Nintendo Virtual Boy: Three Dimensions, Zero Interest

Although it died a quiet death, we reevaluate Nintendo's forgotten 3D portable console, the Virtual Boy.

Video game developers have been interested in 3D technology for a very long time — from retro consoles to another Nintendo portable console, the incredibly successful 3DS. It only makes sense to look back to what was largely the beginning of this phenomenon in the home market. Before there was the mighty 3DS, there was Nintendo’s first attempt at a 3D portable console. You remember the Virtual Boy, right?  

August 14th, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Virtual Boy, a system touted to be the “first ‘portable’ video game console capable of displaying ‘true 3D graphics’ out of the box.” Nobody seems to care. Nobody is celebrating or holding fanfare for this device. Nintendo is probably trying to bury this date under other news. Where did the console go so wrong? Let’s take a look at what the Virtual Boy did right, what 3D game consoles today have learned from what it did wrong, and see what the current state of 3D gaming can learn from this, so the technology might actually remain legitimized rather than swept under the virtual carpet.

The Console

Nintendo pulled the trigger on the Virtual Boy in 1995. The goal was to bring virtual reality into the home console market. Developed by Gunpei Yokoi, the handheld genius responsible for the original GameBoy and Game & Watch, the Virtual seemed to be in safe hands. The issue was that Nintendo rushed to push the Virtual Boy to the market so that they could better focus their efforts on the Nintendo 64 (yeah, it’s kind of shocking that they were working on these two systems at the same time). Yokoi felt that the console wasn’t ready yet — and the automatic pause feature every 15-30 minutes is proof enough of that.

The Virtual Boy’s slogan was, “[a] 3D game for a 3D World,” which I suppose is technically accurate, but the 3D seen here is hardly akin to the stuff that has us salivating now. Virtual Bowling does not an Avatar make.

The tech behind the Virtual Boy consisted of a series of oscillating mirrors and linear arrays that created the illusion of depth and dimensions through the effect of a parallax. As a reference point, the Nintendo 3DS and Oculus Rift both use stereoscopic 3D to create their effects. Oculus has opted to give Rift a headset display, while the 3DS uses a dual-screen display.

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As a means of reducing the Virtual Boy’s cost, the system’s color scheme was simply red and black, as opposed to full out color, giving it its signature crimson-toned look. But that didn’t stop the price tag from being a hefty one, at $180. As a reference point, the N64 which came out at relatively the same time, first went to the market at $199, and even the 3DS’ adjusted launch price was only $169 (originally $249). 

Another nail in the Virtual Boy’s premature coffin (baby coffins are the saddest coffins) was its extremely limited games library. It’s unfortunate that the Virtual Boy only had 22 games produced for it — only 19 made it to North America. The sheer library of games available on the 3DS, and the number already mounting up on the Rift, establishes longevity and confidence in these systems. They’re not going anywhere, whereas the Virtual Boy had less than two dozen games. It made 3D seem like a fad back then. Nintendo didn’t yet understand it was the future.

Virtual Boy came at a time when gaming companies still hadn’t figured out just how much money there was to be made in reviving retro games. Maybe it was that the industry was still too young to consider nostalgia. Back then, reviving Nintendo classics from the NES and SNES would’ve easily tripled the Virtual Boy library. 

The 3DS and Rift aren’t only focused on creating new 3D content. These systems are also tools for revamping the old. The 3DS has updated a number of old, retro titles for brand-spanking new 3D outings. Want to play an impressive collection of Mega Man classics? Pick up a 3DS. Oculus has created exclusive immersive 3D experiences that are seamless in execution, but also ported current titles through Steam VR that you’ve always wished were in 3D, like Left 4 Dead, BioShock, Portal 2, Half-Life 2, Minecraft, and Skyrim). 

The Virtual Boy was also victim to a number of oversights.

The device was head-mounted, and while portable, was really not luggable. It was also prone to cause headaches, which proved a painful flaw. Games also came programmed with a (toggleable) automatic pause feature that stopped your game sesssion every thirty minutes, which was obviously not a desired detail, but neither was playing longer and incurring head pain.

Modern systems have definitely learned from the past. The 3DS gives you the option to not only turn your 3D capability on and off, but also adjust the severity of the 3D. You have the option of making it a minor part of your session. This has even become a fundamental aspect for some gamers who are more sensitive to headaches. Now they can play, too. The 3DS also ditched the head-mounted idea and let you have your 3D without the assistance of any extras at all. And it doesn’t hurt that the 3D is rendered in color these days.

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In spite of the system’s many shortcomings — at the forefront, the rushed release and a less than supportive Nintendo behind it — the Virtual Boy still does have its humble charms. It can’t be forgotten that this was still legitimate 3D. This was also a crucial, intimidating device because it once again reinforced the idea of Nintendo being an early adopter of new technology and a force to be feared in the marketplace. This idea has continued through the years, whether it’s with motion gaming, system connectivity, or tablet gaming, but this was one of Nintendo’s first big brash moves. And it probably would’ve been a successful one if they had given the system a chance to really develop.

The Virtual Boy is also one of those times that Nintendo took a focus on the sports genre. Granted, this surely had a lot to do with how well these titles lent themselve to the 3D format, but for the sports addicts out there, it’s encouraging to see the Virtual Boy indulging in things like golf, boxing, tennis, and bowling. Seeing Nintendo engage in unfamiliar sensibilities is always very exciting. 

The Games

While discussing the ups and downs of the 20-year-old gateway to 3D-dom, it seemed appropriate to check out some of the games on the system. I recently acquired a Virtual Boy and its complete library of games. For your reading pleasure, here are some mini-reviews of the console’s biggest titles:

Virtual Boy Wario Land was very much the companion piece to the system. There’s impressive 3D here, as obstacles swing back and forth. In addition to being in 3D, it’s a lot of fun, and a number of early 3DS titles even employed the same sort of approach to platforming. Rayman 3D, Epic Mickey, and, most notably, Super Mario 3D Land, all involve obstacles swinging from the foreground to the background, as you use this depth to evade them. 

Throw in some hidden treasures that add longevity to the title (something Virtual Boy’s games were sorely lacking in), and you’ve got one of the most successful efforts on the system.

Teleroboxer is an outlandish boxing game that’s extremely Punch-Out!!!-like in its setup. A solid mix of creative, cartoony graphics with realistic photos interspersed is used, and the robots you fight against have refreshing designs reminiscent of Mega Man bosses. You’re even able to save your game as you fight through your seven opponents, which may not seem like much, but with this system, it is.

Most importantly, there’s impressive 3D being offered to you here, as it really looks like these robot fists are coming at you, or launching at your foe. The controls are simple and effective, like they should be in a boxing game. You still need to learn patterns and strategies to defeat your opponents, as well as special moves (which work surprisingly well in 3D). There was a lot of presentation and effort put into this title. It’s a must-have for Virtual Boy owners.

Red Alarm was a satisfying Star Fox clone that’s done all in wireframe. It’s obviously insulting graphics-wise, but who cares: you’re getting 3D Star Fox (kind of)! The 3D seen here is probably the most impressive on the system, along with Teleroboxer and Virtual Boy Wario Land, and the game even has some length to it. It’s also challenging, and it actually feels like you’re progressing and moving through a video game, which is more than I can say about other Virtual Boy games.

There’s a very arcade-y lather, rinse, repeat (in 3D!) feeling going on, but this actually feels like a full game. That being said, a full game here still amounts to maybe only 30 minutes, with the “gaming limitations” set on by the system — an inherent design flaw.

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Still, Red Alarm is actually a lot of fun and is more than just simple flying and shooting enemies, with the inclusion of bombs, boosters, and a shield system to keep things interesting. It is a little difficult to figure out how to navigate yourself initially, as you’re in this cave of red and black, but once you get the feel for it, it’s a winner.

Galactic Pinball is a surprisingly complete game and might even be the best on the system, next to Virtual Boy Wario Land, which maybe shouldn’t be unexpected considering it was developed by Yokoi himself. The pinball controls as smoothly and simply as you’d like it to. There’s a number of different tables to play on (including a Metroid one, so yeah…), each with their own infectious music.

The 3D is effective and complements the designs while not being too in your face either. It feels like you’re playing pinball like you’ve never played pinball before — unless, well, you’re playing it in real life. The game has challenging tables, and if you’re a fan of pinball, you’ll definitely enjoy this. Naturally the 3DS equivalents (Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, Zen Pinball, and Marvel Pinball) take all of this and go a step further with it, but for 1995, this is a pretty competent attempt at 3D pinball on a console.

Nester’s Funky Bowling is a mediocre-to-shoddy attempt at a bowling game with an incredibly sparse options menu that resembles what you’d find in Tetris — a basic music swap at your disposal and the choice to play the game on practice mode — which I suppose is forgivable for the time period. But something like no selectable characters, however, is a little harder to overlook, even if they were simply pallet swaps, as it’d help break up the monotony a bit.

There are cute graphics on display throughout the game when you hit a strike, or do poorly (some of which are very confusing, like Nester losing all of his hair…). There’s pretty decent 3D, as the graphics and logo jump right out at you as you boot it up, and I smiled a bit when the Nintendo logo did it, too.

Weirdly enough, there seems to be more 3D going on in the credits than the game itself. I’m sure there must be something 3D-wise happening during the bowling, but with a game that is all depth, it’s not immediately noticeable. For instance, 3DS’s efforts have considerable depth and make a meal out of the ball going down the alley and the impact of the pins getting hit.

The controls handle well enough, it’s just a matter of concentrating with this headset on and not getting a headache. This works as a simple, forgettable, functional bowling game.

Mario’s Tennis was another very popular Virtual Boy game. There’s a very in your face “yes, this is virtual reality” introduction, and the game has decent 3D (it’s most detectable when your ball is gaining height), but it’s not as astounding as it could be, especially for a BIG launch title.

As a comparison, Space Squash (which is almost like Teleroboxer, but for squash), has legitimate 3D effects, as the ball zooms towards your levitating space character. While playing with Mario and friends is fun, a bunch of random, weird aliens and robots are more entertaining, especially when the matches take place in different space arenas.

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The only problem is that Space Squash never came out outside of Japan.

Now, obviously 3DS efforts, like Mario Tennis Open, go leagues beyond this, but Space Squash was impressive for its day. It’s a shame Mario’s Tennis wasn’t pulling the same weight. 

Waterworld was a colossal failure as a motion picture, so it makes sense that the Virtual Boy game (why?) would be just as much of a clunker. There’s absolutely no story, even in the form of a text intro. You’re just in your boat-thing shooting evil(?) boat-things to be king of Waterworld?

There are many different vehicles, with an assortment of missions and skills, and the 3D is some of the more impressive on the system. In spite of having one of the best opening songs to a video game (that chiptune saxophone, mmmm), you basically skitter about in your boat, shooting down enemies on jet skis (once you orient yourself and figure out how to move around).

The game keeps referring to Atollers, so that’s a relevant thing I guess, and Kevin Costner’s face flashes on the screen after beating each level, so there’s also that. If you manage to figure out what you’re doing in this game, you’ll also learn that the levels are extremely repetitive and there’s not much longevity to them either, so you’re essentially left with one weird, unclear level that’s repeated a number of times.

But how’s the 3D? Well, it doesn’t look like much is going on at all, but you then realize there’s a surprising amount of depth in the water as you move through it, even though it’s just a black surface. The fact that you can tell that you’re moving at all is pretty impressive, I guess. The most impressive use of the 3D is actually in how your score zooms in and flashes at you after each level (ATOLLER BONUS! ENOLA MULTIPLIER!). Again, here we get one level and group of enemies repeated endlessly. It might be the worst game the Virtual Boy had to offer.

Virtual Boy Wario Land, Teleroboxer, Red Alarm, Galactic Pinball, and Space Squash are must-haves if you decide to pick up the system. I spent a lot of time playing them repeatedly while working on this article. I also enjoyed the charming Bomberman-esque Jack Bros.

While it’s easy to see that the Virtual Boy had its share of misgivings and oversights, it has still managed to survive as an off-kilter footnote in both Nintendo and gaming’s history. And as support for the Oculus Rift only increases and the Nintendo 3DS further strengthens its grip on the market, it’s interesting to look at the system that sparked the imagination, and how much has been learned from its mistakes and successes.

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There’s something special here for retro gamers, too. The Virtual Boy is fully within gamers’ grasps to experience the entire system. It’s not as if the Virtual Boy is a rare, elusive whisper of a system these days, or that a unit with the entire game library will run you up thousands (or even hundreds) or dollars. You can get a used version of the console for about $100-$150 on Amazon right now! There’s a certain charm in the fact that you can play every game that the system had to offer and give it a full shot, which is more than can be said for a lot of retro consoles. A piece of video game history is staring you right in the face.

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