8-bit week

How the "failed" Nintendo Power Glove found an unexpected second life

It sold at retail for just a year, but its impact is still felt today.

The Power Glove was not a failure.

Sure, the licensed accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1989 remains an infamous piece of retro tech — a game controller made into a right-hand glove, as if an Apple keyboard were stitched to an oven mitt — and was sold at retail for less than a year. But it still made money for those who invested in it, and its technical innovations paved the way for the next 30 years of gaming.

In 2020, there is no such thing as a Power Glove. But that doesn’t mean the Power Glove is a forgotten waste of potential. The ripples of its impact are still felt today, more than 30 years later, while the original vision its creators had has been fulfilled, albeit in a most unusual way, turning up everywhere from horror cinema to indie rock.

“It was so cumbersome and iffy,” says musician and gamer Brian Mazzaferri, frontman of the Chicago-based rock band I Fight Dragons. “But when it worked, that experience was magical.”

PART I: THE MUSIC MAKER

Sketch of Thomas Zimmerman's Data Glove, from his 1985 patent.YouTube.com/Gaming Historian

The story of the Power Glove begins in 1981, in the bedroom of Thomas Zimmerman in Queens, New York. Zimmerman was a recent graduate from MIT as the video game industry enjoyed its first wave of commercial popularity. The “crash” of ‘83 was just around the corner. The arrival and subsequent dominance by Nintendo was just a few years further.

Zimmerman aimed to combine two things: music and technology. As detailed in a 2015 documentary, The Story of the Power Glove by YouTube channel Gaming Historian, Zimmerman thought of a way to play music without any instruments. Imagine playing air guitar and hearing riffs on a speaker, or drumming the air and hearing the snares and crash cymbals. That was his vision.

“I came up with the idea for a glove where you’d touch fingers to play chords,” Zimmerman told Mental Floss in a 2017 oral history. “A friend of mine knew music theory and liked the idea. But I didn’t get serious about it until 1979 or 1980.”

Using a gardening glove, LED lights, tubes, and an array of doodads from a hardware store, Zimmerman had a working prototype of… something. It was a glove where the bends of the wearer’s fingers allowed a certain amount of light to shine through the tubes, which could be read in code. Zimmerman filed a patent in 1982 for his “Data Glove,” which had an optical flex sensor. He turned down a $10,000 offer from his employer, Atari, to purchase the rights. He believed the technology could go further.

Zimmerman left his invention dormant for years. At a music festival at Stanford University, he met Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and philosopher considered the founder of virtual reality. (Lanier was recently spotlighted in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.) Lanier was fascinated by Zimmerman’s glove, and in 1983 they formed VPL Research (short for “Visual Programming Language”) on the strength of Zimmerman’s invention.

They envisioned big things. Video games were a distant thought — the industry was all but dead circa 1984 — as Zimmerman and Lanier anticipated working with titans like Apple and NASA. VPL’s Data Glove was the October 1987 cover story for Scientific American.

PART II: THE PUNCH FELT AROUND THE WORLD

Magazine ad for the Nintendo Power Glove.YouTube.com/Gaming Historian

The Power Glove entered the toy realm through a deal with Abrams Gentile Entertainment (AGE), a toy manufacturer whose Visionaries line utilized holographic images. That said, most of their revenue was from their successful tie-in toys to the Rambo films. Together, AGE and VPL brought the glove to Mattel.

Best known for the Barbie franchise, Mattel had briefly dabbled in video games with the failed Intellivision console. Will Novak, an engineer at Mattel, told Mental Floss that video games were “a dirty word” at the company.

“People lost their pensions over it,” he said.

That skepticism didn’t last forever. In the latter half of the 1980s, Japanese company Nintendo resurrected the video game industry with its red-hot Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console. Instead of trying to compete with Nintendo, executives at Mattel started to think of growing alongside the new giant. AGE created a demo of Zimmerman’s Data Glove wired to an NES that played the popular boxing game Punch-Out. What cemented the Power Glove as a real pursuit for the company was when Mattel CEO Jill Barad tried on the glove and knocked out Glass Joe in one punch.

High off her experience, Barad approved the product for Mattel. With Nintendo’s approval, all three companies teamed up to create a wearable glove for entertainment virtual reality, the first of its kind. And they wanted it fast, in time for Christmas 1989.

Even before it was released, that decision was the beginning of the end for the Power Glove.

Among the many challenges posed for the Power Glove’s engineers, which included reducing the price of a nearly $10,000 prototype into something affordable, their target date was just months away. This left no time for games to be developed specifically for the glove’s capabilities. Super Glove Ball, developed for the Power Glove in mind, wouldn’t go on sale for another year. Instead, it fell on the shoulders of two employees to go through the entire NES catalogue to make the glove compatible.

Against all odds, the Power Glove did make its retail date of October 1989 and retailed for a then-whopping $75 ($155 in 2019 dollars). There were no games packaged with it, making the accessory a luxury item rather than an essential. Without that urgency, the fate of the Power Glove was sealed. VPL filed for bankruptcy in 1990, and the Power Glove faded into memory.

PART III: A VISION FULFILLED

Left: The Power Glove, in its now infamous scene in the 1989 family movie 'The Wizard.' Right: Supernatural slasher Freddy Krueger had his own Power Glove in the 1991 horror film 'Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.'

If it weren’t for a few instances in popular culture, the Power Glove would be an oddity lost to time. Nevertheless, the Power Glove has had remarkable staying power.

First, the cult status of movies like 1989’s The Wizard, effectively a Nintendo commercial dressed up as a family sports movie, has allowed the Power Glove to endure. In the film, a rebellious gamer, Lucas (actor Jackey Vinson) shows off the Power Glove and utters the now infamous line, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” The unintentional irony of the line has fed into the Power Glove’s contemporary reputation.

A lesser-known scene comes from the 1991 slasher film Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the sixth in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the movie, Robert Englund’s supernatural killer Freddy Krueger dons his own nightmarish version of the Power Glove to digitally manipulate one of his victims.

But two old movies where the Power Glove has a combined six minutes of screen time aren’t the sole explanation for the peripheral’s unusual staying power. That’s where the online modding community comes in. And in a poetic way, the Power Glove has finally fulfilled Zimmerman’s vision as an instrument for music.

Brian Mazzaferri, who formed the nerdy pop rock band I Fight Dragons in 2008, tells Inverse the Power Glove was the “piece de resistance” to the band’s former arsenal of gaming antiques that allowed them to play chiptune sounds — the bleeps and bloops of classic video games incorporated into music — live on stage.

“At the time, when people were playing [chiptune] live, people just hit play on an iPod or laptop and played along,” Mazzaferri tells Inverse. “There's nothing wrong with that, but I was thinking of ways to make it live or performative.”

I Fight Dragons formed when the retro gaming scene was in its infancy. Back then, the demand for vintage gaming wares was low, which made it easy and affordable to build a collection.

On the internet, Mazzaferri found help from modders who guided him in reprogramming old Nintendo controllers to produce musical sounds. “From there, it spiraled,” Mazzaferri says. “It became a question of, how crazy could we get?” The band’s experimentation peaked at the Power Glove, an accessory Mazzaferri yearned for as a child but never received.

“I thought of it as a prestige gaming item,” he remembers. Like most kids, it was The Wizard that spell-binded him to the accessory. “It was a status symbol. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. But my parents were not going to let me buy one.”

As an adult, Mazzaferri bought several Power Gloves on eBay to experiment. And of course, he hooked one up to play Super Glove Ball. Playing it in the era of the Nintendo Wii, he admits, “I started to understand why it was not a huge success, but it still felt like a childhood dream come true.”

The band, whose music has been heard in TV shows like The Hills and The Goldbergs, used the PowerGlove and more gaming accessories for two years in live performances. The band preprogrammed notes onto the controllers and would “play” them like a conventional instrument on stage. (For studio recordings, synthesizers and an old GameBoy were used instead.) The Power Glove was played and worn by former bandmate Laura Green.

Laura Green, former member of the pop punk band I Fight Dragons, in a 2010 stage performance using the band's modified Power Glove.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Over time, as individuals left the band and changes were made to what the group called their “Nintendo Control Center” (now streamlined to a keytar and laptop), the band retired the Power Glove. Once a luxury item in Mazzaferri’s childhood imagination, it had become a frustrating piece of junk, prone to malfunctioning due to its aging hardware.

“I remember [during our] fall 2009 tour, we were first talking with labels. They had a showcase in L.A. Right before the show, the Power Glove stopped working,” Mazzaferri recalls. “I remember frantically in the van trying to fix it. We were all panicking. It was the reality of 20 year-old tech not doing what it wasn’t even intended to do.”

Still, the Power Glove was not a disaster. Besides its gross of $88 million in sales, the lofty technical ambitions of the Power Glove have been fulfilled throughout the industry. The gaming industry’s lengthy experimentation with motion control in the late 2000s was effectively the Power Glove personified. Elements of that experiment endure even today in the Nintendo Switch’s motion-control Joy-Cons. Virtual reality hardware, like those made by Oculus, also features controllers that function much like the Power Glove intended.

While there is little need for a rebooted Power Glove in 2020, that doesn’t mean it’s not around.

“It’s still a part of everything,” Mazzaferri says. “It was so ahead of its time. That’s what was so incredible about it.”

8-Bit Week is an Inverse celebration of the classic — and forgotten — games that pushed the boundaries of interactive entertainment in the 1980s and beyond.

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