From Old School Gamer Magazine – May 2018

I think that the Labo, the do-it-yourself kits that released on April 20, 2018, is pure genius on Nintendo’s part. They will breathe new life into the Nintendo Switch, which right now is shining bright, while teaching kids (and adults) the principles of engineering and physics.

One of the projects that the high-quality pre-cut cardboard can be turned into is the Labo Toy-Con Piano, a keyboard peripheral that turns the Switch into a function piano. It’s part of a $70 Variety Kit that features five do-it-yourself cardboard projects.

Nintendo Labo Piano

The Labo Toy-Con Piano is a 13-key, 1-octave piano. Once assembled, the Switch console sits in it and acts as its command center. One of the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers has a built-in camera and when this controller is buried within the bowels of the constructed piano, it would use the camera to read which key was being pressed. The Switch, which sits above the keys in full view, would then respond appropriately.

While Nintendo came up with an ingenious and innovative way to distribute a piano peripheral, it is certainly not the first time that a piano has been available for a videogame console.

Nintendo Labo Piano

Videopac Musician

Ironically, the very-first piano add-on for a console had also been made out of cardboard. The Videopac Musician,which came out in 1982, was available for the Philips Videopac G7000, the European version of the Odyssey2. The keyboard was actually an overlay that sat atop the console’s built-in membrane keyboard.

The overlay displayed seven black keys and nine white ones, 1-octave (a standard piano has 88 keys and covers 7-octaves). Technically, compositions could be composed on this but they couldn’t exceed 81 notes. Once a song was in memory, it could be played back or edited. Unfortunately, there was no way to save the songs.

Videopac Musician

Mattel Intellivision II Music Synthesizer

The next musical keyboard to be introduced was much more sophisticated. The $125 Intellivision II Music Synthesizer was released by Mattel Electronics in 1983 and was part of the Entertainment Computer System (ECS) upgrade to the Intellivision II. The ECS plugged into the cartridge slot of the Intellivision II and effectively turning the console into a real 16-bit computer. Two types of keyboards could then be plugged into the ECS: one was the alphanumeric Computer Keyboard that was needed to enter data into the computer. And the other was the 49-key music synthesizer.

Although the Music Synthesizer wasn’t a full-size piano keyboard, its 4-octave range made it perfect to introduce the fundamentals of piano playing to novices. Although Mattel Electronics announced several programs that combined game-playing with piano–playing tutorials only one made it to market. Melody Blaster used the basic concept of the Intellivision hit-game Astrosmash to teach people how to play the piano. In this game, falling musical notes had to be shot down for points by pressing the correct keys on the piano keyboard.

Mattel Intellivision II Music Synthesizer

Software Toolworks Miracle Piano Teaching System

When Nintendo decided to enter the U.S. market in 1985 it introduced the Nintendo Advanced Video System, the NAVS. One of the peripherals that Nintendo announced for the new console was a 3-octave music keyboard. Unlike Mattel’s Music Synthesizer, which could only operate when plugged into the Intellivision ECS, the NAVS keyboard was planned to also be able to function by itself since it would use batteries and have its own built-in speaker.

Alas, Nintendo did not go ahead with the NAVS due to the dwindling videogame market. Instead, they came up with the NES and its Robotic Operating Buddy to get it into toy stores. A music keyboard wasn’t planned for the new console. NES owners would have to wait five years before a music keyboard became available for their console. And the one that did arrive was not from Nintendo.

The Miracle Piano Teaching System from Software Toolworks, a ten-year old company best-known for developing game software for personal computers, was the most professional of any console music keyboard ever released for a game console. And while its main purpose was to teach people how to play a piano via software that plugged into an NES, this 49-key unit was in fact an actual four-octive MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keyboard that could be used alone without the NES.

Versions of the Miracle Piano Teaching System were eventually released for the Genesis, SNES, as well as the Mac, Amiga and PC. Despite the unit being a critical success, its $500 price tag kept it out of the hands of most people.

Software Toolworks Miracle Piano Teaching System

Yamaha CBX-K1 Keyboard

Aspiring Japanese piano players hoping to hone their skills through their videogame consoles didn’t get the chance because none of the afore-mentioned music keyboards were released in Japan. That changed in 1997… sort of.

Waka Manufacturing, a manufacturer of computer adapters, released a $72 title for the Japanese Saturn called Saturn Music School, which taught users how to play a piano. The package included a MIDI Interface Box which connected any MIDI piano keyboard to the Saturn. However, a limited $191 version of the game came bundled with an actual 3-octave Yamaha CBX-K1 keyboard.

Yamaha CBX-K1 Keyboard

Konami Keyboardmania Controller

Keyboardmania was an arcade game from the Bemani division of Konami in which players had to destroy 14 columns of falling musical notes. Each column represented a white key on a piano keyboard and the note was hit when a particular key was pressed. A home edition of the game was released in Japan for the PS2 in September, 2000. Like the home versions of Bemani games that preceded it such as Beatmania and Guitar Freaks, Keyboardmania used a special controller in order to play. In this case it was a 2-octave, 24-key piano keyboard that was similar to the arcade version.

Unfortunately for fledgling piano players, the Konami Keyboardmania controller didn’t double as a functional piano. Its only purpose was as a controller for the home game and it was the only controller that could be used with the game. This changed with the early 2002 release of Keyboardmania II, which allowed the use of any MIDI keyboard that could be connected to the PS2 with a USB to MIDI converter.

Konami Keyboardmania controller

Valcon Games Easy Piano

Musical keyboard peripherals weren’t limited solely to consoles. In early 2010 Valcon Games became the American publisher for Easy Piano, a 13-key, 1-octave piano keyboard that plugged into the Game Boy Advance port of the Nintendo DS.

The keyboard was part of a $40 package that also included a DS game card that featured ten mini-games/lessons that taught people the fundamentals of how to play the piano. These mini-games featured a musical staff on the screen and musical notes scrolled along the staff from left to right. When a note reached a vertical bar, the player had to press the appropriate key on the keyboard in order to proceed. The program featured several built-in songs, including Madonna’s Material Girl, but players had to complete a song successfully before they could unlock another song.

Because the keyboard plugged into the Game Boy Advance slot of the DS, it could not be used with the Nintendo DSi, which did not have the cartridge slot. However, the game card that contained the program could still play on the newer handheld console and instead of the physical keyboard, the player could use a virtual, 8-octave, 13-note keyboard on the system’s touchscreen.

Valcon Games Easy Piano

Mad Catz Rock Band 3 Piano Controller

Until the arrival of the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Piano in 2018, the last year that a musical keyboard peripheral was released for a home system was 2010. And it wasn’t just for one system. The Piano Controller from Mad Catz came out for three: the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii.

The Piano Controller was the latest musical instrument controller for the Rock Band franchise. However, while numerous guitars and drum sets for prior versions of Rock Band had just been controllers that looked and acted like actual instruments, they were useless outside of the game. The $80 Piano Controller that Mad Catz designed for Rock Band 3 was a genuine 2-octave MIDI keyboard with 25 keys.

Mad Catz Rock Band 3 Piano Controller

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