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Virtual Boy: Nintendo's most infamous folly

We look back at Gunpei Yokoi's 3D disaster

For the past 30 years, the word 'innovation' has regularly been associated with Nintendo. The company has been responsible for so many exciting and influential creations - Donkey Kong, the D-pad, the NES, the Game Boy, and more recently the DS and Wii, to name just a few of their groundbreaking endeavours - that its history reads like the evolution of gaming as a whole.

However, there are a handful of pages in Nintendo's long history book that have been deliberately stuck together with chewing gum. Pages that the company would rather nobody read ever again, because they tell the story of a rare thing in Nintendo's hugely successful history. They tell the story of a Nintendo creation that was, to put it bluntly, a complete, unmitigated disaster. They tell the story of the Virtual Boy.

Virtual Boy
Virtual Boy
A system with one major selling point - all of its games were in 3D - the Virtual Boy may have shown all the typical signs of Nintendo innovation but for once the reality didn't quite live up to the vision. People complained of headaches after playing it, it didn't sell quickly enough and by the time Nintendo had stopped supporting it one short year later, only 800,000 systems existed worldwide and only 22 games had been released for it.

So, with 2010 marking the 15th anniversary of this unique, short-lived console, we've decided it's time to unstick those history book pages and give you some background on one of the only standalone Nintendo systems to never make it to the UK. This, dear readers, is the tragic tale of the Nintendo Virtual Boy.

In the early '90s, things were going very well for Nintendo. The newly-released SNES was outselling Sega's Mega Drive worldwide and its Game Boy had fought off stiff competition from the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx. It was time to look to the future for new ideas and Nintendo turned to Gunpei Yokoi for the answer.

Yokoi was the head of the Nintendo Research & Development 1 group, who had previously been responsible for producing such iconic Nintendo games as Donkey Kong (along with Shigeru Miyamoto), Kid Icarus and Metroid. Yokoi was best known for his hardware creations however, since he was the man behind the Game & Watch, R.O.B the Robot and, most importantly, the all-conquering Game Boy.

The overwhelming success of the Game Boy led many at Nintendo to believe that Yokoi was to hardware what Miyamoto was to software, so they asked him and his R&D1 team to come up with another portable system that would take the success of the Game Boy to the next level. Surely his golden touch couldn't fail them?

Mario Tennis - the most headache-inducing game
Mario Tennis - the most headache-inducing game
At the time, the big thing in gaming was virtual reality. A company called Virtuality had started producing VR games where customers could go to an arcade, pay a fiver, stick on a motion-tracking headset and gloves, and immerse themselves in a polygonal world. This brand new tech was to provide the initial inspiration for the Virtual Boy.

In For A Penny...

In his years at Nintendo, Yokoi always stuck to the same principle. He insisted it was always better to make innovative products using cheap pre-existing technology than produce flashy new products with brand new, expensive tech. This was his thinking behind the LCD Game & Watches and the black-and-white Game Boy, and their success proved that his theory was a wise one.

It's a business model that continues to keep Nintendo ahead of the pack with the relatively tech-lite DS and Wii. For this reason, Yokoi decided that while the Virtual Boy would be innovative and offer a truly unique gaming experience, it still needed to be as inexpensive as possible for the player. It was this decision that led to the infamous red screen. Because the Virtual Boy's screen had to move quickly to give the effect of 3D (each frame displayed in a separate eye, and when shown quickly one after the other they gave the illusion of 3D), it had to have a clear, crisp display so the image didn't blur when it moved.

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15 comments so far...
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  1. carnivine chaos Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 17:11

    *first post*

    I can't wait 'till I'm older and can buy a virtual boy! VB Wario Land is apparently the best wario land game, plus Mario clash looks fairly addictive too. Perhaps not the greatest console, but not necessarily the worst. *Looks at the Phillips CD-i, 3DO, and Magnavox Odyssey* ¬_¬

  2. Adam_Lloyd Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 17:50

    Where can you begin? Red LED's. A screen that required you to pretty much WEAR the system. They may have seemed reasonable at the time, but hindsight pretty much makes this look like an insane move. Ds and Wii may draw some parallels, but at least they're practical ans marketable. Despite a few fun games (Which I've had the pleasure of playing :D) it was, as ONM say, a complete disaster. Just looking at images of the games gives me a headache xD

  3. Ai64 Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 18:12

    Strange console though. Limited red LED's, frequent breaks to offset dizzyness, headaches and others.

  4. nintendo_guy Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 18:24

    Red? Pfft.

  5. Colgax Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 18:35

    I'd like to play the Virtual Boy Games on Wii's Virtual Console (At least Wario Land and Mario Clash).

    The Video Game do seems to be a failure, but the games seems to be good.

  6. andmaggie Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 19:56

    Good thing I never played this. I'd have a headache for WEEKS. I'll just think of this as the low point in Nintendo's history. :|

  7. ClockMenace Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 22:01

    Red? Pfft.

    I know...totally headache inducing. I can't think of a color that wouldn't, though, except maybe white.

  8. Hylian_Grouch Tuesday 16th Feb 2010 at 22:36

    i have seriously considered buying a virtual boy several times within the last 3 years. the government give you more student loan than you can easily spend!

  9. toffeeman30 Wednesday 17th Feb 2010 at 06:54

    surprisingly there are a few great games for it.but for me,it doesnt have enough good titles to warrant buying one.

  10. xevilpunkx Wednesday 17th Feb 2010 at 10:03

    I bought one last year, after looking for a reasonable priced Virtual Boy for ages, I could no longer wait and just bought the first boxed VB I came across.

    It truly blew me away, it is an amazing machine, suffering from the wrong marketing and a rushed release!
    Headaches!? That's bulls**t really, I played it for over an hour non-stop and I didn't feel anything.
    The annoying thing though is that you have to stay in the same position all the time which is a bit annoying, but pain!? You people at ONM are getting old! ;p With a chair that can be adjusted in height your back doesn't have to be bended and it's not all that bad. But if they hadn't rushed its release I'm sure they could have made it more comfortable.
    The 3D effect is AMAZING!!! :shock:

    The worst thing about the Virtual Boy is the games really, apart from Virtual Boy Wario Land! :D

    People really, don't complain about the black/red if your opinion is based on screenshots. They don't even come close to what the machine shows you! You have to see it in action, I swear!

  11. zoe_brown Wednesday 17th Feb 2010 at 14:05

    I thnk that you should make a better verson of this with better graphics and games i granty you now if someone herd a metion of a virtual play game they run straight to the shop to find out more and maybee buy it the same day if they had enough money. things you could change are :-

    -Battery pack to a chargable one,
    -Graphics/colours(with the technology now its possible that this could be done with 100's of pounds being used)
    -amount of games and more variety

    just something differnt than staring a tv screen moving your thumbs trying to blow some ones head of in highrise(MW2)

  12. Adam_Lloyd Wednesday 17th Feb 2010 at 14:36

    Headaches!? That's bulls**t really, I played it for over an hour non-stop and I didn't feel anything.

    People really, don't complain about the black/red if your opinion is based on screenshots. They don't even come close to what the machine shows you! You have to see it in action, I swear!

    I have played the machine. It gave me a headache after 30 mins of playing, the red LED's were just nauseating. The screenshots don't do the 3D effect justice, but they also don't reflect just how annoying those LED's were. Though there will always be some who aren't affected by them, so I suppose you're lucky ;)

  13. mickey_a_s Wednesday 17th Feb 2010 at 17:58

    I actually own 2 VBs and all the US games and half a dozen Jap games too. Its an amazing machine. To me Gunpei was a genius with ideas years ahead of his time. I don't doubt that he was rushed into having it released. I believe Hiroshi Yamauchi could be very persuasive (Another genius with an eye for all things gaming despite not ever playing the things himself). I only wish he'd had the time to finish the machine the way he wanted to as there was so much potential with what was released. Despite it's flaws I am glad I spent the money on buying them. I can agree how hard it is to find a comfortable playing position but I've never suffered headaches from playing, and I have played for much longer than the recommended 60 mins several times. But it's taking tried and tested gameplay and adding original touches that makes the concept so brilliant for me (moving towards and away from the screen in real 3D). Some of the games are ingenious. Mario's Tennis is one of the best games and it comes with the US machine. Otherwise I love Wario Land, Mario Clash and Teleroboxer. Red Alarm works so well provided you can figure out which are walls and which aren't from the wireframe graphics, and the total 3D feel to flying is awesome. If anyone gets the chance to play one, don't hesitate to give it a go. Even better, I would whole heartedly recommend getting one yourself. VB shouldn't have been the flop that it was!!!

  14. xevilpunkx Thursday 18th Feb 2010 at 09:41

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks it shouldn't have failed, because it really did have potentional :D

    I guess the two of us are just lucky we don't get headaches from playing it, as other people on here seem to have problems with it. :)

  15. mickey_a_s Thursday 18th Feb 2010 at 11:48

    If you think about it the style of the graphics aren't too disimilar to the old Gameboys. The only difference is that you're up close to the screens to allow the 3D effect to work. That's what makes people feel sick and have headaches. Once you get used to that they're very easy to play.

    I think there are a lot of people who will put it down without even trying it. That's a real shame 'cos they're missing out on something special.

    I fully appreciate why it bombed at retail. I just love the "what if" factor around it. In a few years time I don't doubt someone will have a goggle peripheral for their machine that allows the same 3D effect, just implemented using better technology. I can't wait, as then the masses who would dismiss the VB can see what could have been. In the meantime I will carry on playing my VB and enjoy it!!

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