It is so strange to think that over time; nearly all innovations become commonplace fixtures. Whenever new technology comes along to shake things up for the better, the whole world marvels at the novelty, eager to own a fresh gadget (or condemn it as witchcraft). But over time, what seemed so brilliant and beneficial becomes yet another part of our everyday routine. For us gamers, the various leaps in visual technology over the last two decades are a perfect example of this sentiment. I often take for granted that the sorts of images the consoles of today can produce would blow my childhood mind to pieces. On an even more basic level, just the thought of a controller that vibrates would have been some sort of voodoo to my twelve-year old self.
In the early part of 1997, my brother and I received a promotional video from Nintendo Power. Upon this VHS tape was a laughably bad dramatization of a kidnapped Nintendo employee spilling the beans to goons from Sony and Sega about Nintendo’s next top secret project. This “classified information” was none other than Star Fox 64, the soon-to-be summer blockbuster for the Nintendo 64. After seeing plenty of screenshots for Star Fox in previous issues of Nintendo Power, my brother and I were psyched to see the game in action. The gameplay footage on the video sold us on Star Fox 64 before it was even released, but little did we know that the odd peripheral featured on the tape would change our lives far more than some vulpine pilot.
The Rumble Pack debuted alongside Star Fox 64 in this silly promo video. The captive Nintendo rep from the video bragged that the new accessory would let players “feel the game,” and the Rumble Pack would make Star Fox 64 “the coolest cinematic gaming experience out there.” He explained that if an Arwing took a hit or if you dropped a Nova Bomb on screen, the Rumble Pack would cause the controller to vibrate rapidly in the player’s hands. As we watched the Sony and Sega goons convulse in overdramatic response to the shaking controllers, my brother and I wanted so desperately to experience the Rumble Pack for ourselves. With our enthusiasm running on full steam, my brother made sure that Star Fox 64 was at the top of his birthday list.
While this all seems a bit overhyped compared to the technology of today, keep in mind, this was the first time that a player would receive force feedback through a controller. We didn’t have your fancy built-in rumble technology back in my day! At its release, Nintendo could have further drained customer pockets by selling the Rumble Pack as a separate entity, but this was new ground in the video game market, so the Big N had to tread carefully. To ensure that every player who bought Star Fox 64 would receive such an immersive experience, Nintendo bundled the little gray block in every copy of the game. This was such a smart move, since Nintendo could market the product as a sort of “two-for-one” deal, as well as a new gaming experience.
Needless to say, my brother and I were floored by the Rumble Pack. We each played through the single-player campaign of Star Fox, the two of us reacting just as foolishly as the actors from the promo video; shaking and looking at each other with slack jaws and sunned gazes. When it came time for multiplayer battles, we would flip a coin to decide who would get the Rumble Pack to start with, and each subsequent use was determined by the victor. We even set the controller down during vibration heavy cutscenes, just to watch it rumble across the ground as some enemy battle cruiser disintegrated on-screen, an entire year before Psycho Mantis was ordering players to do so in Metal Gear Solid.
Initially, this idea of shaking controllers seemed like a passing novelty; something that would only work with Star Fox 64, maybe a handful of future Nintendo 64 releases, and then we would all move on to some other hardware fad. Even with this notion, the Rumble Pack never left its controller; the first player slot had a permanent addition in our household. Other companies took notice of this technology, and sure enough, Sony was rolling out the Dual Shock controller only months later in Japan. With the debut of built-in haptic technology on the Sony Playstation, force feedback controllers were here to stay.