In 1995 Nintendo became one of the first gaming companies in the world to mass produce a system geared towards virtual reality. The Virtual Boy was positioned to be a game-changer in the mid-1990s due to the technology being so new and untapped at the time. Virtual reality was a buzz word and films of the time were treating it like the next stage of human evolution, and there was a large market full of consumers eager to try out the technology for themselves. They were in for a shock.
Expectations vs. Reality
The problem is that the Nintendo Virtual Boy didn’t deliver on any of the expectations the gaming community had for the system. Kids thought that the console would be a portable VR headset that would provide graphics better than Super Nintendo or even the average computer game. Hopes were high that players would be able to have an immersive experience that would suck you into the action, but what Nintendo actually delivered was closer to the original Game Boy than any futuristic system.
The Virtual Boy was basically a set of goggles on a kickstand. The graphics and design left many fans scratching their heads as to why Nintendo would seemingly take a step back instead of releasing the next portable that would change the playing field of the gaming industry.
The biggest issue that most gamers had with the system — and the one it is still most known for — was the look of the games. When you stuck your head into a Virtual Boy, your eyes were assaulted with bright red LED graphics that after long periods of gameplay would induce headaches. According to the systems creator, the late Gunpei Yokoi:
“[W]e experimented with a color LCD screen, but the users did not see depth, they just saw double. Color graphics give people the impression that a game is high tech. But just because a game has a beautiful display does not mean that the game is fun to play. … Red uses less battery and red is easier to recognize. That is why red is used for traffic lights.”
Many Nintendo fans claim that the Virtual Boy is the worst game console ever released by the company. The opinion is somewhat justified considering the overall design and appearance. Many issues that gamers had with the fundamentals of the system included the six AA battery pack that clipped into the back of the controller that could easily snap off and require replacement. The legs that supported the headset could also easily break as well which resulted in some players creating makeshift head mounts via duct tape and bicycle helmets, something that’s hardly portable. The reality is that the Virtual Boy was just not built to last.
A flawed design can kill a system instantly, and that’s exactly what happened to the Virtual Boy. Quickly after the console hit shelves, critic and gamer reviews destroyed its reputation despite Nintendo Power’s best marketing efforts. The system that was supposed to be the next step in immersive 3D 32-bit gaming was an instant dud.
The Virtual Boy catalog has often been overlooked due to the system’s glaring flaws, but there are actually quite a few games that were surprisingly fun to play on the console. Teleroboxer is a first-person robot boxing game that features the use of both directional pads and excellent graphics that look stylish and take advantage of the 3D depth perspective. Galactic Pinball is exactly what it sounds like and includes a surprise Metroid minigame, and Wario Land still stands as one of Wario’s best games ever released, even if the bright red graphics are unbearable. And while many have forgotten this, the first game in the Mario Tennis series is Virtual Boy launch title Mario’s Tennis, which was the pack-in with the system.
The Virtual Boy’s Legacy
Even though the Virtual Boy failed to live up to the promises of “phase linear array technology” and high-resolution visual displays changing the way video games were played for the better, thankfully modern technology has finally caught up to the dream. Commercial systems like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and the PlayStation VR owe quite a bit to the Virtual Boy. Despite its flaws and terrible public reception, the Virtual Boy showed the video game industry that it could be possible to release a gaming device in the form of a semi head-mounted display. Even the modern gaming controller wouldn’t be designed the way it now is without the innovative move for the Virtual Boy controller to have dual directional pads, one for each thumb.
It would be good to see Nintendo take a stab at releasing a VR system since everyone else is so eager to get in the game. PlayStation VR was a massive hit with attendees at this year’s E3, and many are waiting for the official release date set for this October. Recent rumors have been circulating that production of the Nintendo NX may have been delayed slightly to accommodate for a VR integration. I think Nintendo VR could even the playing field in the industry and many of the company’s fans would love to play a first-person Metroid, Zelda or Mario game. There are many reasons to despise the Virtual Boy outright, but it at least showed developers how not to make a virtual reality system. Much like how the Game Boy can be considered the grandfather of the smartphone, the Virtual Boy’s legacy lives on in the VR we see today.