Nintendo has always been credited (rightfully, in my opinion) with coming up with new and innovative things that change the way we play video games. Most times, these electronic wonders are extremely successful, like the Wii and DS have clearly shown us. In other rare instances, we get the Virtual Boy. Do you see what all three of those devices have in common? In some form or another, the creative minds at Nintendo always have one major thing in mind when they come up with a new piece of hardware: They want to tear down the wall that separates the player and the game just a little bit more each time. Who would have thought that simply causing the controller to shake on its own would be the start of what was probably one of the biggest innovations in gaming history?
The Rumble Pak was unleashed on the unsuspecting public when it was packed in with Star Fox 64
for the Nintendo 64 in 1997. The little gray box's purpose was actually fairly elementary: Whenever your ship got hit, the controller would vibrate, simulating the feeling of the crash. It was a simple concept, and it added something that no one had really seen before, but it was by no means necessary to enjoy the game. The rudimentary feeling of the accessory was short-lived, however, because one short year later, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
showed us exactly how cool a little rumble could be. The Stone of Agony, an ironically Rumble Pak-shaped item in the game, allowed you to optionally feel a small vibration whenever you moved Link in the general vicinity of an invisible secret. No button input was necessary; All you had to do was play the game as normal and actually feel
the secrets as you found them. To this day, I still think that specific use was one of the best ways to show how subtle changes in a controller could improve the interactive experience that video games were already providing.
It was history in the making.
Fast forward to every system that was released after the N64. With the exception of the Dreamcast (which also got its own external Jump Pack), every console had controllers that had rumble capabilities built in from the get-go. (The PS3, as we all know, didn't come with rumble in the Sixaxis to begin with, and look at how much people complained about that.) Even a handful of Game Boy and DS games were given the rumble feature, and PC controllers with rumble are the norm now. This technology eventually expanded into gaming chairs where the seats rumble, and even wearable vests that provide force feedback throughout the entire body. The original Rumble Pak really did change how games were/are played, and I can't think of a single person who doesn't
expect a rumbling controller nowadays. But why? Why
did something so simple become a gaming staple?
The answer is simple: The Rumble Pak and similar technologies were quickly applied in much more creative ways. One of my favorites is present in almost every modern horror game, where your controller rumbles slightly to simulate a heartbeat when your character is scared or out of breath. It's the most subtle, barely noticeable feeling, but it pulls me into the game in ways I never could have experienced before. The controller's rumble while playing tense games like Heavy Rain
or Silent Hill
actually makes my own heart beat faster, intensifying the nervous feeling that those games try so hard to provide in the first place.
Another good example of how rumble adds an extra layer of realism is how it can make you feel like you're actually holding a powerful weapon. Dead Space
is a great way to experience this by using the Contact Beam, arguably the most powerful weapon in the game. This gun charges a laser and fires only when you release the trigger. While you're charging the gun, the controller rumbles, and continues to rumble while you're aiming. When you let go and take the shot, an extra burst of rumble fills your hands, and you can actually feel the amount of force you just fired across the room. Can you imagine playing games like Gears of War
or Call of Duty
without that feeling of your gun's feedback? It just wouldn't be the same anymore -- It's become such an integrated part of the gaming experience as a whole that it would feel awkward to not
have that extra connection with what's happening on the screen.
My favorite example of rumble that I've ever encountered, however, is in a game that I believe was largely overlooked by the gaming community: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins
on the Wii. In the game, your main character has the ability to focus on an enemy with intense concentration, blocking out everything around that one foe. As you focus on him, the Wii Remote becomes an extension of your senses, with the speaker allowing you to hear what your adversary is saying to himself, which would be otherwise inaudible. As you wait in silence, your opponent will often move toward you, and that's when the Remote vibrates ever so slightly with each step your enemy takes. The faster or harder he steps, the higher the speed and intensity of the vibration, just as long as you make sure your ninja stays focused. Since the Tenchu
series is based almost completely around stealth, being able to have this connection with your enemies is crucial, and I can't imagine playing the game without it. In fact, I've tried the PSP version, and it's just not the same as actually feeling the people around you get closer and closer, completely oblivious of the fate that awaits them.
Even after all these years, I'm still shocked that something so simple changed how we experience video games by such a huge degree. What started as an accessory to fill the hole in the back of the N64 controller became a gaming standard, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The Rumble Pak is just one more way the barrier between gamers and their games is thinning, and helping us to become that much closer to stepping into the shoes of the characters we all love so much.
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