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.
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?
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.