Was This Their Intention? To Crash my Dimension?
Nintendo as a hardware manufacturer is commonly associated with gimmickry — pairing [typically] underpowered consoles with novelty controllers or whatever other oddball peripheral have you. From the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s “Robotic Operating Buddy” to the core design of the Nintendo Switch of today, Nintendo seems as committed as ever to setting their consoles apart from the competition in non-traditional ways. And in markets where there isn’t already existing competition, Nintendo dives in headfirst and sets the standards that latecomers will have to try and follow.
In the early 90s, there was a brief boom in the field of “virtual reality” technology. Though this fad would be short-lived, with public and corporate interest beginning to wane by 1994, Nintendo had already committed to plans to bring virtual reality into the consumer living room — potentially even on the go. In mid-1995, the Nintendo Virtual Boy was released to a public whose enthusiasm for VR was already exhausted, and only for the console to be discontinued within a year’s time. The Virtual Boy remains one of Nintendo’s most notable “failures” in the games industry, if not one of the most notorious flop consoles of all time.
Most folk who follow the games industry seem to have no difficulty pointing out “what went wrong” with the Virtual Boy; making it look like its issues should’ve been obvious, and that it never stood a fighting chance. But the stories behind failed games and consoles are rarely as cut-and-dry as they are made to seem. Look, I’m not gonna tell you “what you think you know about the Virtual Boy is wrong,” or claim that the console was some sort of secret success. But over the course of this article, I am going to try my best to give the console a fair shake, demonstrate its range as a games console, and to extol some of its several virtues.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Obviously, the illusion of 3D is a tricky thing to try and convey here. In recording gameplay footage for this article, I used an emulator which rendered the Virtual Boy’s dual displays as overlapping red and cyan layers, which may presumably work if you happen to have a pair of red-cyan-filtered glasses? But I’m stereoblind to begin with, and so I’m not really the best judge of this sort of thing. That said, anaglyph 3D animated GIFs in red-cyan are available to you if you click on any of the gameplay images below.
Look For Our Quality Seal. His Name is Sparky
Nintendo were in a pretty good spot come the turn of 1990. The Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy were the respective kings of the home and handheld console markets, Mario was largely unchallenged as the most recognizable character in all of video games, and the Super Famicom to be released at the end of the year** was poised to continue their market dominance. One company that had not been quite as fortunate up to this point, however, was Reflection Technology Inc.: A startup formed by by one Allen Becker in 1986, operating out of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Becker had visions of a future where consumers would no longer be tied to bulky, power-draining portable displays when it came to doing their computing on the go. The future as he saw it would see users able to wear visor-like peripherals that would feed sharper, brighter visual feedback directly into the retina. The working name for this invention became the “Private Eye,” and the company would shortly set about pitching a prototype of their device to whichever companies they could get it in front of — presenting it primarily as a “business productivity” device. Unfortunately, the Private Eye struggled to gain tangible traction in these early years, as the few companies who initially expressed interest in the concept ultimately chose not to pursue further business relations with Reflection. Company chief scientist Benjamin Wells suggested that a major issue was that “[potential partners] failed to find a killer app for our display.” Inspiration would strike in 1990, as the “virtual reality” fad began to take hold around the globe.
One of the early companies to take advantage of the trend was the Virtuality Group, whose “Virtuality Pods” began to appear in entertainment spaces across the US and Europe. In addition to developing pods on a private basis for corporations (intended for research and training purposes), their series of consumer-grade pods would allow the public to test drive what was believed to be “the next big thing” in technological advancement. And what better way to demonstrate the capabilities of this cutting-edge hardware than to let folk play video games on it? One of the showcase titles for the public Virtuality platforms was Dactyl Nightmare — a single-map deathmatch shooter for up to four players, where the additional hazard of a flying pterodactyl would occasionally swoop in to pick up and drop players from mid-air. Though the graphics may have been primitive, the immersive quality of the perspective was impressive enough that it helped sell virtual reality as the future.
Perhaps noting the successful implementation of Virtuality’s technology as a sort of games platform – or perhaps simply empowered by the general VR boom – Reflection set about working on a new piece of software to help sell their product. Their demo was described as a “tank simulation game,” where players were given first-person perspective and the objective of shooting enemy tanks. Steve Lipsey, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, would later recount that “we played it all the time, and I’m not a video gamer.” The peripheral used to play the game utilized two Private Eyes (one per eye) and a motion tracking device, with head movement attempting to translate to in-game movement and rotation. The issue was in attempting to mitigate visual delay, as the further the feedback strayed from 1:1, the higher the risk there was for motion sickness. According to Wells, during internal testing “we were always on the ‘too slow’ side of the vomit point,” so they had that going for them at the very least.
With renewed purpose and clearer direction for the Private Eye, Reflection set about pitching their prototype to toy and video game manufacturers; including Hasbro, Mattel and Sega. However, after sampling the goods, these companies would all ultimately pass on the opportunity. Sega of America president Tom Kalinske recalled the following from his experience, with his recollections telling a different story than Wells:
“A big issue was kids got sick, threw up, or fell over when using this. We couldn’t take that chance. […] As I recall, our problem with it was it was just one color. We were already promoting Game Gear in all colors.” ~ Tom Kalinske
Just when it seemed as if making their appeal to the games industry would be another a dead end, a champion arose who would help carry the technology to mass market. That man was Gunpei Yokoi — the so-called father of the Game & Watch and Game Boy. Mr. Yokoi has achieved something like mythical status in the world of video games, and for good reason: All indications seem to point to him being a genuinely kind-hearted guy, with a brilliant mind for engineering and entertainment. Having been an employee of Nintendo since 1965, and having designed several of their most successful toys and electronics, his endorsement of a new idea was as good as gold as far as company executives were concerned.
But perhaps the best asset Gunpei had going for him (from a strictly business perspective) was his ability to do “a lot with a little” — coming up with designs for devices that could be produced on the cheap by utilizing low-cost components. The Game & Watch line, for example, relied on readily-available pocket calculator-screen technology that helped keep the price of manufacturing at a minimum. Even the Game Boy itself was an admitted technical inferiority to contemporaries in the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear, but still managed to get the better of competitors largely by virtue of being far more affordable. If anyone could find a way to utilize Reflection’s technology – and perhaps more importantly, keep it cost-efficient – it was gonna be Yokoi.
This would not be Nintendo’s first foray into the world of immersive gaming, however. They had toyed with the concept once already in ‘87, with the release of their Famicom 3D System peripheral in Japan. Utilizing active shuttering technology, players were meant to strap a powered visor onto their head, which plugged into their Famicom and synchronized the shuttering as necessary in order to produce stereoscopic 3D images in supported games. Unfortunately, there were only ever six games released which utilized this functionality — which when combined with the bulky nature of the unit, spelled disaster for it pretty much right out the gate. Though the failure of this peripheral would not dissuade Nintendo from allowing Yokoi the go-ahead on his new pet project, this past mistake likely still lingered in their minds.
Internally named “VR32” and/or “VUE” at Nintendo [and “Dragon Project” inside Reflection], development of the console hardware began in or around late 1991. Reflection would share the secrets of their display tech with manufacturer Mitsumi, who would be the ones to produce the display assemblies en masse when production went into full swing. A team of Nintendo’s own engineers would be tasked with developing the system specs and schematics. In his mind, Yokoi visualized playing with the console as a completely immersive experience; submerging players in pitch blackness, attempting to diminish the sense they were simply staring at a screen.
“The standard way to create 3D images is by using liquid crystals. However, because liquid crystals require backlighting, even in complete darkness, a couple of percentage points of the light seeps out. [But the Virtual Boy’s LED display was not subject to this.] The idea was to have it be in total darkness, so you would not feel the frame of the screen.” ~ Gunpei Yokoi
To this end, Yokoi wished to leverage head-tracking technology similar to Reflection’s prototype peripheral, in order to fully immerse players in the virtual space. This would also mean that the console would be something like a portable device, able to be worn on the heads of players and to turn and tilt with them. In this early planning stage, Yokoi even envisioned players being able to walk around freely while wearing the headset — sort of like what we now refer to as “room-scale VR.” And so mobility became the priority when it came to selecting what hardware would go inside the console, with low-wattage and small form-factor chips and processors helping to keep the device lightweight and low-power.
Needless to say, Yokoi’s vision for a fully-portable device was… well, quite frankly, it was never going to happen, and the world is a safer place for it. If you stop to think for so much as a few seconds, the risks involved with strapping on a headset that closes you off entirely from the outside world and leaving you to walk around effectively blind are staggering. Furthermore, concerns immediately made themselves apparent in regards to placing so many electronics and emissions directly in front of a players face, which eventually lead to a metal plate being implemented in order to shield users from the system’s CPU. The combination of additional weight and fear of legal liability quickly grounded the portable potential of the Virtual Boy, and lead to the infamous “bipod” design that would transform the console into a table-top device.
Further wrapping the console in red tape, Nintendo felt obligated to include a variety of health and eyesight warnings around the console and even inside of games. Despite getting a passing grade from the Schepens Eye Research Institute, and Yokoi going so far as to claim “far from being bad for your eyes, the Virtual Boy was in fact pretty good for them,” one risk had Nintendo worried: Children with developing optic systems could potentially develop lazy eye if there were any issue with vertical alignment across the dual displays. Reflection and Yokoi’s engineers worked to make sure that this wouldn’t be a possibility, but Nintendo still felt obligated to cover their asses in the legal sense; ensuring all packaging included the boilerplate health and safety warnings, and generally advising kids under the age of seven to avoid playing the system entirely. More on all this hubbub later, bubs.
By this point already, Gunpei Yokoi began to have his doubts about the project, having seen his innovative original concept stripped down to its most bare and basic. Unfortunately, it seems Nintendo had already crossed the point of no return: The financial investments in Reflection and in the custom components for the console meant that they were gonna have to try and see this thing through. Further frustrating the team were the capabilities of those custom components, which had been manufactured with portability in mind rather than raw power. Now that they were designing a home console, the hardware was woefully ill-equipped to compare against the current wave of 16-bit contemporaries. Oh wait, I’m sorry; did I just say it was competing against 16-bit consoles? Actually, it was now being made to compete against fully 3D-capable 32-bit consoles, such as the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation.
Because development dragged on well into 1994, the market was now on the verge of massive innovation, with the Virtual Boy seeming already obsolete before it had even released. Despite the Virtual Boy being advertised as / technically being a 32-bit console, it was still a console less technically capable than Nintendo’s own current home console offering in the SNES, and it’s monochromatic display came across as downright primitive. Then again, had that stopped Yokoi in the past? Did consumers dismiss the Game & Watch handhelds as being little more than novelty clocks? Had technical inferiority held back the Game Boy? The gimmick of experiencing virtual reality could still potentially sell consumers on the console, even if the graphics on display weren’t quite up to par.
… Just one more slight, teensy-weensy little issue. Nintendo was now in the process of developing another new console — the primarily polygonal-driven Nintendo 64 (then-named “Project Reality,” later named “Ultra 64”). This had a multitude of negative effects on the development of the Virtual Boy, and threatened to further derail the whole endeavor: With the Virtual Boy set to release before the N64, marketing was made to hint at the Virtual Boy again being an on-the-go device, in order not to position it as an “in-between console” (as Sega would mistakenly allow their 32X add-on to become). Internally at Nintendo, resources and attention had to be split between both projects, and it became clear very quickly that the N64 was gonna be receiving the bulk of both. But perhaps most damningly, Yokoi was given the order from company president Hiroshi Yamauchi to “de-emphasize” the presence of Mario on the system, as the company didn’t want to distract from his upcoming 3D debut.
At this point, from all you’ve read, you’d be forgiven for assuming Nintendo was deliberately trying to sabotage the poor Virtual Boy. Between stripping it of most of its intended features, practically telling young kids they shouldn’t play it, and pulling Mario out of appearing on the console save for two smaller titles, it reads almost as if Nintendo was doing everything in their power to guarantee the system’s inevitable failure. Of course, this wasn’t really the case, and Nintendo were simply doing what they deemed necessary in order to protect themselves against potential lawsuits, and to protect the integrity of their brand and IPs. It should go without saying that there’s no business sense in putting out a new game system just to intentionally sink it, and that Nintendo were committed to putting their weight behind the console launch.
The Virtual Boy would be a showcase piece at trade shows, with its debut appearance at Nintendo’s own Shoshinkai Software Exhibition event occurring in November 1994. Two months later, the Virtual Boy would be put on display for the American public at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show. This latter showing would also mark the trade show debut of Reflection’s “FaxView” product, which shared booth space with Nintendo’s offerings and seemed to consummate the companies’ working relationship. It was during [or shortly thereafter] these initial showings that Nintendo would announce its sales projections for the Virtual Boy, estimating upwards of around three million units in first-year sales. If Nintendo were lacking in confidence in their upcoming console release, they certainly weren’t showing it.
Luckily, the gaming press were there to bring on the skepticism! UK games public Edge reported on the Shoshinkai showing, contending “It’s difficult to convey just how crude Virtual Boy’s graphics are. While the technology is presumably advanced for the cost, its potential for videogames is all but invisible in the first crop of titles.” Following a showing at May 1995’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, GamePro magazine lamented what would become a major marketing hurdle for the console, noting “The Virtual Boy represents such unusual technology that almost no one can actually show you a real screen outside the actual game-system display.” Enthusiast press of the era were particularly brutal, with Game Zero Magazine contributor Michael Lambert tearing into the console as well as its marketing claims:
“My biggest beef is Nintendo trying to pass this off to the public as virtual reality. It’s not. If this is virtual reality, so is the 8-bit [Sega Master System]*** and that was in color. As a minimum, I think VR necessitates head-tracking, something the VB wasn’t designed to do.” ~ Michael Lambert, Game Zero Magazine
If you considered the reports from the gaming press to be unkind, they were nothing compared to the mainstream media’s field days discussing the “dangers” of the Virtual Boy. Despite every effort from Nintendo made to protect their console from health and safety concerns, early reports (particularly in Japanese news media) would fixate on the potential of the displays to damage players eyes. With stories of earlier players complaining of headaches, and by using Nintendo’s own warning labels against them as proof of the inherent risks, the Virtual Boy soon found itself the victim of sensationalist reporting. Perhaps stories of this nature were inevitable due to the very nature of the system, but Nintendo’s own over-caution would ironically become the primary supplier of ammo to their critics.
Between the system’s Japanese launch in July [of 1995] and the North American launch in August, Nintendo had precious little time to course-correct and try to keep the latter launch from becoming a debacle. To this end, Nintendo did something rather unexpected given their tenuous relationship with rental outlets: They partnered directly with Blockbuster to stock Virtual Boys as a rental product (with prices as low as $10 for three days), allowing consumers to effectively “try before they buy” and allow them to determine for themselves if the system was safe / comfortable for them. And with an initial retail price of $180 (roughly $290 with 2017 inflation), it was certainly in the best interest of potential customers to sample so-called “virtual reality” before buying in.
** I felt the need to specify the Japanese Super Famicom here, as the retitled Super Nintendo Entertainment System wouldn’t see release in North America until mid-1991. The rest of the world would have to wait even longer for the console to show up in their territories — arriving across the course of 1992.
*** For those who may be confused by this comparison: The Sega Master System briefly paired with a peripheral called the “SegaScope 3-D Glasses,” which allowed a small handful of games to display in shutter-assisted 3D. It was compatible with a grand total of eight games — two more than Nintendo’s Famicom 3D System. Needless to say, the accessory was something of a flop.
Tired of Losing to Your Little Sister?
Without getting too deep into the technical specifications of the Virtual Boy, it’s important to at least understand how it achieves its 3D effects. The theory behind stereoscopic imagery is that by providing two slightly different angles of the same image, and feeding one into each eye, the viewer’s brain will perceive the difference between the two images as depth, similar to how folk with typical vision determine depth and distance in their everyday life. To accomplish this, the Virtual Boy utilizes a pair of “linear arrays” — technically 1 by 224 pixel single-line displays that rapidly scan through a horizontal range of 384 pixels, in order to render a frame within the game. In other words: Instead of using something like two full-size screens inside the headset, the console uses a combination of projection and mirrors in order to scan images across the players eyes.
In order to keep costs down, and indicating perhaps the most infamous design decision of the system, the Virtual Boy only utilizes red LEDs — the cheapest available on the market. In effect, this meant that the Virtual Boy was a strictly monochrome console, only capable of displaying images in three simultaneous shades of red against pitch black. In terms of potential color range, this put the Virtual Boy on the same footing as the six-year old Game Boy display, albeit at higher resolution and with more powerful processing behind it. A combination of red, blue and green LEDs could’ve been used in combination to achieve a larger range of colors, but this of course meant that costs would have risen exorbitantly, and nullified the whole proposition of the Virtual Boy as being the cheapest of the 32-bit consoles.
While this display technique evidently helped to reduce costs and power consumption (these were, after all, Reflection’s unique selling points for the display technology), it does come with its fair share of drawbacks. For starters, the process required the internal mirrors to constantly vibrate while in use, resulting in a dull humming sound from within the device that some players might find impossible to ignore with the headset being pressed directly against their head and all. Secondly, the awkward height and positioning of the system meant most players would have to hunch their back while sitting at a table in order to line their head up with the padded goggles that comprised the viewport. This also necessitated the use of an IPD knob and focus slider in order to bring the image into alignment, which would often have to be adjusted on a per-player basis. As explained by Ocean Software developer Steve Woita: “Because the distance between the left and right eye is different for everybody, the Virtual Boy had to have a way for the user to adjust the independent spinning mirrors. The knob at the top of the device would let you adjust what you see in the same way that you adjust a pair of binoculars to visually feel comfortable for your eyes.”
There was, of course, one more major issue with the Virtual Boy’s unique display: The fear of the unknown, and the assumed risk it posed to the retina. In their continued commitment to covering their asses, Nintendo mandated that all games for the console must feature an “Automatic Pause” function, wherein the console would automatically pause gameplay every 15 minutes in order to remind players to give their eyes a break. This could be enabled / disabled during the system boot, which I imagine most players got into the routine of setting to “Off”: You want to believe most players were capable of choosing to take breaks on their own volition if and when the need arose, rather than having to deal with their system automatically and abruptly pausing for them.
Returning to the subject of processing power: As mentioned, the Virtual Boy does utilize a 32-bit CPU, which more casual consumers may have taken to mean it was a more powerful system than the 16-bit SNES. Of course, there’s more behind measuring the performance of hardware than how many bits it could push. And while the Virtual Boy did technically outrank the SNES in specifications – boasting larger memory allocations as well – it was in service of rendering two individual screens simultaneously. Remember that each image on display had to be slightly different from the other in order to facilitate the 3D effects, and that they would also have to be in complete synchronization in order to avoid harming players, which meant much of that extra power was being put towards getting the screen parity completely exact. Further stretching system resources thinner for developers, the console lacked in dedicated 3D hardware, meaning it couldn’t even stack up against the polygonal output of an SNES working in tandem with a Super FX chip-enabled cartridge.
“The strange thing about the Virtual Boy was that it was a 3D device without dedicated 3D hardware. 3D hardware acceleration was just starting to blossom at the time and required too much power to incorporate into what was essentially a portable device. So, the Virtual Boy had a standard NEC810 processor with a couple of other chips to handle rendering sprites and sound.” ~ Jason Plumb, Ocean Software
One more thing of note that may very well have put folk off of the console: Multiplayer was completely non-existent in its time, as Nintendo never got around to releasing a purported link cable accessory that would’ve enabled (quite literal) head-to-head play. Several games were initially designed with hooks in mind for multiplayer modes, but the functionality would have to either be discarded or disabled before release. A conversion of proto-competitive-FPS Faceball 2000 was among titles ultimately cancelled for the console, and I can picture the inability to include multiplayer being a major factor in that decision.**
With the potential for graphics barely rating above the Game Boy, inferior hardware to all other contemporaries, and a display liable to give you a short-order headache, were there any upsides at all to the platform? Well, if you’re looking for complete immersion in your games and briefly escaping from the outside world, the Virtual Boy can certainly assist in those regards. As Yokoi envisioned, the system does a spectacular job of plunging you into darkness, and filling your entire periphery with gameplay elements. Playing the Virtual Boy is a very isolating experience, which can serve as a selling point for some, and definitely as a scary proposition for others.
The controller for the Virtual Boy is a kind of curious thing. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way either, mind you: With two D-pads on either side, and two pairs of buttons to match plus a pair of triggers, you may quickly realize the controller is symmetrical / designed with consideration for left-handed players in mind. Across most games, the functions of the D-pads are the same on either side of the gamepad, while games that required both D-pads to be used in tandem provided the option to flip the button configuration in order to better suit player preference. The controller also serves the purpose of powering the console, being the device that would house your six AA batteries (!) or a more sensible wall power adapter.
So, now that we have an idea of what sort of hardware we’re working with here, I reckon it’s high time we take a look at some of the software on offer. With a total of twenty-two officially licensed releases to pick from, but only so much space I’m willing to allocate to this portion of the article, I relied on a fairly simple criteria for which games we’ll be covering here: Of the seven games I actually owned for the system, I picked five. Sorry Galactic Pinball and Red Alarm, and better luck next time I guess?
** In one of the strangest gimmicks to ever grace the Game Boy, Faceball 2000 had already seen release in 1991 with compatibility for a maximum of 16-player deathmatch. This involved daisy-chaining together seven “Four Player Cable” accessories with their accompanying Game Boys, making it possibly the least-accessible / most rarely played multiplayer experience in the history of games.
Mario’s Tennis (Nintendo, 1995)
As the pack-in title for the Virtual Boy, Mario’s Tennis is the de facto most “popular” title for the console. This makes sense enough strategically, since it does a fine job demonstrating the strengths of the hardware and the potential for 3D to improve on established game concepts and genres. At its core, Mario’s Tennis is little more than a Mario-themed take on the classic 1984 NES Tennis,** featuring singles and doubles play modes. Actually, you might say it’s a little less than the original Tennis, since it’s sadly lacking in a multiplayer mode. Given the relative simplicity of the game, the failure to incorporate multiplayer is actually kind of unforgivable.
All you’re effectively left with to do in the game is play no-frills tennis matches against AI opponents. You’re given a choice of seven Mario characters (each with minor stat variations in speed, power, and racket radius); including Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Toad, a Koopa, and Donkey Kong Junior. Unfortunately, Bowser doesn’t return after his playable appearance in Super Mario Kart. It’s just as well, since no character really stands out above the rest by my estimation, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for the big guy.
The 3D trickery helps you in getting into position and lining up shots, and allows the game a unique perspective. There’s certainly something to be said for the sensation of feeling like you’re just a few feet behind the court, and as if the tennis ball could be headed straight for you. That being said, the lack of extra play modes / multiplayer functionality are near-unacceptable omissions for a 1995 Nintendo release, and I have to wonder if it would’ve been better for the reputation of the hardware if they had not put out this content-lite game to begin with? When your game loses the “value proposition” argument to a decade-old NES game, it may be time to reconsider your design.
** This version of Tennis would also be released again in 1984 as a PlayChoice-10 arcade cabinet (titled Vs. Tennis) and converted for the Game Boy in 1989.
Mario Clash (Nintendo, 1995)
I’m a big fan of the original Mario Bros. arcade game. As an alternatively co-op or competitive multiplayer game, with addictive gameplay and exacting control, I contend that it’s a bit of arcade perfection. When the first Super Mario Advance came out on the Game Boy Advance, I reckon I put more time into the bonus remake of Mario Bros. than I did into the main attraction remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). Which is why I’m excited to talk about Mario Clash, which acts as a sort of iteration on the formula.
Mario Clash likely began life as a more straightforward recreation of Mario Bros. as part of the eventually-canceled, tentatively-titled “VB Mario Land.” The larger game at hand was meant to alternate between a few different styles of gameplay and perspectives; including traditional Super Mario Bros. style platforming, top-down Zelda-esque rooms, and the aforementioned arcade-inspired sections. The primary platforming bits would seem to eventually serve as the foundation for Virtual Boy Wario Land, with the Mario Bros. minigame developed into its own standalone game and made a more distinct entity.
The historic Clash House Tower (never mentioned before or since in a Mario game) is suffering from an infestation of the typical Mushroom Kingdom pests, and it’s up to Mario to exterminate them. But most of the baddies are spiky, non-stompable sorts, forcing Mario to improvise another method of knocking them out. Luckily, where there are Koopas, there are Koopa shells, and tossing them at enemies knocks them right off the precariously thin floating platforms that comprise the tower, serving as your main method for dealing with the monsters.
Taking advantage of the stereoscopic 3D, the game creates the illusion of depth, allowing you to better line up vertical shots reaching from across the foreground into the background [or vice versa]. That being said, it would absolutely be a wholly playable game without the 3D, and the novelty comes across as just that — a novelty. At least it’s not too distracting or anything. The real benefit that comes with this game being on the Virtual Boy is the wider resolution afforded by it, which gives players that much more space for positioning themselves and lining up shots and such. As such, I don’t think it’s a game that would’ve worked as well on the original Game Boy by comparison. All in all, I definitely find Mario Clash to be a ton of fun. Naturally, I still prefer the original Mario Bros., but there is definitely some merit to this Virtual Boy take on the style of game.
Teleroboxer (Nintendo, 1995)
Somehow, Teleroboxer is the only Virtual Boy game to focus solely on its first-person perspective (aside from Japanese-exclusive Innsmouth no Yakata) — arguably the most natural perspective to use when designing immersive games. As such, Teleroboxer feels like one of the few games to truly utilize the hardware to its “fullest” potential.**
Teleroboxer plays much like Punch-Out!!, with a series of boxing matches against opponents boasting unique special attacks and more-or-less obvious “tells” when their defenses are down. The key difference here is (other than the point of view) is that instead of laying out a series of ethnic stereotypes, you’re knocking the lights out of various fighting robots. Luckily, they’re all fairly unique in their designs and gimmicks, which also extends to their accompanying coaches / operators. My favorite is a kangaroo-esque opponent complete with a punching baby in their pouch, whose operator flies away with a fart when defeated. The game certainly isn’t lacking in charm.
While I must again lament the failure to provide a multiplayer mode – which certainly would’ve taken this game to a whole other level – I must say that I quite enjoyed my time with Teleroboxer. Sure, it’s a short and simple affair, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome or do anything in particular to irritate. And hey, for those who don’t get quite as much out of the game as I did, the credits allow you to pummel the portraits of the game’s developers, allowing you a way to vent whatever frustrations you may have. All that being said, I sort of can’t help but wonder why Nintendo decided against just designing this game to be another installment in the Punch-Out!! series, and potentially driving a few more sales?
** That said, the game is entirely sprite-based, featuring no polygonal / wireframe graphics and not really pushing the hardware to its limits or anything. Again, it’s the power of perspective here that gives the game it’s strength, and immerses you deeper into the game than most others for the hardware.
Virtual Boy Wario Land (Nintendo, 1995)
Filling the hole left behind by Nintendo’s decision to disassociate Mario from the console, Virtual Boy Wario Land serves as the hardware’s premier platformer, in what also seems to be generally regarded as the best title released for the Virtual Boy. I maybe wouldn’t go that far personally speaking,** but it certainly seems to boast the most content seen in a Virtual Boy release, and takes well enough advantage of the hardware to feel like it’s a justified exclusive.
In standard Wario Land fashion, gameplay involves navigating Wario through levels of platforming, using abilities granted by different types of hats in order to traverse certain obstacles or to open up hidden parts of levels, all in the pursuit of treasures and riches. As such, levels generally allow for / encourage some amount of backtracking, contrasting with the more linear nature of traditional Mario platformers. Taking advantage of the Virtual Boy, levels utilize two separate planes, with what may first appear to players as a background layer actually serving as a sort of parallel path to the foreground. You’ll come across pads that allow you to jump back and forth between the two, and this will often act as your means of progressing past otherwise impassable stretches. There’s also a variety of bonus stages and boss battles that take advantage of the depth effect to varying degrees.
All that being said, there’s nothing here that feels like it couldn’t have been re-worked for a version of the game running on the SNES or something. When I said that the game “takes advantage of the hardware,” I mean it more in the sense that its gimmicks don’t feel tacked on / like an afterthought. It feels like a game designed with the Virtual Boy’s quirks specifically in mind, and you get the sense that it’d be losing something in the translation to other hardware: A Game Boy conversion would probably have to ditch the two-plane feature on account of lack of resolution and sprite layers. An SNES version might gain color, but lose out on a widescreen aspect ratio that really suits this style of action. It’s not a game that had to be put out on the Virtual Boy, but since it is, it takes full advantage of it.
** I’d probably rate Red Alarm as my favorite game on the console.
3D Tetris (T&E Soft, 1996)
It’s established canon that Tetris is the game that put the Game Boy on the map, with it’s ostensibly simple gameplay and the ease at which it is able to be picked up and played by just about anyone, regardless of their prior familiarity with video games. It is, arguably, the “perfect” puzzle game design. But the developers behind 3D Tetris thought they had just the idea on how to make Tetris that much better: Making it unnecessarily complicated by taking it into the 3rd dimension!
3D Tetris is… shockingly awful. The standard gameplay mode has you attempting to create flat six-by-six plates made up of falling pieces, contained in a cubic shape that can handle as many as five levels. Entirely contrary to the classic tetromino philosophy though, dropping pieces can come in seemingly any variety of shapes and sizes, not to mention any odd number of bricks that can be either connected or disconnected from one another. Gone are the days of praying for an “I” shape: Now you’ll be happy just to get a tetromino that doesn’t take three or four seconds to even parse the basic form of. At least all of these awful shapes are accompanied by cute, anthropomorphized renditions of them illustrated in the bottom-left corner of the screen.
It’s not even just that the re-imagining of the Tetris formula is completely ill-advised – which it is – but the fact that the execution of this bad idea is awful as well. The camera absolutely refuses to stay still or give you any form of control over it, opting instead to tilt and rotate the cube in a predetermined animation pattern that is almost never close to ideal. The game is at least kind enough to provide you a side panel that shows each layer as a flat, top-down assembly, which is where my focus shifted to for most of my attempt at playing the game.
I’ll be completely honest: I didn’t even give the alternate “Center-Fill” or “Puzzle” modes a shot in my brief time with 3D Tetris. The failings of the primary attraction mode were enough to sufficiently depress me — not to mention, providing me with the only genuine headache I came away from the Virtual Boy with in my time spent playing it for this article! Perhaps one day, when I can muster up the courage for it, I’ll dive deeper into 3D Tetris and explore it more thoroughly for the purposes of this site. But I can say with certainty that it only took the rough hour I spent with it to understand that the average casual consumer would have no patience for this game.
Adding to the frustration, a more standardized Tetris experience exists on the Virtual Boy! V-Tetris is a perfectly serviceable little Tetris variant, putting the classic game mode up front and hiding its unique 3D mode behind an alternate “Mode-C” option. Of course, there’s a small problem: V-Tetris was a Japanese-exclusive, meaning that the international market had only 3D Tetris to suffer. Funnily enough, 3D Tetris never came out in Japan, serving as one of North America’s three exclusive releases. If only the roles here could have been reversed.
New Low Fare to the Third Dimension
In trying to follow the sales numbers for the Virtual Boy, there are two stories to tell: The system’s immediate failure in Japan, and the prolonged struggle for a place in the North American market. Japan saw the Virtual Boy failing to move more than 140,000 units by December of 1995, and subsequently being discontinued before the new year had even begun. The overwhelmingly negative coverage of the console by the media had evidently been too big a hurdle to overcome — or perhaps the public simply weren’t sold on the system’s unique selling point. After all, it was a difficult thing to convey the system’s 3D capabilities without being able to put the display directly in front of folks eyes, and having to rely solely on flat print and epileptic promotional videos.
North America proved only slightly more profitable, reaching 470,000 units sold by year’s end. But perhaps providing some small amount of optimism, it would manage somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 rentals, giving Nintendo some hope that the territory might still have some interest in the system. This would give way to a series of price drops; reducing the original $180 suggested retail price down to $160 heading into the 1995 holiday rush, before further dropping down to $100 early in May of 1996. By August of that year, Nintendo determined that there was no sense in prolonging the North American experiment, and quietly discontinued the console in that region as well. Before long, Blockbuster were apparently selling their stock of Virtual Boys at $50 a pop, though the publication responsible for that claim (Electronic Gaming Monthly) also insisted that the console link cable was still “in development” in as late as September ‘96.
Contrary to rumor and myth, Gunpei Yokoi was not forced out of Nintendo or made to shoulder the full blame for the Virtual Boy’s failure. Rather, it was company president Hiroshi Yamauchi who largely accepted responsibility in the public eye, and Yokoi’s own plan to retire from Nintendo having spent 31 years helping to shape the business. His plan all along had been to leave Nintendo and go on to start his own company — if anything, the Virtual Boy had only served to delay this inevitable end. Before leaving, Yokoi had even helped in engineering the revised model of the Game Boy Pocket, which went on to revitalize the aging product line and help continue its success moving into the 21st century.
After leaving Nintendo, Yokoi would co-found Koto Laboratory with fellow R&D1 co-worker Yoshihiro Taki. Their first orders of business involved them returning to the realm of low-cost low-power LCD games, with a design for a new handheld capable of running off of one AA battery eventually giving birth to the Bandai Wonderswan. While it’s doubtful Yokoi had any intent or interest in attempting to “out-do” his former employers, he certainly seemed poised and confident he could compete with them. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have the chance: In a tragic turn of events, Gunpei Yokoi was the victim of a vehicular collision that took his life on October 4th of 1997. At the age of 56, he had showed no signs of slowing down as a designer, and likely would’ve continued to innovate in the games industry.
Further rumors and conspiracies attempt to somehow link Yokoi’s death to the failure of the Virtual Boy, with a particularly stupid one revolving around Nintendo themselves putting a hit out on him through the yakuza, in order to stop him from divulging some unspecified secrets after leaving the company in disgrace. In reality, the Virtual Boy can only really be blamed for one casualty: Reflection Technology. Their Private Eye technology was only ever integrated into the Virtual Boy and FaxView as far as consumer products were concerned, and with both of those brands being financial flops, the Private Eye display itself could be considered a failure as well. In 1997, Reflection announced plans to release a full-color iteration of the display, but lack of interest and lack of funds would stop that dream dead in its tracks. Al Becker’s final venture would involve bringing systems for water purification to developing nations in dire need, but he would suddenly pass on October 14th of 2001 at the age of 53.
What went wrong with the Virtual Boy? While some pundits may ponder “did anything even go right for it” – blaming Nintendo entirely for its failure – I’d like to contend that they were the victims of a situation completely out of their control. Sure, a number of decidedly bad business decisions on their end may not have helped them any, but aiming to release the Virtual Boy in 1995 had already unknowingly spelled doom for the console in itself. Simply put; there was too much competition for the poor little system, and it completely failed to measure up. Oh, and that whole “virtual reality” fad that the Virtual Boy had hoped to cash in on? Yeah, that had already been on the outs for a while now, too.
Virtuality was dead as a doornail come the end of ‘95. And while there are obviously a variety of reasons for that fact, and Virtuality and the Virtual Boy were two different beasts entirely, you can still sort of point to the rise and fall of the VR pods as a measure of the public’s interest in virtual reality. The company had peaked in 1993, and soon after their arcade machines had begun to grow stale — with arcade operators finding the units difficult to maintain and exorbitantly expensive to continue to operate. Virtuality’s last hope was to find a way to bring virtual reality to the consumer living room, and they decided to do so in collaboration with Atari as a peripheral for their Jaguar range of consoles. It should almost go without saying that this plan never came to fruition, and that the Atari Jaguar will be the subject of its own article on this website in the future.
Gunpei Yokoi had reportedly once claimed “Give me one billion yen to market it, and I will launch the Virtual Boy into the stratosphere.” Yokoi may have very well been a genius of design and engineering, but apparently his ability to understand the market was not quite on the same level. He would continue to blame Nintendo’s marketing almost solely for the failure of the Virtual Boy, particularly in the Japanese market. But the problem he apparently refused to acknowledge was that the Virtual Boy, by the very nature of it’s design, was an incredibly difficult product to try and advertise. There’s really only one style of promotional campaign I could see working for the system: Something involving printing and distributing a large quantity of cheap red-cyan 3D glasses to accompany adverts presented in anaglyph 3D. Sure, it wouldn’t have fully captured the immersive nature of actually wearing and playing a Virtual Boy for yourself, but it could have done something in helping to convey the depth of the visuals.
Was there anything that could have been done to modify the console to help it possibly succeed? Other than the obvious / cost-impractical “make it full-color” suggestion, I reckon there’s a couple of things. For one, a better solution than the bipod stand would’ve helped reduce complaints of player comfort, though I for one couldn’t suggest a better alternative given the weight of the head unit. What I think I might be able to practically suggest, however, would be some sort of “video-out” port, so that bystanders could potentially watch games being played on nearby TVs. Again, something like displaying the two displays as overlapping red-cyan and providing the accompanying glasses could have given non-players an idea of what was going on behind the goggles, but even outputting a flat single-display feed would have given folk something to look at while friends and family played.
But perhaps the best thing Nintendo could’ve done for the Virtual Boy was to put out that link cable accessory, and enable that head-to-head play. A big part of what helped early virtual reality games like Dactyl Nightmare initially succeed wasn’t just the impressive nature of the VR gimmick, but the fact that you were inhabiting a virtual space with other players as well. Imagine being able to sit across from [or next to] a friend while playing with your own individual Virtual Boy systems, connected in the same game and running virtual circles around in each other in some sort of shooter. Even without the head-tracking or full depth of color to sell complete immersion in that game world, the sensation of seeing your buddy realized in a digital world would undoubtedly have proven super cool. As a matter of fact: In recent years, determined Virtual Boy enthusiasts have actually managed to restore multiplayer functionality in Mario’s Tennis, allowing for competitive and cooperative play with the use of a homemade link cable also developed by the fan community.
Those Virtual Boy homebrew developers have been up to some wild stuff in the past few years, including an incredibly elusive print-run conversion of Street Fighter II to the system under the title Hyper Fighting. Needless to say, I have not been able to experience this labor of love for myself, but from all available gameplay footage it seems totally awesome and takes great advantage of the system’s widescreen resolution and parallax layers. If a fighting game like it had ever been released in an official capacity for the Virtual Boy during its lifespan, paired with link cable functionality, it could have potentially served as a killer app for the console. Between developing their own homebrew titles and even reproducing previously-unreleased licensed games, the scene continues to demonstrate the untapped potential of the console.
Imagine all that love and enthusiasm for the Virtual Boy, even as the gaming press at large has spent the past twenty years absolutely savaging the system and routinely placing it near the top of “worst consoles of all time” lists. Honestly, I’m not sure if half the writers penning this stuff even fully understand why the console flopped, and I am definitely lead to believe that most of them have never actually played one for themselves. In a 2011 article from IGN, a writer bemoaned “the Virtual Boy’s dismal array of [software] offerings.” To which I say: Yeah, no shit, dude! They discontinued the console before it was even a year old. Why not complain about the lack of games for the Tiger Game.com while you’re at it — ignoring the fact that much like the Virtual Boy, there were plenty more planned releases for it that never came to be, due to the hardware not meeting sales expectations.
In fairness, not even Nintendo has been particularly kind to the Virtual Boy in their own retrospect. With the success of the Nintendo 3DS – a handheld which does successfully utilize 3D display technology – some expected the Virtual Boy library to make its way to that system’s Virtual Console market. When asked about the potential of the library to make its way to that e-shop, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime had only this to say: “As a consumer, I have experience with every Nintendo platform and, I think every accessory, including the Superscope, with the exception of the Virtual Boy… so it’s difficult for me to articulate a point of view back to our parent company [in Japan] why we absolutely have to have a Virtual Boy store.” Other than a small handful of wink-nods over the years, Nintendo has seemed content to largely pretend as if the console never existed in the first place, as if that will somehow rewrite their company history in the process.
It’s easy for us now to rag on the Virtual Boy as being underpowered and ill-conceived, but try and put yourself in a 1995 mindset for a minute here: Some folk really bought into this as feeling like a sneak peak at the future. Sure, even critics of the era would all be quick to tell you that the graphics were “primitive” and that the monochrome display was “unacceptable,” but critics don’t always speak for the masses. Especially in the case of consumers who may not have been able to afford to keep up with the joneses, the comparatively low fare to the third dimension may have placed the system in their strike zone, at a time when the other new consoles coming out were still too expensive. I’m not saying that the Virtual Boy could really even hang with those more expensive fifth-gen systems; I’m simply contending that some folk out there may well have been plenty happy with what they could get.
The Virtual Boy will always hold a special little place in my heart. On the one hand, it was the first games consoles to give me a sense of “buyer’s remorse,” with the eventual realization that I had bought into a system was already in the process of being discontinued when I purchased it. But my ignorance was bliss for a brief moment in time, as I genuinely enjoyed diving into the worlds of red and black that it provided. And this is coming from a consumer who couldn’t even appreciate the console’s core gimmick of 3D graphics, with my inability to properly process the effect being one of the first indicators that my eyes might not have been wired quite right.** While some of my fondness for the failed console may very well come from a place of nostalgia, I will still contend that the hardware had some level of unrealized potential.
As a final note: It should be noted that despite its market failure, the Virtual Boy still managed to spawn at least one copycat console. Yes, there was an unfortunate company who didn’t get the memo that Nintendo’s new console was doomed to flop, and rushed their own pseudo-VR games hardware to market. For all the Virtual Boy’s flaws, it doesn’t even begin to compare to how poorly-designed — how utterly ill-advised this competing console was. In fighting Nintendo’s monster, they themselves created a monster… for when you gaze long into the eye of Tiger, the R-Zone gazes also into you.