Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Feature: Remembering the Virtual Boy

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If you’ve been reading this site for a while you may remember my lesson sets on home consoles known as the “Generation Gap Series” or my portable series known as “Gaming To-Go“.  In these two sets, only two consoles were unable to be categorized in either location: the 32x (which got its own feature as well) and the Virtual Boy.  Why?  Read on to find out.

By 1994, when Nintendo announced the Virtual Boy via press release, the Gameboy had lived a long and proud lifespan of 5 years.  Until recently, that was about how long each console would exist because technology would eventually become strong and cheap enough to make a new generation of consoles, so Gameboy was on its way out.  In January, 1995, when Nintendo revealed the device at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) it was met with plenty of positive responses.  It makes sense that the public had faith, the device was developed by Nintendo R&D 1 and led by Gunpei Yokoi, the father of both the Game & Watch handhelds and the Gameboy.  unfortunately marketing and explanation of the product is most likely to blame for the commercial flop that later released – Virtual Boy was neither intended to be a Gameboy replacement nor was it to be an inexpensive console.

Virtual Boy basically takes an updated graphics style of the Gameboy, converts the sepia tones to hues of red and black, and creates a 3D effect.  This is achieved through parallax, described as a displacement in the apparent position of an object by viewing it through two different lines of sight.  Basically the Virtual Boy would show the same object with altered backgrounds separately to each eye and the combined effect would trick your brain into a false sense of depth perception.  This explained how the Virtual Boy was able to create a 3D effect and also why it caused physical symptoms like a light-headed feeling after a long playtime or the inability for those with sight issues to properly see games on it.  As you can imagine, the necessity to see games in a darkened clear state and to create two individual images is why the system needed to have a continuous large power supply (ie: battery power wouldn’t be ideal) and the need for it to be set in a fixed position and location.  In order to achieve these two things you definitely couldn’t consider the unit portable.

Up until this point, Yokoi had a very clear vision of how the gaming market could achieve wide success, especially on a portable, with a few simple rules: keep it cheap, keep it small, and keep the games simple.  Look at the Gameboy – it cost $90 and came packed with Tetris, the only game you really needed, it had plenty of battery life out of two AAs, and it was made from cheap components.  No one cared that the technology wasn’t cutting edge, it was an easy sell.  This mentality has actually remained consistent with most of Nintendo’s handheld consoles to date (save the recent 3DS).  Virtual Boy did not follow any of these rules.  The dual LED display with a high refresh rate was new and expensive technology, the reason for the red display is purely because red LEDs were the cheapest.  It needed tons of power; 6 AA batteries that would only last for a few hours to be exact, and thus made the power adaptor a necessity.  It wasn’t portable – the mammoth needed ideal conditions on a flat surface to put its stand on and even had a controller that plugged in (which makes it not even a portable)!  It was expensive: $180 at retail to be specific.  And finally it was mismarketed: most people thought it was supposed to be a portable due to its namesake and the fact that the SNES was relatively new, so no one from a consumer to a retailer knew how to categorize it.

So when people ask, “Why did the Virtual Boy fail?” you can easily answer their question.  The console premiered in Japan in mid 1995 and released in North America around six months later, it never even came to European/PAL territories and was discontinued in 1996.  During that short period of time only 22 games released in Japan and 14 of them made the localized trip over here.  It only managed to sell 770,000 units worldwide, which accounts for its rarity (not to mention the games) and the even more rare find is a console with all necessary components to run it properly.  No matter how low the price dropped, I think the cheapest I saw it was $100, that pile of Virtual Boys would always remain untouched at the local Toys R Us.  Out of those games Red Alarm, Mario Tennis, and Space Invaders are the only games even worth playing and aside from Mario Tennis they carry a heavy price tag.  Even in its death, the Virtual Boy is a disappointing and expensive piece of history.

Collector’s Tips and Modern Commentary

Okay vintage game collectors, here’s the list: Virtual Boy unit, power cord, stand, and controller.  Those are the four components you’re looking for when purchasing this console nowadays, because without all of these components you’re looking at an expensive accessory purchase or some homemade rigs to get this thing working properly.  You can fetch the console (complete) itself usually for around $50-$100, but be sure to save up at least twice that amount if you want to get any decent games.  Aside from Mario Tennismost other titles will run you $25-$50 apiece, some big dogs going for more than $100 (like Space Invaders).  Also be sure to pack some motion sickness meds, because after an hour with this big red menace you’ll be seeing a water effect in your vision (at least I do).  Fortunately for the less masochistic and broke population, a cheap pair of paper 3D glasses (you know, the red/blue kind) and a PC can get you emulating this console on the cheap.  Please note that like all emulators there’s a decent chunk of legal fine print (explained in our emulation article here), but I know for a fact no developer makes any money off Virtual Boy at all.

Now to briefly pose a thought for you: is the 3DS the same as the Virtual Boy?  Clearly not.  While the two share some similarities and the argument can be made it still violates some of the classic portable Nintendo console rules, the 3DS still has everything it needs to be a portable, and successful, console.  Today we can clearly see that the software has picked up the sales of the hardware and the 3DS has already outlived the Virtual Boy.  Still, it is unfortunate this clunky lackluster console even came into fruition, if only because it drove Gunpei Yokoi from Nintendo forever.  I wonder what portable we’d be playing today if he had stayed around.

Written by Fred Rojas

June 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Features

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