It could never actually do what the ads promised, but it still became a geek touchstone for the Eighties
The Mattel Power Glove, a controller for the NES that debuted in 1989, was a legendary failure. It barely sold 100,000 units before it was discontinued. For a little context, Nintendo sold more than 7 million NES consoles that year. But it's had a bizarre afterlife as an iconic example of consumer grade retrofuturism and Reagan Era kitsch. The device seems to embody all of the gee-whiz technoutopianism that burned within the hearts of Eighties kids.
Most people first got a glimpse of the controller in the film The Wizard, which was about kids travelling across the country to take part in a video game tournament. The whole film is a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo, but the reveal of the Power Glove is a particularly egregious piece of product marketing. A cool Ray Ban-wearing kid produces a gleaming silver case, and opens it to reveal what looks like a prop from a sci-fi movie. It's a bulky metallic grey glove with input devices attached to the knuckles and the wrist. It bristles with buttons and wires. An ersatz version of Morricone's The Good the Bad and the Ugly theme song plays as the kid straps it on, flexing his fingers and holding his arm aloft like he's wearing the Gauntlet of Unholy Badassitude.
The kid fires up the game Rad Racer on his NES and begins to play, holding his begloved hand out in front of him as if it were wrapped around an invisible steering wheel. With simple and natural twists of his wrist, the kid weaves the car in Rad Racer between lanes with the casual cool of Magnum P.I. piloting his cherry red Ferrari 308 GTS down the Moanalua Freeway. "I love the Power Glove," says the kid. "It's so bad."
IT'S SO BAD
It certainly is bad. The kid used the word in the Run DMC sense – not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good. This device promised a radical and natural new form of human computer interface. But in point of fact, the traditional definition of "bad" was more accurate. The Power Glove simply did not work. Kids who were seduced by The Wizard into begging their parents for the Mattel controller quickly discovered that it was impossible to play Rad Racer, or any other classic NES game, using the $75 (about $150 in today's money) glove.
"It was not just a gimmicky toy," insists Andrew Austin, one of the directors of the new documentary called The Power of Glove that explores the failed promise of the device. "It was using the speed of sound to triangulate its position. Two transmitters in the glove were 'chirping' at three receivers that you placed on your TV. It was very sophisticated, but the cycle could only happen 20 times a second, which is three times slower than a regular Nintendo controller. If you have a game designed for quick tactile response, something that requires catlike reflexes, then the Power Glove is operating at a big disadvantage."
"You just can't play Super Mario with a motion controller," says Adam Ward, another director of The Power of Glove. "It's just not conducive to capturing the small movements you need to make in order to control Mario. Mattel did have a lineup of custom games slated to come out for it. Super Glove Ball was the only one released, and it actually plays fairly well – you can actually sense your hand moving in this virtual 3D space." There was another game called Bad Street Brawler that had Power Glove support retrofitted onto it, but it was terrible and unresponsive. None of the other planned releases in the Power Glove Gaming Series made it to market before the device was discontinued.
"They rushed it, in a nutshell," says Austin. "They were eager to release it as soon as they could." There were actually an array of weird gesture based controllers in the offing, and Mattel was hoping to beat potential rivals, like Broderbund's infrared-based "touch free" U-Force controller, to market. The Power Glove went from concept to commercial release in about a year, and it shows.
The lack of dedicated games sunk the device. So did the excessive hype you see in the Wizards clip, which promised the ability to control any game with the Glove. Mattel's TV commercial for the device was even worse – it showed a cool young dude in a denim jacket waving his hand around to jump in Super Mario Bros. 2 and deck foes in Punch-Out while the narrator intoned "Now you and the games are one."
Even without the hype, the design of the device itself made a promise that no peripheral you could pick up at Toys R Us could possibly live up to. It looked like what the Nintendo Generation saw in their mind's eye when they imagined the future. "We talked to the designers of the device, and they said that they really wanted children to think this was a very expensive high tech piece of wearable electronics," says Austin. "The awesome little input device on the top is called "The Stealth," and it was modeled after Robocop. Nowadays, we want tech to be sleek and almost invisible. Back then, they wanted to make you look like a cyborg. There was this almost delusional sense of tech optimism."
"Even the bulkiness of it was a selling point," adds Ward "This was the era of giant mobile phones, giant shoulder pads, and big hair. Everything was big back then."
Long after the Power Glove was pulled from the market, it lived on as a pop culture icon. In the 1991 film Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, the titular serial killer upgrades his bladed weapon to have Power Glove functionality. The controller also made cameos in everything from the family movie Beethoven to the laughable cyberpunk monstrosity Hackers.
Mattel's peripheral is still a pop culture icon, though now it's more likely to signify nostalgia and quaintly dated retrofuturism. The Regular Show on the Cartoon Network built a whole episode around something called the Maximum Glove, a cool looking controller that failed to do what the commercials promised. In the kitschy retro-1980s movie Kung Fury, the Power Glove is an essential tool that the character Hackerman needs in order to time travel, and its kitschy cameo lovingly mimics its debut moment in The Wizard.
Ward and Austin enjoy the campy references, but they're more excited by people who were so besotted with with promise of the Power Glove that they have redesigned it to do all of the amazing things that they felt it was capable of. Yeuda Ben-Atar, who goes by the handle Side Brain, mapped the buttons and fingers of the glove to MIDI effects, so he can perform live shows by waving around the Mattel controller. And Alessio Cosenza, an IT professional from Italy, retrofitted the glove to make it a fully functional VR controller. His mod, which he dubs the Power Glove Ultra, can actually do everything that the ads for the Power Glove promised.
Watching Cosenza's video demoing his retrofitted Power Glove, it becomes even more clear that the device anticipated the Wiimote, the PS move, and the motion controllers for the Rift and Vive. It's hilariously outdated, but it was clearly ahead of its time.