Looking Back at the Virtual Boy

 

Gunpei Yokoi had the golden touch. In three decades with Nintendo he worked on classics such as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Kid Icarus and Metroid; games which came to define the Kyoto based company and ensured global success. Yokoi was also an accomplished inventor, creating the Game & Watch which would go on to sell over 43 million units worldwide (this, and all subsequent figures are taken from Wikipedia).

Legend has it that in 1979, whilst riding the Bullet Train, he took note of a businessman amusing himself by playing with an LCD calculator. This chance encounter was the genesis of the Game & Watch, as Yokoi went about designing a handheld game ideal for killing time and saving salarymen from having to spell BOOBLESS on a calculator to keep themselves amused.

From the Game & Watch was born another of Yokoi’s inventions – the Nintendo Game Boy – one of the most influential and best-selling consoles of all time. Released in 1989, the 8-bit handheld was a phenomenon, outselling and outliving a number of technically superior products. Between the original model and the later Game Boy Colour, it shifted almost 120 million units worldwide.

Gunpei Yokoi would leave Nintendo in 1996. Moving to Bandai, he developed the WonderSwan – a Japan only handheld – but he was tragically killed in a car accident a year later, aged 56. He left an unmatched legacy of innovation and flair for designing products with mass appeal. While the Game Boy may have been the most memorable of his creations, his final contribution at Nintendo, The Virtual Boy, would prove disastrous; and became the biggest failure in their illustrious history.

The first gaming console capable of 3D graphics “straight out of the box”, the Virtual Boy was a portable in only the very loosest sense of the word. Consisting of a head-set, stand and controller, it required a flat surface to play comfortably and leaves the player oblivious to what is going on in their peripheries. The VB was most definitely not designed for playing on the train.

The VB achieved its 3D effect with a distinctive palette of monochromatic reds, after it was discovered that full colour visuals would create a double-vision effect, as opposed to a sensation of depth. Powered by six AAA batteries, it was as ugly as it was unwieldy, sharing none of the ergonomic design of the Game Boy.

Gunpei Yokoi

Unveiled in November 1994, it tapped into the Virtual Reality craze – one that would be rather short lived – and generated a great deal of interest from consumers unsure of how the 3D effect would be displayed. Japanese gamers discovered for themselves on July 21 1995 for the sum of ¥15,000, and America would get it three weeks later, priced at $180. Mario’s Tennis, Red Alarm, Galactic Pinball and Teleroboxer constituted a decent launch selection, but it would be slim pickings the rest of the way for VB owners.

Due to its short lifespan and Nintendo’s reluctance to support third party development for fear of a dip in software quality, only 22 individual games were ever released (Japan had the choice of 19 titles, North America 14), making it one of the most under-supported platforms in gaming history. 3D Tetris proved to be the system’s swansong, and Virtual Boy Wario Land is widely regarded as the high watermark for the failed piece of kit.

It was an unequivocal flop, shipping only 800,000 units worldwide before being discontinued in Japan within a year of release. Units were reportedly available for as little as ¥980 once the VB had been officially discontinued, which is surprising considering its current status as an expensive collector’s item.

The VB’s failure cannot be narrowed down to one single cause, but rather a number of factors which had it doomed from the word go. Consumers were unconvinced by the 3D effect, something which couldn’t be conveyed through screenshots. This remains a problem sixteen years later, as the 3DS struggles to get off the ground. Without trying the VB first hand, potential customers couldn’t experience the revolutionary display, and magazine screenshots conveyed only simple, red and black monochromatic images which were a disservice to the product.

With the coming of the fifth generation, and the impressive leap in visuals offered by the Saturn and PlayStation, the high retail price of the VB was not palatable. Due to its clumsy, unportable design, the VB was compared not to its true portable competitors, as Nintendo had intended, but to the new era of home consoles instead. That was not a battle Nintendo could win, nor one it wished to fight.

Rumours circulated that the VB had a detrimental effect on long-term vision and that it could cause epileptic fits. Though these claims were largely false, Nintendo couldn’t deny that users were complaining of headaches and eye strain after extended sessions, and their own health warnings perpetuated the belief that the VB was dangerous. After every 15-30 minutes of play, a menu appears on-screen asking the player if they would like to take a break. Game and console manuals were littered with alarming health warnings, such as the following:

“This product MUST NOT be used by children under the age of seven years. Artificial stereo vision displays may not be safe for such children and may cause serious, permanent damage to their vision”

“Failure to follow all instructions could injure you and cause serious damage to your vision or hearing”

These statements didn’t imbue consumers with confidence and it is difficult to comprehend why such a product, largely aimed at children, would be considered fit for release. I own a Virtual Boy and can attest that, on the few occasions that I have played it for more than 10 minutes, I have been left feeling slightly nauseous, with a red, goggle-shaped imprint left around the eyes!

Trust me, this is 3D

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the VB was clearly destined for failure and one must wonder why Nintendo, a company with a track record of quality products, would have released it in the first place and how, more specifically, a Yokoi project could be so spectacularly flawed. It has been suggested by some, including David Sheff in Game Over, that Yokoi never expected the console to be released in its present form and was pressed into finishing it prematurely, so that Nintendo could focus on the Nintendo 64 and its forthcoming battle with SEGA and Sony.

Yokoi left Nintendo soon after. Some claim he was forced out, his reputation tarnished by the colossal failure, whereas others are adamant that it was always his intention to depart Nintendo once the development of the VB was complete. Whatever the case, it was a sad end to a very profitable relationship and the end of an era for both the inventor and for Nintendo, who would continue to lose market share until hitting back with the Wii a decade later. It would tragically be Yokoi’s last major contribution to the industry he worked so hard to champion.

The VB is a strange piece of kit. The idea of a dedicated, 3D console was a novel one and is being explored again this generation with the 3DS, which has thus far been met with consumer apathy. There was, and continues to be, a certain amount of indifference to 3D gaming, and no matter how well the Virtual Boy had been designed, it would still likely have failed.

The simplistic visuals of the Game Boy were less of a hurdle than those of the VB, as they were outweighed by the quality of the software and the compact nature and low cost of the hardware. Afforded none of these luxuries, the VB’s primitive looking graphics made it appear antiquated at the start of the fifth generation, and not the first step towards the future of gaming as Nintendo had hoped.

If the future of gaming lies in true 3D (consider me sceptical), then we may come to look at the VB in a more favourable light; a forward looking console that went all in with the 3D fad when previous consoles had only dared dabble. But that would ignore the simple fact that it was, and remains, a badly designed and ill-conceived mistake by a company and creator who had rarely put a foot wrong. Still, it does make for an interesting conversation piece, collecting dust on my living room shelves.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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