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Memorable Movie Tech: Lucas’s Power Glove

by Brandon Russell | February 21, 2015February 21, 2015 12:00 pm PDT

Lucas says it so matter of fact, and with such a smug look on his face. “The power glove.” Like he possessed the Infinity Gauntlet itself.

His words are even more impactful when said under such a glorious blonde mane. Lucas was the king, the alpha male, and the main rival of Jimmy Woods, otherwise known as The Wizard. It was his world, and we were just living in it.

The unforgettable scene above finds Jimmy, Corey and Haley approach Lucas at his casual after-school hangout—a small airport?—somewhere on the way to Los Angeles. It’s late afternoon—you can tell by the sun exploding in the distance, the way it burns long, harsh shadows onto the dusty dirt roads. There are a few Cessnas sitting on the runway, quietly waiting to whisk travelers away to more exciting destinations.

It’s in that small desert oasis where Lucas absolutely decimates a round of Rad Racer, using the Power Glove of all things, leaving poor Jimmy shaking in his boots. It was a swift but brutal takedown, the equivalent of Lucas kissing Jimmy’s girlfriend (if he had one; he didn’t, cause he was, like, ten years old). It was also the perfect way to market the future of gaming.

The irony is is that the Power Glove was actually pretty terrible. The movie succeeded in making it look cool as hell; there’s no arguing that. But the damn thing fell miserably short of expectations, making it one of the larger flops in gaming history. Let’s back up for a second.

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When the Power Glove was released in 1989, the contraption was actually made by Mattel (designed by Abrams/Gentile Entertainment), with zero input coming from Nintendo. Instead, the company made the boneheaded decision to blindly endorse the accessory; in hindsight, a huge mistake. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the ad above suggested.

You actually knock out Mike Tyson. Grab the steering wheel of Rad Racer. Bank and fire your P-38 in 1943 The Battle of Midway. All simply by moving your hand.

Twist your wrist for an immediate head butt in Double Dragon. Bend a finger for “Thrash Mode”—your character turns and shoots in all possible directions. Bend another for “One-Shot Turnaround”: you automatically change direction and first faster than you ever could with a joystick.

It was a novel idea, and certainly ahead of its time, but it failed more often than not. Rather than using a boring plastic controller, Mattel designed something that made players the controller. It was like a Wiimote for the 80s, the perfect marriage of technology and entertainment. The Power Glove didn’t just allow players to guide what was happening onscreen; it immersed players in a way the industry hadn’t seen before. That was the promise anyway.

The terrible truth is that the Power Glove was unbearably imprecise, and, worse, overly complicated to use. Even still, for its time, the technology was pretty clever—just poorly executed. Traditional NES buttons sat atop the glove’s forearm, along with buttons that could be programmed for input commands. For motion, it worked by emitting ultrasonic sound (inaudible to humans).

There were two ultrasonic speakers in the glove for transmitting, along with three ultrasonic microphones that had to be set around the TV for receiving. These were used in conjunction to calculate the yaw and roll of the hand—technology that’s being used today to different effect—allowing players to control what was onscreen.

A few games were made specifically to take advantage of the glove’s capabilities, including a beat ‘em up called Bad Street Brawler. But, by and large, Power Glove-specific games were few and far between. Couple its dreadful functionality with a limited library, and the glove essentially became a useless peripheral. Not what Mattel (or Nintendo had envisioned).

For gamers across the world, it was a devastating reminder that not all cool ideas translate into compelling products. But, man, Lucas makes it look like a million bucks, and the way The Wizard reveals it is poetry in motion. It had its own metal carrying case, for crying out loud, as if it was some historic and priceless artifact.

That’s how it’ll go down in the video game annals. As a useless (but beloved) artifact that didn’t deliver on its potential. But for one brief moment in Nintendo’s feature-length marketing blitz, it was the thing every kid across America wanted. The way Lucas wielded its power would have made the Avengers shudder in fear.

That scene with Lucas was simultaneously awe-inspiring and hilariously bad; The Wizard treated the Power Glove with holy reverence, when in reality it made you look like a huge goofball. Despite its commercial failure, the glove has become ingrained in popular culture, an enduring piece of embarrassing nostalgia.

It was supposed to be the future, but instead the Power Glove failed before it could even get started.

At least we got this gem of a scene, which is objectively and unequivocally the closest thing Hollywood has come to perfection. After displaying his Rad Racer skills, Lucas delivers his magnum opus, a line so good it should be displayed beside the Declaration of Independence. Straight-faced, 80s mane still as luscious as ever, Lucas says, “I love the Power Glove, it’s so bad.”

It was so bad, Lucas. Just not in the way you meant it.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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