse oximeter, which can measure things like heartbeat and how much oxygen is in your blood. All Nintendo has said about this console add-on is that it will "initially sense the user's pulse and a number of other signals being transmitted by their bodies, and will then provide information to the users about the body's inner world."
For developers, the gadget could be a boon. The capability to track a gamer's excitement in real time could help developers change the pace or delivery of in-game moments, making each gaming experience custom-tailored to the person playing it. Still, it could ultimately end up being simply an easy way for Nintendo to make money on people who want to check their pulse in games like Wii Fit.
Project Natal, which likely won't be the final name of Microsoft's new camera technology, made its debut at this year's E3. Its motion-sensing camera goes beyond earlier iterations of USB cameras, and lets players ditch the controller in place of using their entire bodies. It also lets players cruise through menus with voice commands and gestures.
While Natal is not likely to completely replace the need for regular controllers, it does offer developers a new control method to program for, which can be used in place of or alongside the use of game controllers. It's also a big step up from older game console cameras, in that it can handle controls for up to four different people onscreen at a time.
Natal is expected to be released by the end of next year, though Microsoft has made no mention on price or backward-compatibility with older titles.