Forgotten 80s Tech: The Nintendo Power Glove

James Logie

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There have been a lot of video game accessories over the years, but some were hits and some just get remembered as gimmicks

The Nintendo Power Glove was an accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System that came out in 1989.

There was a lot of hype for it from commercials and with the movie The Wizard, but with difficult-to-use controls, it sold poorly and quickly disappeared.

I only got to use a power glove once. It was frustrating. The concept seemed cool as hell, a glove that let you play video games, but if you ever used it you know how frustrating and pointless it seemed.

The Power Glove by Nintendo was the epitome of a novelty, but one that actually had a lot of promise early on.

The Nintendo Power Glove has its routes in music, connections to NASA, had a very elaborate design process, and was also unleashed on the world in the movie/commercial The Wizard.

Let’s look at this unforgettable video game accessory.

Early Development On The Nintendo Power Glove

The Power Glove was a product of two other companies before it became owned by Mattel and associated with Nintendo. VPL Research and Abrams Gentile Entertainment were the original driving force behind the Power Glove.

But it started out being called the Data Glove.

The Data glove was a creation of a guy named Thomas Zimmerman who was an MIT undergraduate, and this is where the Power Glove has its connections to music.

Zimmerman was obsessed as a child with orchestras and especially watching the conductors as they lead the symphony.

As a child, he would pretend to lead an orchestra by air conducting it instead of playing air guitar to old Twisted Sister songs like I did.

He held on to this idea into his adulthood and wanted to create some sort of device that could create music by waving your hand. As early as 1980 he had already come up with a prototype.

The Early Power Glove

This early Power Glove was made up of an old gardening glove and some LED tubes that could indicate finger bend based on the amount of light that would pass through the tubes.

Zimmerman knew he had a pretty good concept on his hand and ended up working for Atari early on when he first moved to California.

He believed this was a natural fit for anything to do with video games and at the time Atari really was the only game in town.

Well, until 1982 and the E.T. video game which sunk the company. I kid, I kid. The industry collapsed in 1983, but E.T. wasn’t the sole cause of it. I blame the Commodore 64…

Moving On From Atari & Connections To NASA

Surprisingly, Atari was only mildly interested in the Data Glove and offered Zimmerman $10,000 for it.

A decent chunk of change in those days, but not for something that had some tremendous possibilities.

The one good thing from Atari was that Zimmerman met a guy named Jaron Lanier. When the video game crash of 1983 hit, they were both laid off but they created VPL Research.

Lanier had those deep pockets, and Zimmerman had the design so they were ready to rock.

The Data Glove was really improving now too. He had added some optical flex sensors to track hand movements and a magnetic sensor that could detect the glove in a magnetic field.

Think of this field as simply the area from a TV screen to the glove in front of it.

Early Prototypes

VPL made some interesting models and prototypes of the glove that also included head sensors that look a lot like today’s VR headsets.

So this technology was starting to show promise in non-video game-based companies.

MIT and NASA were interested in the glove for research and development, and so were a bunch of other R&D companies.

The Data Glove was a hot commodity in the scientific community but Zimmerman still had the desire to be connected to video games and VPL signed a licensing deal with Abrams Gentile Entertainment.

AGE wanted to be in the video game business, big time and they believed they finally had their entry with the Data Glove.

There was only one problem; All the technical advancements Zimmerman had made had caused the Data Glove to become expensive as all hell.

Trying To Get The Data Glove Up & Running

A.G.E had the rights to this new technology, but the cost of the materials made each glove around $10,000. To get this available to the public, they had to get the cost under $100. That’s a hell of a big drop.

AGE had been trying to get into the video game market and had already been making some toys for Hasbro.

They approached Hasbro about creating a whole new 3D video game system the problem was Hasbro had signed a licensing deal with Nintendo to make a G.I. Joe game so thought it might be a conflict of interest.

AGE then reached out to Mattel who liked the glove but was hesitant to get back into the video game industry because they got pretty burned in the video game crash of ’83 losing an apparent $200 million in their electronics division and the infamous Intellivision.

The story goes that AGE did a demo with a new prototype hooked up to a TV and NES and was using Mike Tysons Punch-Out to demonstrate it.

They brought in the CEO and on her first shot she knocked out Glass Joe.

She said on the spot that they were on board with the Power Glove.

AGE was still calling it the Data Glove at this point and wanted to make a whole video game system based around it, but Mattel thought it better to make it as an accessory to the NES.

Mattel was a great name and brilliant at marketing, so it was hard to argue against them.

The Fake CES Demonstration

The CEO, Jill Barard, who had knocked Glass Joe out, was a huge champion for the Data Glove and wanted to get it demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show.

CES wasn’t yet what it is today, but still a very important event. The problem was CES was only 3 months away…

AGE put together a prototype just one month before the show and they had a demo ready to go. The demo would end up blowing people away but wasn’t the most legit thing in the world.

They hired a child actor to pose as a random kid and the glove he used wasn’t even hooked into an NES but an Amiga computer. The kid pretended to play the game, though he wasn’t even playing it.

This has some similarity to the first iPhone keynote; Steve Jobs actually had multiple iPhones behind that speaker podium to use for different features and functions as there was a worry a single one wasn’t ready, or able, to perform all the functions live.

They programmed some to run select features like pictures or mail on a program they designed, but he made it look like he was doing it live.

They also hard-coded five bars at the top even though it wasn’t getting close to a full signal.

Despite this huckster/snake oil salesman approach, a bunch of retailers were all over the Data Glove and placed orders on the spot. At the end of the show, 700,000 orders had been put in.

Putting The Power Glove Together

Even though Mattel was putting out the Power Glove AGE put it together and getting the price point under $100 while only having it cost $16–18 to make.

So this meant having to compromise on the original technology.

One thing they did was taking out the fiber optic sensors because they were expensive.

They also had to cut out the very usable magnetic sensor that would detect the glove in front of the screen.

A crucial step was actually the design of the glove. Up till then, it looked like an ugly gardening glove from leftover Edward Scissorhands prop but they went to a company called Image Design & Marketing who came up with the really cool design of the glove.

They got the costs down, gave it a fresh look, and showed Nintendo that it was a legit accessory that had a long-lasting life.

The Power Glove was ready.

"The Wizard" Hits Movie Theatres

I LOVE the Wizard. Starring a young Fred Savage, it told the story of a boy and his brother on a road trip to California.

The younger brother Jimmy is a wizard (groan) at video games and when this is discovered the goal is to get him to “Video Armageddon” in California which is a gaming tournament with a $50,000 prize.

Spoiler alert: Jimmy wins the tournament.

I, like probably anyone else my age, was too stupid to be aware we were watching a 90-minute Nintendo commercial but who the hell cared.

This movie was huge for me. So huge that I ripped off the storyline to write my own version for a project in English class in grade 7. The thing that made this movie MONUMENTAL for this era was two things:

  1. It was the first display of Super Mario Bros 3 which was unreleased and completely unknown about and
  2. It introduced the Power Glove

I remember FLIPPING out when they first played Mario Bros 3. I kind of miss the pre-internet spoiler days when you could be completely surprised by something.

Even though the movie wasn’t critically loved I think it did its job as a vehicle for launching the new game and glove as Mario 3 became one of the best-selling games of all time.

And then there was the Power Glove. Holy crap. It could not have had a more iconic debut and there is no way in hell that you didn’t want one after seeing it.

“I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad”.

Well, it kind of turned out to be, and bad meaning bad not bad meaning good (cue RUN-DMC).

Early Sales & Response To The Power Glove

Did you know Tobey Maguire played one of the bullies in the Wizard? I definitely didn’t recall that.

Also, the Wizard came out just 10 days before Christmas, and that, plus some great commercials, lead to the Power Glove becoming one of the top-selling toys of 1989. But It wasn’t exactly plugged and play right out of the box.

To set up the Power Glove, it needed to be calibrated. You had to hold your hand out and make a fist. If you didn’t the operating system didn’t know what was your fist and what was your hand.

If you screwed up any part of the calibrating process, the glove just wouldn’t work properly.

It took a while to do, and you had to keep your hand up for too long a period. You also had to enter a code properly and there were basically just a lot of stages where the glove could end up not being properly calibrated.

Other Issues with the Power Glove

A big issue was when the Power Glove came out there weren’t really Power Glove-specific games. It worked technically with all games but worked A LOT better with games designed for it.

There really wasn’t anything available specifically for it, and Mattel was just concerned with getting it out there.

They probably should have released some games with it.

The truth is the Power Glove made games a lot more difficult, and you were more likely to put it down and pick up the regular remote.

It still had strong initial sales here and especially in Japan.

Over there it was advertised in this badass Robo-Cop campaign and through all these different factors ended up selling 1.3 million units bringing in around $100 million which is the equivalent of nearly $460 million today.

The Beginning of the End For The Power Glove

A game specifically for the Power Glove was finally brought out, and it was called ‘Super Gloveball’ but wouldn’t be released until nearly a year after they introduced the Power Glove.

By now people were realizing that the Power Glove sucked and word of mouth was spreading fast. It’s like the E.T. Atari game as the word of mouth of 9-year-olds on playgrounds pretty much took down an industry.

I find it interesting to think about how things like that would fare today. There was no social media, internet forums or blogs to share dissatisfaction with games.

Would these things sink products like the Power Glove faster or would we have more information available to make the best of it?

Even though there was this quick descent Mattel actually had plans for a Power Glove sequel called the Turbo Glove. It would be a lighter glove with a keypad you wore on your belt.

They even had ideas for two other future gloves. But sadly, those would never be realized.

And one year, almost exactly, after they released it the plug was pulled on the Power Glove (that’s a very poetic line if I do say so myself).

Final Thoughts On The Power Glove

It’s been 30 years since the Power Glove came out and it really did have a lot of promise.

It was a glorious idea, actually had functionality, and looked cool as hell. As much as it’s partly seen as a joke from the 1980s it still makes me excited when I see one.

I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t light up when they see or hear mention of the Nintendo Power Glove.

The Power Glove is living on in different forms though. The original technology is being embraced to do things like control drones, create music, and even do stop-animation.

It clearly didn’t live up to the hype, but I don’t think that’s the fault of the designers and creators.

Everything was there to make it work, but they had their hands tied to make a mass-produced version.

I think it might be something that you see embraced again as the technology has caught up now to make it a lot more effective.

In the meantime, you can just re-watch the Wizard and think of that great anticipation.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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