In 1995, Nintendo released an unusual stereoscopic game console, Virtual Boy. It took advantage of the early 90̵7;s media hype for virtual reality, but did not deliver on its promises. Here’s what made Virtual Boy unique – and why it failed.
Virtual Boy debuted in Japan on July 21, 1995 and arrived in the United States on August 14 of that year. Retailing for $ 179.95 at launch (about $ 303 in today’s dollars), it was much more expensive than either the Game Boy or Super NES.
Judging by its name and headset-like appearance, anyone who has not used a Virtual Boy would be forgiven for believing that it was a legitimate attempt at a virtual reality console from Nintendo. But Virtual Boy was not really VR – it was just the marketing angle. Unfortunately for Nintendo, that angle created expectations that were far too high to meet at the time.
In reality, the virtual boy was more like a cunning game boy with a stereoscopic screen (meaning it could show visual depth). Its odd form factor is required with a cumbersome table stand. Unlike legitimate attempts at virtual reality, which give the illusion of being present in a virtual space, there were no strap-on headsets, motion tracking or hand-motion capture on Virtual Boy.
It was semi-portable because it was battery powered by default. It required six AA batteries, but an AC adapter was also available. Because of this, it came with a relatively low power CPU that could not deliver anything resembling the 3D, polygonal virtual world one would expect.
Instead, Virtual Boy’s game library relied heavily on traditional console-style games, with 2D sprites nodding at the system’s stereoscopic capabilities using 3D layer tricks. Most of the games can be played just fine without stereoscopic ability.
An experiment that became a Stopgap release
The whole story of the creation of Virtual Boy is complex and fascinating. It began with the invention of a relatively high-resolution, portable screen created by Massachusetts-based reflection technology. The display used a single row of red LEDs and a vibrating mirror to create the illusion of a larger screen.
Reflection directed the screen of toy and video game companies at the time. The technology finally caught the eye of Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi had previously had unorthodox success with Game Boy, the Game & Watch line and plastic toys and puzzles.
His design philosophy – which he called “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology” – thought of new uses for technology that were already widely used. The simple red LED scanning display with a deep black background fascinated Yokoi. Nintendo put him in the mood when he wanted to use it to develop a portable, headset-based console.
Unfortunately, legal liability for EMF radiation exposure, potential eye damage, or damage caused by wearing the device during a car accident prompted Nintendo to create a headset. By the time it became a “standset”, Nintendo had already invested heavily in the custom chips that retained the console’s scaled back portable features, even though it was limited to desktop use.
Meanwhile, Nintendo was also preparing its upcoming Nintendo 64 console, and it received the majority of the company’s R & D budget and attention. Yokoi was even instructed to emphasize Nintendo’s star mascot Mario on Virtual Boy to avoid potential competition with the upcoming Nintendo 64.
So why release such a strange product? According to Nintendo insiders, delays with the long-awaited Nintendo 64 would have left the company without a new product in the fall of 1995. At the same time, its competitors, Sony and Sega, had already released their PlayStation and Saturn consoles.
Nintendo’s absence in the new gaming market that is falling would have damaged its reputation and stock price. Therefore, the virtual boy was rushed into production as a stopgap product to serve as a distraction until the Nintendo 64 was ready.
The public reception for the virtual boy was still lurking and the system was selling very poorly. Nintendo pulled the plug in Japan just six months after the release and shouldered it elsewhere in 1996.
Its best game: Wario Land and Jack Bros.
Even as a market failure, Virtual Boy remains a bold experiment in trying something new. It also resulted in some new hardware, including a more convenient controller. The double directional cushions and ergonomic grip made it easy to play without having to look at your hands.
The games were not bad either. During its short life, Virtual Boy hosted only 22 games, most of which were created with fairly high production values. As we mentioned earlier, however, few of these required that the stereoscopic effect of the console be played.
As for standouts, critics generally consider Virtual Boy Wario Land and Jack Bros. to be the two best in the system. Red alarm, an exciting 3D spaceship for wireframe, remains the most impressive technical achievement. The North American package, Mario Tennis, is fun for fast sessions, but not a particularly notable edition.
Overall, Virtual Boy’s very thin but promising library may have become much more sophisticated over time. Still, limited to life at a table, it could never deliver virtual reality.
Why did it fail?
Over the past 25 years, critics have cited dozens of reasons for Virtual Boy’s market failure. These have included (but are not limited to) its only red screen, cost, cumbersome form factor (crouch-to-play), potential to cause headaches and eye strain, as well as being not graphically powerful enough, and so on.
However, Nintendo had succeeded with technically limited hardware in the past. Game Boy (1989) could only show games in a dirty, scarlet green at launch and could have been judged as a novelty. Of course, it comes with the killer app, Tetris, which quickly became a cultural watermark for mainstream gaming. It was perfect for fast games on the go.
Virtual Boy had no such killer app, and thus no real reason to exist as a distinct product. The best game on Virtual Boy, Wario Land, could easily have been made for all traditional 2D game consoles. Had the virtual boy been delivered with a must-have gaming experience, it is possible that customers would have looked beyond all disadvantages and flocked to the system.
Instead, however, Virtual Boy remains a historic novelty.
Since Virtual Boy, Nintendo has twice experimented with stereoscopic 3D gaming, first with the Nintendo 3DS 2011, and more recently with the Nintendo Labo VR kit 2019. The same as Virtual Boy required few games on the 3DS stereoscopic display to play properly. In fact, players were able to turn off the 3D feature, making it a well-executed gimmick that did not get in the way of the system’s high quality software.
The Labo VR kit placed the Nintendo Switch console in a user-weighted box that provides a low-resolution stereoscopic experience with toy-like news. But it is still not “virtual reality” at the level that some people might expect.
Other companies, such as Oculus, HTC and Valve, have entered the past decade with impressive virtual reality headsets for consumers. Msomeone consider the Oculus Quest the first practical stand-alone VR headset. It has a resolution of 1440 x 1600 compared to Virtual Boy’s 384 x 224. It also includes motion tracking and two motion tracking controllers.
So it was not until 2019 that a company could possibly provide what Yokoi wanted to do in 1995. Will Nintendo ever enter the virtual reality market with a real VR headset? The answer comes with time. Until then, however, we can look back and lift a glass to the glorious strangeness called the virtual boy.