When it comes to disability focused video game controllers, a lot of focus has, understandably, been on Microsoft these past few years. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a modular, mass produced controller that allows players to connect a series of third and first party peripherals to customise their gaming setup, and has made gaming more affordable and accessible to a wide number of disabled gamers.
However, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is far from the first ever disability focused controller officially produced for a games console. Today, we’re going to take a dive back in time, and take a look at one of video gaming’s earliest examples of a disability focused controller, as well as what it tells us about gaming today.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to look at Nintendo’s first and only disability focused controller, as well as spend some time comparing the Nintendo that created it with the Nintendo of today.
So, the year is 1989, and the SNES is just around the corner. The NES has been available in the United States for around four years, but will continue to be popular for at least a few years into the next generation.
In the spring of 1989, Nintendo released the imaginatively titled Hands Free, a controller for the NES that was designed to be played, as you might imagine, hands free. The intention was that quadraplegic people would be able to play video games, using their mouth as the primary means of input.
The controller featured a large body section, which sat on the player’s chest, and was held in place by a strap around the back of the neck. The chest section then featured an adjustable arm, with a long stick pointed toward the player’s chin, as well as a long flexible tube.
The idea behind the Hands Free was that players could use their mouth or tongue to move around a stick, in order to simulate D-Pad inputs, and the A and B buttons were controlled by sucking or blowing on a small pipe built into the controller. If you wanted to hit start or select, you would blow or suck on the controller more forcefully. Players could adjust the amount of force needed to register inputs, but were otherwise limited to the provided default input options.
The Hands Free sold at the time for around $120, which adjusted for inflation is equivalent to around $250 today, and could be bought from Nintendo as part of a bundle with an NES. The controller had a few limitations, you couldn’t for example execute simultaneous A and B button inputs, or play light gun games, but it largely did what it aimed to, made games playable by users without use of their hands.
The history of the Nintendo Hands Free Controller is actually really interesting, and bares a lot of comparisons to Microsoft’s approach to developing the Xbox Adaptive controller. Where Microsoft partnered with charities including Special Effect to develop the Adaptive Controller, and ensure it met the needs of disabled players, Nintendo developed the Hands Free controller in conjunction with Seattle Children’s Hospital, where the controller was prototyped and developed with the help of several disabled children and their physical therapists.
Early coverage of the controller focused on a story of a young girl who loved Nintendo games who was involved in a car accident and lost the use of her hands. The story goes that her mother contacted Nintendo, asking if they had any products that could help her keep playing, and at the same time Nintendo had a prototype of the Hands Free Controller in the works, which they soon announced.
The controller was only available through Nintendo Customer Service, meaning that they’re very hard to find items these days second hand. Nintendo also reportedly sold the controller at cost, specifically discussing in its marketing that it was a non profit item.
Now, what I find really fascinating, and a little bit depressing, about researching this story, is that Nintendo never made another disability focused controller after the NES Hands Free Controller. Nintendo seemed to be totally on the right track with the controller, they worked with disabled players to create a controller that matched their needs, and sold it at cost because they knew that helping get disabled gamers involved was important for its own sake, and not as an avenue for profit. So, why did one of the first gaming companies to make a disability focused controller for their console do it once and then stop? We don’t know for certain, but a solid guess would be the increase in input complexity.
Looking back at the NES Hands Free Controller, it’s important to note that it was developed for the NES by Nintendo of America as a post release peripheral, and not the company’s Japanese division. Nintendo in Japan didn’t have anything to do with the creation of the controller, and considering how close it was released to the launch of the SNES, it’s highly likely that it was not a consideration when developing their next system.
When we compare the base NES and SNES controllers, the key difference is clear, additional buttons. The SNES features two additional face buttons, as well as two shoulder buttons. Put simply, it would have been more difficult to map those additional buttons to a sip and puff style controller. The Hands Free Controller would have needed some fundamental redesigning to work for the SNES, and it seems Nintendo simply didn’t tackle that additional challenge.
Over the years, Nintendo’s control schemes have only become more complex, as have those of their competitors, with the addition of dual analogue sticks and triggers. While Microsoft has risen to the challenge of making modern complex controls accessible to disabled players, Nintendo has seemingly disregarded that particular part of its past, in favour of prioritising control innovation over accessibility.
Modern Nintendo games in many cases feature motion controls as a mandated part of play, with no alternative control options for disabled players seemingly without reason. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee for example allow players in handheld mode to use an analogue stick and buttons to throw the Pokéball, but arbitrarily require motion controls when the Nintendo Switch is docked for example. While it is possible to trick an Xbox Adaptive Controller into working on the Switch, as long as Nintendo puts mandatory motion controls into their games, we’re unlikely to ever see true accessible controller support officially from Nintendo on the system, as motion controls are difficult to emulate without using motion.
Somehow, over the last 30 years, Nintendo has gone from being a forward thinking example of helping make sure disabled players can play console games, to a company whose consoles are often considered the least physically accessible for disabled players to play.
Nintendo, once upon a time you really seemed to care about helping disabled players stay involved in gaming. I’d love to see you remember your own history, and maybe some day in the future return to making games, and controllers, that allow a wider variety of people to play your games.