Nintendo Virtual Boy
Availability (NA): August 14, 1995-March 2, 1996.
Units Sold: ~770,000
Games Made: 22 (14 released in NA)
Original Price: $180
Nerd Rating: Gary Busey out of 10
“[Gamer], give me your hand. You see? No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end–the beginning.”
–“Nothing in the Dark.” The Twilight Zone.
Virtual Boy, the most downtrodden and misunderstood console this side of the Sega Saturn. At least the Saturn got to die a quiet death. Saturn was a disappointment to many. Saturn would be forgotten by most.
But Virtual Boy was a failure. Virtual Boy was a hybrid catastrophe of bad marketing, technological limitations, unchecked ambition, and business bureaucracy. Nobody wanted it–not the casual public, who were wary of its $180 price point and the melange of warnings and disclaimers found on the box and in the manual; not the hardcore crowd, who were let down by the monochrome display and the undelivered promise of Virtual Reality gaming; not the company who funded its creation, who rushed it out to retail so they could focus all their efforts on the N64; not even its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, who regarded the “final” product as a prototype that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Yokoi’s view is…sensible. The console was marketed as “portable” in the sense that it could be carried around and run on batteries, but it was awkward–indeed, nigh impossible–to play “on the go,” and the manual that came with the system advised against it anyway. Virtual Boy was an uncomfortable blur between console and handheld, asking the customer to deal with all the hangups of both and the advantages of neither.
Limited graphics, limited color palette, limited power supply–that was the state of handheld gaming in the 90s. At the same time, the Virtual Boy had little in the way of actual portability. Why use batteries when you could just as easily plug it into a wall using the AC adapter? By extension, if it was better to play it tethered to a wall socket, why not play something else that ran on AC power? Something that didn’t require a table to sit on? Something with better, full-color graphics like, say, a Super Nintendo? Or a PlayStation?
This was the common sentiment. Unable to show its 3D effects in traditional advertising, the console had to rely on positive word-of-mouth and a strong game library to boost sales. It had limited success in the latter (most of the 20 or so titles released for it are quite entertaining), and almost none of the former. We all know why–we’ve all heard the stories: neck pains from craning to peak into the display, permanent eye damage from the 3D effects, temporarily losing the ability to see red after extended play sessions (which the system discouraged), and, most commonly, headaches. The Virtual Boy would damage your eyes, melt your brains, stunt your growth, and eat your children.
The bad press, the high price, the lack of support, the awkward design, and the rise of the first generation of 3D consoles were all thorns in the system’s side. And so, less than a year after its release, the Virtual Boy died a quiet and anemic death, a sickly waif smothered in the shadow of its own ambition. As Howard Lincoln (former chairman of Nintendo of America) put it: “it just failed.”
And that’s a shame, because it’s pretty great. Don’t get me wrong, it has a lot of problems, and I sure as hell wouldn’t (and didn’t) buy one when it came out. That’s for two reasons:
1. I was three.
2. It was money better spent on any other major console on the market.
But have you ever heard the phrase, “time heals all wounds”? That applies to the Virtual Boy. For the most part its reputation has only soured with age, but the console itself has improved. Well, not improved so much as gained a quiet redemption. Its small game library, unique premise, and strange design make it an attractive showpiece for game collectors, many of whom have come to embrace it as a failed evolutionary line in Nintendo’s history. If the 3DS is Homo sapiens sapiens, the Virtual Boy is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
But enough romanticizing. What about the nitty-gritty; what about the innards, form, and function of the beast itself? Design wise, the Virtual Boy gets props for originality. The unit itself is reddish-orange and black, with gray adjustment dials on the top. Pretty much all the marketing materials and most pictures online show the unit on its stand, but the two are detachable.
The stand itself is sturdy and metal, and easily attaches to the bottom of the unit via a simple security clamp. The unit can be tilted forward and back according to user preference, and the width of the stance is adjustable, but there’s no way to adjust the height of the stand. Already that limits deployability; unless you find a way to have the unit at equal height with your eyes, you’re going to be bending down to look inside, which will give you all sorts of neck trouble. You know; assuming you use the stand.
See, I don’t use the stand. I almost never used the stand. There are two much better, much more convenient ways to use the Virtual Boy:
1. Lay the unit on the floor, tilt it slightly forward, lie down flat on your belly, and peak inside.
2. Lie on your back and place the unit directly on your head.
I recommend option 2, but neither method is perfect. They both come with their own aches and pains, and option 2 can be difficult for long sessions if you have a prominent bridge on your nose, but mild discomfort is no excuse for passing up the experience of the Virtual Boy–we’re living in a world where people wear high heels and neckties; I don’t want to hear your shit.
The Virtual Boy
is a feat of human engineering capable of creating an entire world within the confines of a tiny box sports a 32-bit RISC NEC V810 @ 20MHz with 1kb instruction cache as its main processor, along with 1Mb DRAM and 512Kb of P-SRAM. I only know what some of that means, but it still sounds cool. Anyway, most of the processing power goes to generating the two images needed to produce the system’s 3D effect.
Speaking of which, the Virtual Boy generates images using 2 LED displays (one on each side of the unit), with 200 silicon lights per display. Game software dictates the timing and activation of the lights, which generates the images. From there, the images are shot into magnifying lenses, then through a pair of spinning, oscillating mirrors, which finally fire the images–in rapidly alternating succession–into your eyes.
The images in question are at a resolution of 384×224 pixels per eye; if your VB unit is functioning properly, they will be surprisingly crisp and clear. They’re also vibrant, almost to a fault. Images aren’t necessarily too bright, but every game is going to be very, very red. That’s because the Virtual Boy’s display units were made using red LEDs, which were the cheapest to manufacture at the time. This makes me a little sad, because if the Virtual Boy had been a success, we may have eventually seen an updated model with full color and expanded graphical capabilities. Hell, maybe there’s a full-color prototype somewhere deep in the vault of Nintendo headquarters. A man can dream…
At the same time, the red-and-black display is part of the system’s charm. Unfortunately, red is a stimulating, violent, almost anxiety-inducing color, which leads me to my biggest problem with the Virtual Boy’s display: it absolutely will make you feel…odd. Surprise, surprise, right? Yeah, it’s the big joke with the Virtual Boy, I get it. However, most people just assume it’s the 3D that screws with your eyes.
I can’t speak for everyone, but the 3D never bothered me. There are two dials on the top of the unit that let you adjust the focus and inter-pupil distance of the display, and every game starts with a boot screen that allows you to calibrate the image for your particular vision. After doing that, I can easily play Virtual Boy for as long as two hours. Heck, when I did my Wario Land review, I played it for three and a half. I could certainly feel my eyes “working” harder, but I didn’t experience anything as a result of it–of the 3D, I mean.
But the color is a different story. Red is very attention-grabbing. It’s a very, very visually stimulating color, and with the Virtual Boy’s eye shield pretty much blocking the outside world from view, it’ll take its toll on your eyes. It’ll leave you feeling dazed, and that feeling persists long after you stop playing. That feeling’s not unique to the Virtual Boy, though–you’ll feel it if you sit in a pitch-black room and stare at a screen for a few hours. The difference is the Virtual Boy does it to you in a lot less time.
Once you get over the temporary inability to see red, you’ll notice the actual graphics are pretty damn good. Despite being a “3D” system, almost all games for the console use traditional sprites. The closest I’ve seen to a polygonal 3D approach is Red Alarm, which uses vector graphics. I can’t speak for every game, but Wario Land, Teleroboxer, and Mario’s Tennis all have impressive sprite work, fluid animations, and high levels of detail. I have no real way to judge the extent of the Virtual Boy’s graphical capabilities, but it’s definitely capable of some of the same advanced sprite-manipulation-wizardry you’d see on the Game Boy Advance, or SNES games made with FX-chips. Here are some screenshots to give you some idea:
Most of the 3D magic comes from parallax effects, so more often than not, games won’t be “reaching out” to you–instead, you’ll be peeking into them. I’d argue that the Virtual Boy makes better use of its 3D than most of the 3DS library, but maybe it’s because the whole experience feels more visceral. I already touched on this in my Wario Land review, but I think the Virtual Boy’s single greatest strength as a console is its eye shield. When you lean into the unit and peer through the display, you’ll have a soft, neoprene eye shield surrounding you. This shield blocks all outside light and essentially cuts off your peripheral vision. The result is that you can only see the game. Couple this with the impressive stereo speakers, and I guarantee you’ll reach a threshold in your consciousness–i.e. there will come a point where you become totally immersed in the game you’re playing. Put differently: the Virtual Boy practically forces you into a flow state.
It probably helps that the controller’s so comfy…SO LET’S TALK ABOUT IT.
If you’ve been around our site, you may have noticed the Virtual Boy was ranked at #5 on the “worst controllers” list. I had nothing to do with that article.
What I’m trying to say is I love the Virtual Boy controller. Even the list concedes that the design had a lot of potential. Depending on whom you ask, the controller either looks like a slender, elongated DualShock, a funky “M,” or the head of a giant ant. I personally think it looks like a kitten eating a bowl of hummus, but I’ve spent enough time in the psych wards to know it’s best to second-guess my perceptions.
Regardless, the Virtual Boy pad has long, grooved handles that mold perfectly to your hands. Nintendo’s signature d-pad plays double duty, with one pad on the left and right side of the controller face. Theoretically, having 2 d-pads allowed players to navigate through three-dimensional spaces with a greater degree of precision than what was possible with just one d-pad. In practice, few games had your character moving through a fully 3D space, so few games made proper use of both d-pads. Thankfully, this didn’t render one of the d-pads totally vestigial. While some games make no use of the second d-pad, games like Teleroboxer and Red Alarm use it extensively.
The controller face also sports four additional buttons. Again, there are two on each side: “Start” and Select” sit on the left, “B” and “A” sit on the right. They’re lined up diagonally, and…uh….not much else to say. They’re nice buttons. You’ll like them. They don’t bite. Really though, the layout is comfortable, symmetrical, and overall just very nice.
It’s not all perfect, though. The L and R buttons (located on the underside of the controller) are well-placed and easy to use, but their chunkiness and odd shape can be a little off-putting to people who are used to the slender buttons or analog triggers on pretty much every other controller ever made. You get used to it pretty quickly, but it’s always a little awkward to come back to after not playing for awhile. Most controllers with L/R buttons/triggers have you pushing down. With the Virtual Boy controller, your fingers are wrapped around the controller handles and pressing up. It sounds uncomfortable, but it isn’t–just weird.
Even weirder is the system’s power supply, which slides onto the underside of the controller. If you play using the AC adapter (like I do), you’re going to have a cord jutting out from the back of your controller (a la the Dreamcast controller) and a cord running into the unit. I suppose Nintendo never had a choice in the matter, but I always found it odd to have the power supply on the controller. It’s a clunky set-up, but not a broken one.
Less forgivable was the decision to have the power switch located on the controller as well. Chances are slim, but in theory you could accidentally switch the game off in the middle of a particularly intense play session. You’re not dealing with the press-and-hold conventions you see on today’s controllers–this is just a simple switch that flips with very little give. Again, this isn’t a bad design decision, just a weird one. I don’t understand why they didn’t just put the power switch on the console itself–they had no problem putting the volume dial there.
Speaking of the volume dial, I’ve always been partial to the Virtual Boy’s audio. The console has a simple stereo setup, but does a great job providing players a three-dimensional aural experience. Everything about the audio itself sounds murky and dirty, but not in a bad way. On the contrary, the distinct audio only enhances the illusion that you’re peeking into a world far removed from our own. On a sheer technical level, the Virtual Boy sounds something like a cross between a Sega Genesis and a Game Boy, with crisp “metallic” 8-bit beeps and boops interspersed with wavy, hazy synths. I’d argue the sounds are as distinct as the visuals. At the very least, the audio does its part in cutting you off from reality.
Needless to say, the Virtual Boy gets a bad rep, and on some fronts it deserves it. However, that doesn’t make it a bad system. For starters, it’s probably the most unique console ever made–both in premise and design. In some ways, it’s a console that’s gotten better with age. There’s a history and novelty to it that make it an interesting part of your collection. Recently (and I mean very recently), I’ve seen more and more people coming around to the Virtual Boy. These are people who understand why the system failed, but still find recognize it as the quintessential Nintendo console; it’s fun, engaging, innovative, and distinct. Like any Nintendo console post-SNES, people have their complaints about it, but no one can deny that it’s a unique part of gaming history, one that can’t be emulated without an exact recreation of the hardware. Maybe that’s one reason why prices for it have been going up in recent years…
I think the appeal of the Virtual Boy speaks for itself, because people are either into retro gaming or they aren’t. Like, there are only so many people who give a shit about me owning a 32x, but the Virtual Boy has never been a flop for me. Every time I’ve brought it out or shown it off at parties and get-togethers, it’s been a smashing success. People love it because there’s nothing else like it. It’d be a stretch to say it failed because it was ahead of its time, but the relative success of products like the Oculus Rift really make you wonder what would have happened had the Virtual Boy been given a bit more love and support at the time of its release. Even if it never catches the feeling of playing on the original hardware, I hope that emulators on the Oculus Rift or eShop releases on the 3DS properly introduce the Virtual Boy to a wider audience, because I’m tired of the hate it gets. It’s not that bad, people. No, really. No, really. At least it’s not the fucking R-Zone.
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