Released in 1988, the Power Pad for the Nintendo Entertainment System is greatest peripheral released for any gaming console of any generation. There, I said it. But I’m not sure if I mean it. For as much fun and nostalgia I’ve had and have with the Power Pad, it’s still mysterious to me. It’s sort of like scrapple or John Lennon’s solo career. It seems there’s still so much yet to discover about it.
Like, what was it? What were the games? And what was up with that boxed-off area near the top that warned “DO NOT JUMP IN OR NEAR THIS AREA”? What would happen if you did? Would it explode?
The Power Pad was a double-sided vinyl mat with twelve pressure-sensing buttons. It was like a Twister mat on steroids set in outer space. Back in the 1980s, it was something from the future. Then again, so was our microwave. And our dog—at least, that’s what I pretended. The Power Pad is often thought of as a predecessor to the dance mats used in gaming today, although with its roots and focus in fitness, it has a lot more in common with the Wii Fit balance board.
Despite being one of the most popular peripherals at the time, the Power Pad only had six games released in America to play on it. One of those games, the incredibly rare Stadium Events, holds the record for being the most valuable Nintendo game, selling for $41,300 in 2010, surpassing even the Nintendo World Championship cartridge.
Alongside the Power Glove and R.O.B. the Robot, the Power Pad was one of the many creative and innovative peripherals introduced for the NES. And it ought to be noted that unlike the others, the Power Pad actually worked. But while the Power Glove and R.O.B. have become infamous icons of 1980s gaming and geeky in-jokes, ironically reviewed in blogs, videos, and even featured in movies, the Power Pad has always remained under the radar. Even the eBay prices tell a story: whereas the Power Glove and R.O.B. regularly sell in the $50-$200 range, the Power Pad goes for a lousy five bucks. And except for a bunch of videos of drunken college students busting out the mat in their dorm rooms on YouTube, there’s really no comprehensive overview of Power Pad, its history, the games, or much detailed information available on the Internet.
So I’m about to take a stab at it. It is perhaps the most well-known of the NES peripherals, as well as the most fondly-remembered amongst my generation. At the height of Nintendo’s popularity, and just in time for the 1989 Christmas season, Nintendo bundled the new Power Pad along with a console, the zapper, and a cartridge with three games. “The Power Set” retailed for $149 at the time—$464 in today’s dollars.
Bear with me for a moment while I describe the moment I first saw the Power Set. Like every kid in America, I had the thing at the top of my Christmas list, written in pen formally, and not just carelessly scrawled with a stubby blue crayon. I was that serious about it. Dear Santa, I love you. You are my best friend. Please bring me a Nintendo with the Power Pad and some games. How are your reindeer? Can they fly backwards? I have been good this year.
However, good or not, my parents warned me that even Santa might have trouble bringing the Nintendo for Christmas. See, I knew there weren’t actually elves making all the toys in some workshop in the North Pole. I knew Santa was just like the rest of us, shopping at Toys ‘R Us in top secret disguise, wrestling with angry mobs over the last Nintendo on the shelf. It was the hottest toy that year. It might have been easier for Santa to arrange for the second thing on my Christmas list: a sit-down dinner with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Who would not eat me and who could talk, of course.
Sure enough, Christmas came and went without a Nintendo under the tree. Santa just couldn’t swing it. Though he certainly managed to find a couple things I didn’t want—like clothes. All that sucking up for nothing. I lied when I said I loved you, Santa. I only sort of like you.
Anyway, I didn’t need Santa. I had my father—who unbeknownst to me, had made it a hellbent mission to find a Nintendo, regularly calling all of the stores within a hundred mile radius. Then one evening, he pulled into the driveway and asked me to help him unload something from his car. He lifted the hatch and I saw the glossy blue box sitting in the trunk, and my mother, watching from the window, recalls that I began jumping up and down and ping ponging around the yard, my fists clenched in victory. This is known as the “Nintendo Freak-Out,” the strange phenomenon when a child completely loses their mind upon getting one. Oh, it’s real. Go on, Google it. I’ll wait.
The Power Pad was developed by Bandai and originally released in Japan as the Family Trainer. Later when it was released in the United States and Europe, it was briefly known as the Family Fun Fitness, until it was renamed the Power Pad once Nintendo realized the word “fitness” was no way to appeal to a generation of 1980s kids raised on Ninja Turtle pies and green Ecto-Cooler juice. And yet, I’m certain the rise of obesity in children can be directly traced to the decline of the Power Pad.
“Thank you for purchasing the new Nintendo Power Pad, the fun way for the whole family to play games with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now you can use your entire body to play and control any of the Power Pad series games, while getting a fitness workout.” – Power Pad Instruction Manual
Nintendo was brilliant in anticipating the video-games-are-creating-a-generation-of-couch-potatoes backlash. Not unlike the modern Wii Fit, the Power Pad took itself seriously as a fitness regimen and marketed it as such, reflected throughout the instruction manual, commercials and ads, as well as in the types of games that were available for playing on the mat. Indeed, of the six games, four of them had an exercising theme.
I think the Power Pad was a far superior fitness-and-gaming peripheral than the Wii Fit balance board, an idea twenty years ahead of its time. For starters, the Wii Fit is kind of pissy. From the snippy “ooh” it gives you when you first step on the board, to the brusque “that’s overweight” way it has of calling you a complete fatass, its almost as if the Wii Fit’s approach is to shame you into laying off the Little Debbies. And folks, this is way before you’ve even played a single game on the thing. Then there’s the Wii Fit’s way of passive-aggressively chiding you if you make one wrong move on the thing. Seriously, you can’t even jog on it, and you best not jump on it, or it will literally shut you down.
My point is, none of this happened with the Power Pad. The Power Pad silently took your abuse and then some. The Power Pad takes little kids thumping on it desperately trying to beat Cheetah in World Class Track Meet, drunk college kids ironically playing Dance Aerobics, and lazy fat kids slapping away at it with their fists. Which was something even the slowest kids figured out that the pad couldn’t tell the difference between feet and hands. Like I said, we were a generation raised on pudding pies and green corn syrup disguised as “juice.”
Here’s the other thing: unlike the Wii Fit, on the Power Pad you actually break a sweat. Sure, the Wii Fit has you doing cutesy yoga poses and fun pretend ski games, but the Power Pad has you jumping and pounding away all over the thing. The hurdles racing alone will have you violently gasping for breath—something, of course that I don’t remember at all as a child. And I am not an out-of-shape adult. I can run a 5k on the treadmill. I can ride a bicycle up a steep hill. I can do a chin-up. These mean nothing to that death mat.
You only risk breaking your television by hurling the Wii controller into the screen. With the Power Pad, you risked death itself.
“Persons with heart, respiratory, back and joint problems, or high blood pressure or under a physician’s direction to restrict activity should not use the Power Pad without a physician’s advice. Pregnant women should not use. Serious personal injury can result.” – Power Pad Instruction Manual
Now, let’s take a look at the games that were available for the Power Pad.
Athletic World was the first of the bunch, originally released with the Family Fun Fitness mat logo, and later re-branded for the Power Pad, making the original cartridge somewhat collectible. This game was not only the first, but it was also notable for being the only one to make use of Side A of the pad, the side with only eight buttons.
Athletic World featured five competitions to be played against the computer or another player. They were Hurdles, Hop A Log, Animal Trail, Rafting, and Dark Tunnel. Hurdles had you jumping over objects as well as ducking underneath of them by squatting down to touch the pad with your hands. Animal Trail and Rafting were similar in that you had to dodge animals and rocks by hopping to different buttons on the mat. Dark Tunnel had you jogging through a quirky 8-bit cave dodging bats.
I like this game a lot. The controls are not as forgiving as World Class Track Meet and you have to be precision-perfect with your timing. But it has a lot of fun graphical quirks, like when your player gets exhausted and keels over on the screen with X’s over the eyeballs and tongue wagging out. Did I mention this game also has a monkey wielding the starting gun at the beginning of each race?
The next game is World Class Track Meet, the most well-known of all the Power Pad games, originally packaged with the console and pad, on the 3-Pak cartridge with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. It is also the game originally released in the US as Stadium Events for Family Fun Fitness before being re-branded for the Power Pad, in which there are less than two hundred carts in existence.
I’d call World Class Track Meet a classic. This is the game and imagery you think of when you think of the Power Pad. It also made unique use of the graphics from a near-first-person point of view, with a primitive 3D effect as well. Similar to Athletic World, there are four competitions, including the 100 Meter Dash, the Long Jump, 110 Meter Hurdles, and the Triple Jump. These races can be played individually or in a tournament, either again another player or a computer player.
There were five computer players named for animals according to their speed, Turtle, Bear, Horse, Bobcat, and Cheetah. While your grandmother could probably beat Turtle on the Power Pad, beating Cheetah involved all-out effort, Olympian speed, absolute perfect precision and timing, as well as good-old-fashioned cheating by having a friend run on the mat with you.
Cheating, which I’ve mentioned twice now, is a sort of hallmark of the Power Pad. When not cheating against the computer, other methods for cheating against your friends include pushing them off the mat, making loud noises to distract them, and finally, turning off the television at the exact moment they’re about to make the long jump. It’s low, but hey, they’re about to beat your score, and total reign and domination over the Power Pad is serious business.
The next game to be released was Dance Aerobics. Dance Aerobics features a dance instructor in a pink 1980s leotard complete with ponytail and legwarmers, taking you through eight classes in which you mirror each of her steps. The most difficult aspect of this is trying to make out what that 8-bit character is doing in the first place.
This was a game geared toward seven-year-old girls who wanted to be ballerinas and middle-aged housewives who previously worked out to the 2-XL robot’s 8-track tapes. Interestingly enough, had the game required any skill, it would have beaten the rhythm game and Rock Band trend by about twenty years. Instead, the game waits patiently for you complete each step shown on the screen.
Those are the words that really describe Dance Aerobics best: gentle, reassuring patience. This is the nicest game ever. I tell you what—the Wii Fit could really stand to learn a thing or two on how to treat people from this game. Beyond that, this isn’t really even a game. There requires no skill, no thought, and not much sweat, either. If anything, it does make for a good way to test if each of your Power Pad’s buttons are registering pressure.
(Side note: There was actually a Power Pad Test Cartridge made, which was originally used by authorized Nintendo repair center technicians to diagnose issues on the pad.)
Next we had an interesting game called Street Cop, an intriguing title to be the first not to feature exercise as a theme. Instead, the game focused on finding hidden criminals, chasing after them, and arresting them. That all sounds simple and fun, but the reality is it’s one of those baffling games only Nintendo could have produced. Take, for instance, the controls for the game:
(1) Item Use
(9)(12) Item Use
(10)(11) Direction Control
I’m already exhausted from frustration and over the game, and that’s before I even put the cartridge in the slot. That’s a new record for me. Most Nintendo games take at least thirty seconds for me to want to kill them. Add to that the fact that the game is also part puzzle in which you must find hidden items in order to move forward in the game.
I’ve already come to terms with the fact I paid $12 for this one single cartridge on eBay, and I may never play it.
Then we have Super Team Games from Bandai, the company that also produced Athletic World and World Class Track Meet. At this point, the athletic competition-style games are a bit derivative. It’s more running in place and hopping. Of the similar games, Super Team Games also has the most generic and uninteresting graphics, which are flat and side-scrolling.
However, the game does have a few fun features. The game employs the crabwalk, in which you must use your hands and feet invertedly to push the buttons. Basically, whenever a crabwalk competition is busted out, you know you’re at the world’s greatest sleepover. There is also a skateboarding level, though it isn’t as fun as it sounds. And in spirit with the word “team” in the game’s title, up to six players can break into teams of three players each and play a tug of war and relay races.
Finally, we have Short Order/Eggsplode!, the only game that was made by Nintendo rather than Bandai. It’s easily the best game. It’s also finally a reprieve from the fitness games, and instead involved a bit of old-school arcade-style-gaming, which made it addictively re-playable.
It’s two mini-games on one cartridge. The first, Short Order, involves making hamburgers from memory. The game drops down the ingredients, and then you must remember the order of the ingredients by tapping the corresponding buttons. It was something like Simon, the electronic memory game.
The second game, Eggsplode, is my favorite of all the Power Pad games, which involved chickens and bombs. Basically, a bunch of evil foxes have replaced the chickens’ eggs with bombs, and you have to tap the corresponding buttons to save the chickens from exploding to their death. Awesome. The gameplay is a lot like Whac-a-Mole, only using your feet.
Short Order/Eggsplode employed the most creative use of the Power Pad, and it’s too bad that Nintendo never attempted anything beyond it, because it was the final game made for the Power Pad.
And that was it. That was the Power Pad. Except I didn’t answer that question about what would happen if you jumped in that mysterious box at the top. Probably explosions and electrocutions. Or you’d probably just risk breaking the mat. Or twisting your ankle on the hard plastic box. But that’s no fun, so let’s stick with explosion. With the Power Pad you weren’t just risking death, you were risking blowing up your entire house.
Take that, Wii Fit.