Virtual Boy did nothing well. Forget its paltry library of game ideas so half-baked they would make the Atari Jaguar line-up look ready for canonization. Forget the fact that it looked like a bad prop off of Square One Television. (The bad guy would force you to wear it in “the virtual zone” and the only method of escape would be to solve math problems.) When it hit toy stores with a drowning plop in 1995, Virtual Boy distinguished itself by being the single most uncomfortable gaming device on Earth. Pictures don’t do it justice. Trying to casually lean into the hard-edged foam that lines the heavy, awkward visor is unpleasant if it’s on a flat surface, but playing was downright impossible if you tried using it in a car, as Nintendo suggested you could when selling it as a portable system like the Game Boy.
The only way to play Virtual Boy for any length of time is lying flat on your back with the visor laying on your face and its flimsy stand propped on your chest. Then you just had to hope Teleroboxer didn’t give you eyestrain and nausea-inducing headaches. Outside of kitsch value and the zealous fandom Nintendo inspires, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to play the damn thing 20 years after the fact. When you do, though, there is something unmistakably alluring about Nintendo’s biggest failure. As with a curious stench you can’t stop sniffing, the Virtual Boy is hard to ignore because of how it embodies some of Nintendo’s best qualities. It’s also easy to see how its limited catalog hid some intriguing, forward-thinking ideas about how to make games.
The promise of virtual-reality video games is closer than ever thanks to gear like Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus. Strapping on an HTC Vive isn’t quite bringing us into Snowcrash territory, but today’s larval VR games are eerily close to their fictional ancestors from that time. Given Nintendo’s then-unbroken winning streak of making gaming technology that seemed high-end but was affordable and approachable, it’s not hard to see why they wanted so badly to trade on that promise.
The visor’s industrial design and name were inherently misleading, which is in many ways the root of its failure. Virtual Boy was never trying to be a virtual reality device. It was trying to introduce a novelty that kept with the ethos of affordability and approachability that made the NES and Game Boy into phenomena. Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, a Nintendo all-star who cut his teeth on ’70s toys and went on to make the Game & Watch and Game Boy, the machine was made to serve seemingly opposed purposes. Virtual Boy was supposed to be cheap but also technologically advanced in a way that competitors like Sega and the upstart Sony would have trouble imitating.
So it had a 32-bit processor similar to the ones in new challengers like the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, but it was pushing out imagery with perceivable depth. That’s also why everything was in black and red. Color graphics would produce an unstable image, according to Nintendo, but red LEDs also happened to be the cheapest hardware available. And the 3-D effect itself is a low-tech trick. The Nintendo 3DS, for example, renders two images simultaneously, using what’s called a parallax barrier to create a three-dimensional image. Meanwhile Virtual Boy blasts images from two light arrays off of mirrors and directly into each of your eyes to create its 3-D effect.
That sort of low-tech approach had yielded miraculous results for Nintendo in the past, though. Game Boy ruled the portable gaming world for nearly a decade precisely because it was simple and cheap. Who cared that there wasn’t a backlight and everything was rendered in pond-scum green? That puppy played Tetris! Nintendo always strived to make something charming and weird that wouldn’t strain the wallets of either developers or the audience, and the Virtual Boy was an attempt to do that as gaming moved into the perilous, unexplored world of three-dimensional design. With its edgy visor and a controller that took the NES pad and made it ambidextrous with a second set of buttons, the spirit that made Nintendo’s other machines sing is there, save one fundamental thing: Virtual Boy wasn’t any fun to touch.
The fact that it was so hard to play belied the few decent games peppered throughout its library. It’s true that of the 22 that were actually made and published around the world, most were pretty terrible, and not just obvious stinkers like Ocean’s adaptation of Waterworld. Some of Nintendo’s own creations like Mario’s Tennis were almost unplayable because the 3-D effect make the ball difficult to return. The aforementioned Teleroboxer mimicked the timing-based bouts of Punch-Out!!, but its giant, well-animated characters were hard to focus on in the shaky screen. Red Alarm had the fancy polygonal spaceships of Star Fox, but the monochrome graphics made it impossible to tell what was open space and what was supposed to be a physical object.
Even the best Virtual Boy efforts were just okay, more like cubic zirconia in the rough, hiding ideas that weren’t quite ready for primetime in video games. Insmouse No Yakata, the crown jewel of Virtual Boy oddities, is a prime example. Published by the all but forgotten I’MAX, Insmouse is a fast-paced maze game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Trapped in a mansion overrun with murderous frog dudes, you have to rush through each floor trying to find a key and an exit before time runs out or you’re eaten. The idea of a first-person horror game for a portable device was incredibly ambitious in 1995. Insmouse event went so far as to reconsider how shooting controls would work on a console-style game pad. At the time, not even PC standard bearers like Doom offered the kind of first-person precision you get with two analog sticks on modern controllers. Insmouse, however, used both the right and left sides of Virtual Boy’s controller to approximate the effect. You move with the left side and aim your gun with the right—precisely the controls that dominate today, and a good two years before any other twin-stick controller was available.
Virtual Boy’s best traditional game, at least in the Nintendo style, bore ideas that have been revisited in recent years. Virtual Boy Wario Land is likely the best game the machine had to offer, a slow action game where the pudgy freak hunted for treasure while he explored dangerous forests and caves. Nintendo used the Virtual Boy’s depth effects wonderfully here. Wario trundled around from left to right just as he did in his Game Boy outings, but the field of view had multiple layers. Sometimes the path forward was hidden in the background of the stage and you’d have to find a specially marked place to hop back there. This is the exact same trick that spiced up modern descendants like Rayman Origins and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Did it really require the Virtual Boy’s 3-D to pull off? Hell no, but it was cool anyway.
And that explains the Virtual Boy in totality. It was unnecessary—a machine that approached technology the public was hungry for but couldn’t come remotely close to delivering. Nintendo knew that it had whiffed this one as well and discontinued the red beast by the end of ’95 in Japan and early ’96 in the US. In many ways, the Virtual Boy marked the end of Nintendo’s omnipotence in the video game business. By the time the Nintendo 64 rolled around a year later, bearing a number of similar design eccentricities like a three-pronged controller, Sony’s PlayStation had already established itself as a serious player.
But rather than retreat wholesale into making variations on its past hardware successes, Nintendo has carried on making oddities. The DS was a bulky mutant with two tiny screens lumped on top of each other. Grossly underpowered compared to Sony’s PSP when it came out in 2004, it looked like another potential Virtual Boy, but it went on to become the best-selling handheld of all time. Did it help that it felt good in the hand, that touchscreen game design was starting to bubble, and that it didn’t cause headaches? Sure. But what birthed it was the same drive to make something cheap as hell and weird enough to capture our attention.