Many may not even know what I’m talking about, but yet this week sees the 20th anniversary of the Japanese release of the Virtual Boy. A curious console, the virtual boy was never even released in Europe, and saw its life cut painfully short being discontinued worldwide within 12 months, and declared a commercial failure with only 22 games released in total. Yet appyere we are twenty years on from its release, and there is still a lot to celebrate around this obscure hidden footnote in Nintendo’s history.
Created by the legendary Japanese designer Gunpei Yokoi, the Virtual Boy would actually be one his last contributions to Nintendo, with some arguing that the failure of the Virtual Boy was used to force him out of the company. Yet as with many Nintendo products, the Virtual Boy could be argued to have been ahead of its time, featuring now widely seen 3D technology, and ideas that are grounded in the virtual reality we are experiencing today. It also featured Nintendo’s trademark, out of the box and innovative way of thinking. A way of thinking that had brought great success to Nintendo prior, and would also give them it again through the DS and Wii. As you would expect from Nintendo, there were also some unique and highly polished experiences despite the small catalogue. These include games such as Virtual Wario Land, and the first person robotic fighter Teleroboxer
Yet as history tells, the Virtual Boy was surrounded in broken promises and failed mechanics for anyone who splashed the $180 on the dubiously portable platform. As stated, its portability factor was questionable at best. Yes it took batteries (all six AAs), but it had a plug-in controller, had an painfully short battery life, and required a stand which you really had to utilise in order to play on it. This brings us onto the next glaring design flaw that the Virtual Boy featured, body position. Many people complained of neck and back ache from prolonged periods of being hunched over, staring into the eye piece not moving. From someone who has extensively used a Virtual Boy, this very much is a thing. It also was said to cause people headaches and eye strain, again from the prolonged play, so much so that the machine actually has a built in mode that will pause the game after 15-30 minutes play.
Finally, the wire frame red and black graphics made the machine unappealing given the technological advances that had been seen at the time. Let’s not get this wrong, the Game Boy was highly successful with only black and white, but it had a long battery life, cheap price point that it had held since launch, and by this point an unparalleled catalogue of titles. Virtual Boy had none of these. In order to save money on what was already an expensive system, Nintendo tried to bring down costs by using a monochromatic display, however this was not taken well by the industry. In fact even Shigeru Miyamoto in recent years has stated:
At the time, as I was working on the Nintendo 64 system, part of me thought we should use wire frames to render 3D graphics, but I also thought that wire frame images weren’t terribly appealing.
He also went on to state that ultimately,
The Virtual Boy had two big tasks to accomplish, and it went out into the world without satisfying either one.
Nevertheless, this is meant to be a celebration, and the Virtual Boy is worth remembering, both for its legacy of good and bad, and also as one of Nintendo’s only real failings. Furthermore, in the very same interview, Miyamoto has also stated that despite its failings, the machine did give you the feeling that
This is what we can do now!
showing both how far the industry had come, and what could potentially be achieved going forward. So here’s to you Virtual Boy, happy birthday! And to anyone celebrating this day with a few games on their Virtual Boy, make sure not to strain your neck or give yourself a headache.