In 1995, Nintendo released an unusual stereoscopic game console called Virtual Boy. It capitalized on the early ’90s hype for virtual reality, but failed to deliver on any of its promises. Here’s what made the Virtual Boy unique and why it failed.
A mislabeled novelty
The Virtual Boy debuted in Japan on July 21, 1995, and arrived in the United States on August 14 of the same year. Priced at $ 179.95 at launch (roughly $ 303 in today’s dollars), it was much more expensive than the Game Boy or Super NES.
Judging by its name and headset appearance, anyone who hasn’t used a Virtual Boy would be forgiven for thinking that this was a legitimate attempt at Nintendo’s virtual reality console. However, the Virtual Boy wasn’t really virtual reality, it was just his marketing angle. Unfortunately for Nintendo, this angle created expectations far too high to be met at the time.
A Japanese advertisement for the Nintendo Virtual Boy, circa 1995. Nintendo
In reality, the Virtual Boy looked more like a Game Boy reinforced with a stereoscopic display (meaning, it might show visual depth). Its odd form factor required the use of an awkward table stand. Unlike legitimate attempts at virtual reality, which give the illusion of being present in a virtual space, there was no headset, motion tracking, or hand motion capture on the Virtual Boy.
It was semi-portable, as it was battery powered by default. Six AA batteries were needed, but an AC adapter was also available. Because of this, it came with a relatively low-power processor that was unable to deliver anything resembling the 3D polygonal virtual world one might expect.
Instead, Virtual Boy’s game library relied mostly on traditional console-style games, with 2D sprites that indicated the stereoscopic capability of the system using 3D overlay tricks. Most games could be played just fine without stereoscopic capability.
An experiment that has become a provisional version
the full story of the creation of the Virtual Boy is complex and fascinating. It all started with the invention of a relatively high-resolution portable display created by Massachusetts-based Reflection Technology. The screen used a single row of red LEDs and a vibrating mirror to create the illusion of a larger screen.
Reflection then presented the exhibition to toy and video game companies. The technology eventually caught the attention of Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi had previously achieved unorthodox successes with the Game Boy, the Game & Watch lineand plastic toys and puzzles.
His design philosophy – which he called “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology” – was to think of new uses of technology already widely used. The simple red LED scanning screen with a deep black background fascinated Yokoi. Nintendo pleased him when he wanted to use it to develop a headset-based portable console.
A screenshot of Red Alarm on the Virtual Boy. Soft T&E
Unfortunately, legal liability concerns about exposure to electromagnetic radiation, potential eye damage, or injury sustained while wearing the device in a car crash prompted Nintendo to create a headset. By the time it became a “standset,” Nintendo had already invested heavily in custom chips that retained the console’s reduced portable capabilities, although they were limited to desktop use.
Meanwhile, Nintendo was also gearing up for its next Nintendo 64 console and receiving the majority of the company’s R&D budget and attention. Yokoi has even been instructed to de-emphasize Nintendo’s star mascot Mario on the Virtual Boy to avoid potential competition with the upcoming Nintendo 64.
So why bring out such a strange product? According to Nintendo insiders, delays with the long-awaited Nintendo 64 would have left the company with no new product in the fall of 1995. Meanwhile, its competitors, Sony and Sega, had already released their PlayStation and Saturn consoles.
Nintendo’s absence from the declining new game market would have damaged its reputation and its share price. Therefore, the Virtual Boy was rushed into production as an interim product to serve as a distraction until the Nintendo 64 was ready.
However, the public reception to the Virtual Boy was lukewarm and the system sold very poorly. Nintendo pulled the plug in Japan just six months after its release, and removed it elsewhere in 1996.
His best games: Wario Land and Jack Bros.
Wario Land is widely regarded as the best Virtual Boy game. Benj Edwards
Even as a market failure, the Virtual Boy remains a daring experiment to try something new. It also resulted in new hardware, including a more comfortable controller. Dual directional pads and ergonomic grip make it easy to play without having to look at your hands.
The games weren’t bad either. During its short lifespan, the Virtual Boy hosted only 22 games, most of which were created with fairly high production values. As we mentioned before, however, few of them required playing the stereo effect of the console.
When it comes to strengths, critics generally consider Virtual Boy Wario Land and Jack Bros. like the two best in the system. Red Alarm, a captivating 3D wireframe spaceship shooter, remains the most impressive technical achievement. The North American pack-in game, Mario Tennis, is fun for quick sessions, but not a particularly notable version.
Overall, the very thin but promising Virtual Boy library could have gotten much more sophisticated over time. Yet, limited to life on a tabletop stand, it could never offer virtual reality.
Why did he fail?
An American advertisement for the Nintendo Virtual Boy, circa 1995. Nintendo
Over the past 25 years, critics have cited dozens of reasons for the Virtual Boy’s failure in the market. These include (but are not limited to) its red-only display, cost, inconvenient form factor (crouch to play), the potential to cause headaches and eye strain, as well as not be graphically powerful enough, etc. .
However, Nintendo had already succeeded with technologically limited hardware. The Game Boy (1989) could only display games in a light green stain at launch and could have been doomed as a novelty. Of course, it came with the killer app, Tetris, which quickly became a cultural watermark for mainstream games. It was perfect for quick games on the go.
Virtual Boy did not have such a killer app, and therefore, no real reason to exist as a separate product. The best game on Virtual Boy, Wario Land, could easily have been designed for any traditional 2D game console. If Virtual Boy had come with a must-have gaming experience, it’s possible that customers looked past all the cons and rushed to the system.
Instead, the Virtual Boy remains a historic novelty.
Since the Virtual Boy, Nintendo has experimented with stereoscopic 3D gaming twice, first with the Nintendo 3DS in 2011, and more recently with the Nintendo Labo VR Kit in 2019. As with the Virtual Boy, few games on the 3DS required a stereoscopic display to play properly. In fact, gamers could turn off the 3D feature, making it a well-executed gadget that didn’t hamper the high-quality software of the system.
The Labo VR Kit placed the Nintendo Switch console in a user-folded cardboard contraption that provides a low-resolution stereoscopic experience with a toy-like novelty. However, it is still not “virtual reality” at the level some might expect.
Other companies, like Oculus, HTC, and Valve, have stepped in over the past decade with awesome virtual reality headsets for consumers. Mconsider everything ee Oculus Quest the first practical stand-alone VR headset. It has a resolution of 1440 x 1600, compared to the Virtual Boy’s 384 x 224. It also includes motion tracking and two manual motion tracking controllers.
So it wasn’t until 2019 that a company was able to deliver what Yokoi wanted to do in 1995. Will Nintendo ever enter the virtual reality market with a real VR headset? Only time will tell. Until then, however, we can look back and raise a glass to the glorious oddity known as Virtual Boy.