From Old School Gamer Magazine – July 2018
Since the beginning of videogame history, sports have always played a major role. Higinbotham’s Tennis For Two, Baer’s video table tennis, and Bushnell & Dabney’s Pong are also video versions of tennis or table tennis. But no matter how much you tell yourself that these videogames are sports, it’s a hard sell. However, if you add a special controller that simulates something from an actual sport, the game takes on a new dimension and makes the game much more interactive. Let’s look at several of these peripherals for video sport games.
There have been sports peripherals for videogames even before the first videogame console was released in 1972. To enhance the console prototype known as the Brown Box, the father of home videogames, Ralph Baer, also developed two sports-related peripherals for his invention. One was a “Golf Putter”, which was a real golf ball mounted on the end of a joystick. This would be placed on the floor, and then tapped with an actual putter that would cause the on-screen “ball” to move into an on-screen “hole”.
The Golf Putter never made it to the production phase, but Baer’s other prototype peripheral did. This was a light rifle that allowed to player to shoot targets on the screen. And isn’t target shooting a sport? And if you turn those targets into animals, you’ll have the sport known as hunting.
The production model of the Brown Box was the Odyssey from Magnavox. And when it became available in late 1972, the world’s first sports-related peripheral (the first videogame peripheral, period!) was also available as an option. The $24.95 ($150 in today’s dollars) light rifle (manufactured by Nintendo) featured simulated wood grain and looked exactly like a real hunting rifle.
Although many, many light guns have been released since 1972, very few have pretended to be hunting rifles. Most were pistols and used for target shooting. Hunting as a gaming genre began roughly in 1998 when HeadGames Publishing, in conjunction with the hunting supply company, Cabela’s, released Cabela’s Big Game Hunter for the PC. And while the object of the game was to hunt wild animals with a rifle, the game was displayed in a first-person view and the rifle was virtual. This continued onto the console when Activision released the game for the PS2. New versions were released every few years but the game’s mechanics were the same. Finally, the 2010 version that came out for the Wii became the first hunting game bundled with a rifle controller. But this controller was a far cry from the realistic light rifle for the Odyssey. It looked like a toy and both the Wii Remote and the Nunchuck had to be inserted into it for it to work.
While the hunting game genre was new in 1999, fishing games have been around ever since Activision published David Crane’s Fishing Derby for the Atari VCS in 1981. However, it wasn’t until 1999 when fishing games would become more realistic with the release of fishing controllers. The first was for Get Bass: Sega Bass Fishing, which was released for the Japanese Dreamcast in Japan on April 1, and as a launch title for the American Dreamcast on September 9 (sans Get Bass in its title). Although the game could be played with a standard Dreamcast controller, Sega released a fishing rod controller that looked like an actual fishing rod, which used motion sensitivity to cast a line. The unit vibrated when a fish was caught, and included a reel winder on its side for reeling in the captured fish. On September 16 Agetec released Bass Landing for the PlayStation. This third-party fishing game was bundled with a fishing rod controller that looked similar to the one from Sega. Although the third console of that era, the N64, also had fishing videogames in its catalog, none of them had been bundled with a fishing rod controller. However, a third-party fishing controller was sold by Mad Catz. Fishing rod controllers then took a sabbatical until 2007 when Hooked! Real Motion Fishing was released for the Wii. But like the Wii hunting rifle controller, the fishing rod controller needed the Wii Remote/Nunchuck combination in order for it to work, if that was possible. A reviewer for IGN described the game as painful and stated that he had to put the Rod Controller aside after trying it just once.
Three more fishing rod controllers were released for the Wii in 2009. The one that was packaged with Rapala: We Fish, ruined the gaming experience. The next game, Hooked! Again,was an update to the poorly received Hooked! Real Motion Fishing and used a fishing rod controller that supported the new Wii MotionPlus. The third game was Bass Pro Shops: The Strike, which used a fishing rod controllers that wasn’t much different from its predecessors. However, an Xbox 360 version of the game was also released and came with that console’s first fishing rod controller. GamePro called the Xbox 360 version “the best fishing game out there.”
The release of games with fishing rod controllers continued into 2010. Kevin VanDam’s Big Bass Challenge only came out for the Wii. Rapala Pro Bass Fishing had versions for all three major systems, marking the first time a fishing rod controller was available for the PS3. While the Wii version used the standard Wii Remote/Nunchuck configuration, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions were, for the first time, wireless.
A completely different type of fishing peripheral was released for the Japanese Game Boy in 1998.The Pocket Sonar from Bandai turned the Game Boy into a device that helped fishermen find fish. Developed by Bandai and Honda Electronics, the Pocket Sonar consisted of an oversized cartridge that plugged into the Game Boy, and a sonar unit that went in the water. A wire connected the sonar unit to the cartridge. When the sonar unit sat upon the surface of the water, it could detect fish up to 30 meters deep. The data was then sent to the Game Boy, which displayed it on its screen. And for would-be fishermen who weren’t near water, a fishing game was also included.
Hunting and fishing games weren’t the only sports games that made use of non-conventional controllers. In 1994, a company called Sports Sciences released TeeV Golf for the SNES and Genesis. This was a modern realization of Ralph Baer’s original Golf Putter. TeeV Golf consisted of a base unit and a pseudo club that included a realistic grip and shaft. The base unit sensed a light that emitted from the golf club and was able to calculate the swing. Unfortunately the TeeV Golf couldn’t work with every golf game. Specific cards for a game had to be inserted into the base unit to make it work correctly. The unit came with a card for Electronic Arts’ PGA Tour Golf.
That same year Sports Sciences also released Batter Up for the SNES and Genesis. This was a baseball bat that plugged into the console’s controller port. After an onscreen player pitched the ball, the real-life player would swing the Batter Up, which would then figure out whether the ball had been hit or not. If it decided that the ball had indeed been hit, it then calculated exactly what kind of hit had been made. Unlike TeeV Golf, which had to be programmed to work with selected golf games, Batter Up was compatible with any baseball game.
But the award for the console with the most sports-related peripherals has to go to the XaviX, an obscure, but revolutionary system that came out in 2004. Released two years before the Wii, the XaviX from a company called SSD pioneered the art of motion controllers. Six sports games were released for the system and all of them are memorable for the wireless controllers needed to play them. For example, the controller for the Bowling was a miniature bowling ball. The player held the controller like a real bowling ball and did everything but release it (a lanyard was also connected to the ball to prevent the player from releasing the ball.
The other XaviX sport games and their controllers are:
- Baseball – a bat and ball
- Bass Fishing – a rod and reel
- Golf – 2 golf clubs (wood and putter) and a base unit
- Powerboxing – a pair of boxing gloves
- Tennis – a tennis racquet
While the Wii had a multiple of hunting rifles and fishing rod controllers that required the inclusion of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck controllers, other sports peripherals such as the ones available for the XaviX were never produced. The closest Wii owners got to peripherals were generic plastic golf clubs, tennis racquets and baseball bats that attached to the end of the Wii Remote. These did not enhance the game since the games could be played exactly the same whether these add-ons were attached to the Wii Remote or not.
The future for sports peripherals does not look good. As virtual reality technology improves, the need to produce controllers that made players feel like they were actually in the game becomes less and less likely. And who knows? Maybe one day the Tee-V Golf will sit alongside Ralph Baer’s “Golf Putter” on a shelf in a backroom at the Smithsonian for a future exhibit on the lengths that designers went to make videogames somewhat realistic.