Gaming Fail – Atari Mindlink

Gaming Fail – Atari Mindlink

Features, Gaming Fail, Index

Posted on Friday, November 8th, 2013 at 6:02 PM by

If you’ve been following my Gaming Fail series, in which I revisit the worst failures and daftest ideas in gaming history, you would be forgiven for thinking that Nintendo have sole possession of the domain.


Admittedly, Nintendo do seem to produce a disproportionate number of the more wacky or odd items in the industry. Now, this doesn’t by any means mean that Nintendo are in themselves a bad company. The sheer fact that they’re one of the biggest companies in the industry means their output is significantly greater than most, meaning that they’re going to have more failures. That’s just basic maths and logic. You could also argue that Nintendo also tend to push the cutting edge, always trying to discover that new innovation and that will mean they have more of the strange and unusual ideas. Indeed, the two previous entries, the Gameboy Camera and Powerglove, could to some extent be described as ideas before their time, things that were good ideas but that lacked sufficient technology at the time to be implemented effectively.

But, that sort of reasonable thinking has no place here. What we want is to look back on tech and ideas so bizarre and daft we can look back on them and laugh at their absurdity with our superior space-brains.

So, in way of a slight apology to Nintendo, today’s abhorration in question is not the product of the Nintendo labs, even though I found it hard to believe at first.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Atari Mindlink in all its glory.

The Mindlink in its natural habitat

The thing is, the Mindlink bears all the hallmarks of one of Nintendo’s brainchilds (if you’ll excuse the pun). It has that certain blend of a vaguely plausible idea, mixed with Star-Trek style futuristic concept, all married with a patently ludicrous and disappointing implementation.

Never actually unleashed upon the world, the Mindlink was a peripheral slated for the Atari 2600 by the eponymous Atari. At the time Atari were a major hardware player and modern young gamers may find this hard to believe, given the company’s modern day decline into relative obscurity, but Atari were to some extent the Sony of the early games industry. They released a number of systems and were a major player, so any hardware they were looking into was big business.

Targeted for release in 1984, the Mindlink was incredibly audacious for the time, with gaming being in its real infancy. The basic premise, as revealed by proposed advertising documents was that you could control the game with your mind, though interfacing with the console through the Mindlink device. Taking the form of a rather fetching headband worn around the head across the user’s forehead, the Mindlink was purported to transmit your mental commands to the console through a wire connecting the device to the console.

Pretty amazing and unbelievable stuff right?

Yes, well that was pretty much the problem. It was unbelievable and, as with many of the innovations that have and will grace this series, the reality proved to be somewhat less than advertised. Rather than “reading what you think”, the headband actually utilised what was grandly titled EMG technology to achieve its feedback. What this actually meant was that it used infa-red to transmit muscle movement to the computer unit.

A leaked advert for the Mindlink

That’s right! That means that the Mindlink actually meant you could play a game with your forehead!

The rationale behind this was that your thoughts caused certain muscle movement in your forehead, which were then read by the Mindlink and translated into on screen actions. What it actually meant was that users had to exaggerate their forehead and eyebrow movements to ensure they were registered by the reader. Sounds fun right?

To illustrate this, take a moment to move your eyebrow and forehead muscles. Go on, do it. Do it for, oh I don’t know, 10 seconds?

Not very comfortable is it?

Now imagine doing that for a whole gaming session. Not very appealing is it? Such were the findings of the Atari play-testers, many of whom reported getting repeated and fairly acute headaches while using the device. It’s unsurprising, then, that Atari decided that inflicting migraines upon their customer base was not the smartest move and quietly shelved the unit, along with the two games being developed for it; Bionic Breakthrough and Mind Maze.

The Atari Mindlink shares many features with Nintendo’s Powerglove. Both were ambitious projects with underwhelming technological applications which, while awesome concepts were never really going to work with the technology available. Oh, and both were uncomfortable to use, very very uncomfortable.

Atari Mindlink 3

The concept of the Mindlink was always going to be a flawed one. I personally find it hard to believe that an advertising campaign for a device that claimed it allowed you to play the game with your mind would actually be taken seriously. I know gamers are a somewhat…impressionable… group (people defend Final Fantasy XIII and Too Human for goodness sake), but surely that would be a bridge too far.

That said, it’s a bloody brilliant idea, playing a game with just your mind. Maybe I’d have bought into the idea at the time, just for the hope of being able to realise that particular dream. After all, that’s what gaming is all about; dreams. As with the Powerglove, I’m glad that the Mindlink existed, even in its aborted form. Gaming is all about escapism and about the creation of things new and exciting, about experiencing things you’ve never experienced before. In that sense, both of these products succeeded; they inspired excitement and progress, even if they were inherently flawed and anything like that should be embraced.

Though it would be nice if they didn’t inflict actual pain on people. Might be worth taking note of that one, developers… less pain, more game please…

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