1. TV Powww! (1978)
The popularity of Microsoft’s Kinect camera/microphone gizmo for the Xbox has seen a renewed interest—using the broadest sense of the word—in voice-controlled gaming. Games as diverse as Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim now allow players to eschew the dull reliability of gamepad buttons for the exciting intermittence of voice controls. The game makers tout this as cutting-edge innovation, but rickety “talk to the game!” features have a long history. (And we’ve limited this Inventory to that history—only games prior to the current console generation.) One of the earliest examples is TV Powww!, a hack of the Fairchild Channel F console that was marketed to local TV stations for their afternoon kid shows. During a TV Powww! segment, one lucky viewer would call in to the program to play a simple 30-second game, live on the air, controlled only by their voice. In one version of the segment, the kid’s shouts of “pow!” would fire a laser at enemy spaceships; in another, it would trigger a quarterback’s pass. (In the interest of self-promotion, New York’s WPIX had the kids scream “PIX!” instead.) Reports vary as to whether the TV Powww! system actually processed voice input or it just had an assistant director hit a button every time the kids on the phone opened their yap. In either case, the TV transmission delay made it practically impossible for a TV Powww! player to rely on precise timing—the best strategy was generally to yell “Pow!” as rapidly as you could—starting a tradition of laggy voice control that endures to this day.
2. Nintendogs (Nintendo DS, 2005)
The reason sketchy voice commands are infuriating is that when you fail, you don’t know whether you did something wrong or whether the technology let you down. In that respect, the dog-ownership simulation Nintendogs does a great deal to evoke the frustrations of training a new puppy. When a real dog fails to heed your command, after all, you never know whether the pooch failed to understand you or you’re just running up against canine indifference. The thing is, Nintendogs accounts for this natural disobedience—a little stubbornness is programmed into its simulated pups. So in order for a command to take hold in the game, you have to pass three tests: The DS’ cheap microphone has to pick up your voice properly, the dog has to understand your words, and the dog has to care. If you’ve ever seen a half-deranged player repeatedly screaming “ROLL OVER!” into their Nintendo DS, this is why.
3. Seaman (Dreamcast, 1999)
The perpetual problem with characters designed to converse with the player is that the imperfections of voice recognition lead to disconnected, weird conversations. Sega’s Seaman came up with a brilliant artistic solution to this problem. Since this dadaist game is so odd to begin with, it almost doesn’t matter whether your virtual-pet man-fish understands you or not. Freed from the need for clear communication at every turn, Seaman sheds the usual frustrations of voice recognition and instead becomes a playground for experimenting with a weirdly engaging character. Seaman’s legacy hinges mostly on its weirdness, but it deserves to be remembered as a prime example of a game that succeeds by finding inspiration in its limitations.
4. N.U.D.E.@ Natural Ultra Digital Experiment (Xbox, 2003)
Nobody can accuse this Japanese Xbox game of under-promising. This “Ultra Digital Experiment” was probably something less than players might have expected, given its provocative acronym and the fact that it gives you control over a submissive female robot. Rather than place you in the shoes of a lonely pervert dude from the future, though, in N.U.D.E. you have the somewhat less salacious job of product tester. The product is the Personal Assist Secretary System—or P.A.S.S., for some reason. Using your headset, you must first teach her words like “bed” and “curtains” (in Japanese—this game never came close to American release) and then teach her basic household-assistant behavior. It’s somehow just as demeaning as the space-perv approach would have been—P.A.S.S. is essentially a humanoid woman version of the fish from Seaman—and a lot less interesting. Of course, you can just skip the training altogether. Judging by the clip above, if left to her own devices, P.A.S.S. has the secretarial approach of April Ludgate from Parks And Recreation, and isn’t that more entertaining anyway?
5. WarioWare Touched! (Nintendo DS, 2005)
Over time, Nintendo has used the WarioWare games more and more as hardware tech demos. While the Game Boy Advance’s WarioWare Twisted! felt a little gimmicky with its pre-Wii gyroscope, Touched! fully embraced its “look at what this gadget can do!” showmanship. Little more than a long tutorial in how the DS could do more than an Advance, each character-specific stage focused on a single control input: Here are a bunch of games where you tap the screen! Here are a bunch of games where you rub the screen! And so on. There was one stage that stood out, though. It introduced the new character Mike The Karaoke Robot for a series of games that exclusively used the microphone for control. Blow in a girl’s ear! Blow a pinwheel! Blow smoke! There was one game with pixel-guys walking a tightrope that would fail if the player blew at all—although the game still had free rein, apparently, to blow as much as it wanted.
6. The Legend Of Zelda (Famicom Disk System, 1986)
When Nintendo reworked its Family Computer for markets outside of Asia—rebranding it the Nintendo Entertainment System—most of the Famicom’s design was replicated for the NES. But one obscure feature didn’t make the cut. On the hardwired controllers of the original Famicom, the second player’s gamepad has a crude microphone instead of “Start” and “Select” buttons. When it debuted in Japan, The Legend Of Zelda was the rare game that actually used this vestigial bit of electronics. The game’s “Pols Voice” enemies—annoying, rabbit-looking things—could be killed by yelling into the second controller’s microphone. (Blowing into the mic would also suffice.) Subsequent versions of the game removed this feature, but somebody forgot to tell the people who translated Zelda’s manual into English: The American instruction booklet claimed that Pol’s Voice “hates loud noise,” a baffling claim given that the best way to dispatch them on the NES is a virtually silent arrow between the eyes.
7. Takeshi No Chousenjou (Famicom, 1986)
There are very few media that have failed to attract the attention of Takeshi Kitano, so when the 1980s video game boom was underway, it figures that the artist also known as Beat Takeshi would try his hand at game design. The concepts for the game were “developed” in a single meeting led by Kitano at the Taito studio, after which the Taito designers attempted to implement all of Kitano’s musings as faithfully as possible. This stream-of-consciousness development process resulted in a notoriously weird and difficult game. One representative portion is the karaoke mode, in which players are instructed to sing into the Famicom controller’s microphone. But because the microphone can’t detect pitch, the game simply monitors for noise that matches the correct beat. Even then, this karaoke mode is a pain in the ass to complete, as seen in the above segment from the Japanese TV show GameCenter CX, which features a 30-something comedian challenging himself to finish tough video games—and Takeshi No Chousenjou was featured on the very first episode. Let it never be said that Japanese TV doesn’t have a sadistic streak.
8-9. Mario Party 6 and Mario Party 7 (GameCube, 2004 and 2005)
The problem with annual iterations in a game series is that they inevitably offer diminishing returns on “innovation.” (Here’s looking at you, Guitar Hero.) In the last couple years of Mario Party on the GameCube, Nintendo knew it needed some sort of gimmick to hold players’ attention with a new home console still on the horizon. The company is never one to shy away from limited-use peripherals, so the GameCube Microphone was born. Of the few titles that supported this microphone, half were Mario Party games. Now, instead of frantically jamming the A button to run, players could shout “Faster! Faster!” and instead of pressing the A button to jump over obstacles, players could shout “Jump! Jump! JUMP! GODDAMMIT, BOO, YOU CAN FLY, JUST FLY THE HELL OVER THE… JUUUUUMP!!!”
10. Lifeline (PlayStation 2, 2004)
The dummies in horror movies would put themselves in harm’s way even if they could hear you yelling at the screen not to open that door. Still, Konami apparently thought that yelling vainly at a screen trying to turn a stupid character away from harm was a pretty slick hook for a game. This is the only explanation for the existence of Lifeline. You don’t actually play as the protagonist, hapless cocktail waitress Rio Hohenheim. Instead, you’re the survivor of a monster attack on a space station who happens to be trapped in the main control room. Using a microphone, you guide Rio through the ship’s perils by yelling at her and occasionally indulging in small talk about the usual subjects, like, you know, haunted bathrooms. Rio can understand hundreds of commands in theory, but you’d never know it. Simple commands like “dodge” go unheeded, which is bad enough in a survival situation, but even more frustrating when trying to solve simple puzzles. Then again, Lifeline might just be an elaborate exercise in sadist role-play. Some of the sentences to which Rio will respond include: “Shoot yourself,” “What’s your sign?” and “Bark like a dog.” Maybe Rio isn’t the stupid horror movie victim after all. Maybe you’re just a jerk.
11. Hey You, Pikachu! (Nintendo 64, 2000)
During Microsoft’s press conference at this year’s E3 trade show, a developer demonstrated the Kinect capabilities of Splinter Cell: Blacklist by shouting “Hey, you!” which caused a nearby soldier (“you,” presumably) to turn around. How far we’ve come! To think that 12 years ago, prior to this enlightened age, players could only shout “Hey, you!” at a cartoon monster. Naturally, Pikachu’s vocabulary went further than that. You could also instruct him to go fishing, water plants, and babysit, because getting a crappy plastic Nintendo 64 microphone to understand you isn’t enough of a chore already. The tech was so spotty, in fact, that a promotional video for the game included a 20-second interlude explaining that Pikachu doesn’t always understand you, so “it’s all about patience.” Nothing says “nonstop fun party” like speaking clearly and being patient!
12. Odama (GameCube, 2006)
Part pinball and part medieval Japanese war re-enactment, Odama has you direct samurai armies by speaking into a microphone. Unlike many other games on this list, the soldiers take commands fairly well, but that’s more a function of how few commands there are. Just a dozen or so simple instructions are at play—“move left,” “fall back,” etc.—and they’re complemented by context-specific orders like “flood the river.” The weirdness of Odama comes from your dual role as both a shouty field general and a pinball player. Odama actually means “great ball,” in this case a building-sized boulder that you bash around the battlefield, crushing defenses so your forces can advance. A Heavenly Odama will roll through your army without harming them and will conscript enemies for your side, while an Evil Odama does the opposite. The voice recognition harnesses an essential part of playing pinball—yelling at the machine when you succeed and fail.
13. Manhunt (PlayStation 2, 2003)
Rockstar’s Manhunt is known for the extreme graphic violence that led to its censorship in some countries. But the game also had a little-used feature that required a USB headset. With a microphone attached, players can use their voice to distract enemies in the game, which is a fairly common trick. The more novel wrinkle was Manhunt’s use of silence. In portions where stealth is required, you must make as little noise as possible or risk alerting foes to your presence. It’s the ultimate way around the shortfalls of voice recognition: Just have the player shut up altogether.