Games | NES | The NES Power Set

Article by Nich Maragos? | August 24, 2010

Everybody who’s owned an NES has played Super Mario Bros., the defining game of the system. And enough others had the SMB/Duck Hunt pack-in, along with the Zapper peripheral, that you can walk into a room of people in their late 20s/early 30s and cause forehead veins to pop by mentioning the treacherous hunting dog. Not quite so many, however, are NEStalgic for the Action Set, the most feature-packed iteration of the Nintendo Entertainment System ever put on the market.

In addition to the Control Deck, a standard controller, and the Zapper, you also got the Power Pad and a triple game cartridge that took advantage of all three peripherals: Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet. The first two are exhaustively covered elsewhere in this volume, so let’s take a closer look at World Class Track Meet and the Power Pad.

The Power Pad was a pretty innovative piece of hardware, when you get down to it, predating Dance Dance Revolution by 10 years. It was composed of two sheets of plastic sandwiching twelve pressure sensors in three rows of four. There are two “sides” to the Power Pad: Side A had two red circles in the middle, each flanked by three blue circles, while Side B had a colored circle over all 12 sensors, forming two halves of red and blue.

Although you’d think Side A was meant to see the most use, in practice most every game was played with Side B. World Class Track Meet, one of the very few NES titles ever to support the Power Pad, used Side B for all three of its events. There was the 100-Meter Dash, where you stood on two of the circles and ran in place; the 100-Meter Hurdles, where you did the same but jumped periodically to avoid crashing into the hurdles; the Long Jump, where you’d run in place and then jump as high as you could before coming back down to the pad; and the Triple Jump, which is self-explanatory.

Despite its novelty, the Power Pad never caught on. Apart from the pack-in game World Class Track Meet (Nintendo never sold the Power Pad separately), there was only one more athletic compilation released in America, as well as the odd police chase game Street Cop and the minigame compilation Short Order/Eggsplode! It didn’t fare much better in Japan, either, with a scant 11 releases to its credit.

One reason for this might be that it was pretty easy to cheat at Power Pad games. My sister and I had few scruples when it came to both the peripheral-centric games that came with our very first video game system. We’d shamelessly shoot point blank from about a foot away from the TV in Duck Hunt, and abuse several tricks to achieve ludicrous records in World Class Track Meet. The games were designed to be played with your feet, but the pressure sensors of course had no way to discern between the cadence of running footsteps and playing the Power Pad like a bongo with your hands. With methods like these, even the cheetah opponent in the game might as well have been a three-toed sloth.

Even better was the exploit used for the Long Jump and Triple Jump. When it came time for the big jump in both events, the game was only measuring the time you weren’t on the Pad to translate into the distance jumped. So if you jumped clear off the pad, waited a few seconds (or more than a few, if you were in a goofy mood), and then jumped back on, you could clear distances of over 100 meters in a single bound.

The Power Pad was originally developed by Bandai—it even released the peripheral here as the Family Trainer along with Family Fitness, which are some of the rarest finds on the market for NES collectors -- but Nintendo quickly licensed the device and game from Bandai and rebranded them for its own purposes in America. The resulting Power Set was surely born partially from Nintendo’s determination to brand the NES as something other than “video games,” in which light the Power Pad is another approach from the same line as the R.O.B.

But the Power Set, with its inclusion of peripherals that challenged the already-traditional input method of the standard gamepad, can also be seen as a very early precursor to the Wii in its attempt to show mainstream consumers how easy it was to play a videogame. If you can shoot a gun, Nintendo’s implied message went, or run on a treadmill, you can play a game! Except in the modern day they’ve made it much harder to cheat on the Wii, which is a pity: I’d love to figure out an exploit to make me weigh 30-40 pounds lighter simply by stepping off the Balance Board.

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