Nintendo Virtual Boy
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Based on: The drive to achieve 3D at the expense of all other considerations.
Article by Jeremy Parish | July 20, 2009
It shouldn't have happened like this.
Gumpei Yokoi was one of Nintendo's most respected creators -- a pillar of the company, in fact. His inventions were cornerstones of Nintendo's success, creative contributions that were perhaps less obvious in their impact and influence than Shigeru Miyamoto's creations, but no less important for that. His tenure had begun back in the days when electronic gaming was still something the company approached with uncertain hesitation, and his design and engineering sensibilities had generated untold billions of dollars while entertaining scores of children (and slightly sheepish adults) the world over.
By all rights, Yokoi should have finished out his career at Nintendo, steadily climbing through the ranks and guiding new generations of game and hardware designers. Unfortunately, Yokoi's sterling record ended with a terrible blemish that ended his career at Nintendo: Virtual Boy. The name, the red-and-black color shell, and the literally in-your-face design all cry out "1990s" as loudly as the Sega Scream ever did. It remains the single biggest failure of Nintendo's videogame years, and it stands as Yokoi's only notable creative misstep. Worse, it was a mistake made at just the wrong time, during a period of transition and instability for Nintendo and the industry as a whole.
By 1995, the rough polygon-pushing game devices of the early '90s had given way to far more impressive systems whose capabilities promised to turn 3D gaming into a standard rather than a novelty. The most visible of these was Sony's PlayStation, but Sega and Nintendo were piling on the bandwagon as well. Meanwhile, the rising costs of mask ROM production had turned Nintendo's third-party licensing model in a liability, with major allies nearly gutted by the up-front costs of production for millions of cartridges that went unsold as gamers abandoned their Super NESes in anticipation of PlayStation's blazing fast polygons. Suddenly, not only was Nintendo's dominance threatened -- so too was its entire business model.
The company needed a savior, and one assumes it was at this point that Yokoi stepped forward with what he hoped would be a solution: a portable system capable of true 3D graphics. Not just perspective-corrected polygons projected against a flat screen, but genuine three-dimensional visuals involving mirrors and stereo optics and an actual sense of spatial depth. True 3D in a compact, portable, inexpensive format. It was revolutionary. It was brilliant. It was, to be frank, absolutely amazing.
It was also a flop: a system that no one wanted.
While Virtual Boy was a masterpiece of technological design and did sincerely incredible things, it failed on that fundamental level where its predecessor Game Boy had triumphed over its competition: usability. Game Boy was cheap, durable, simple, and incredibly usable. Its appeal lay in the fact that you could play it anywhere, you rarely had to worry about replacing the batteries, and its price matched its capabilities. Yeah, so it had a tiny, monochrome screen, but it had just enough resolution to get the point across and approximate the look of NES games well enough that, even amidst their criticisms, gamers had a good time playing it. In 1989, that was fine.
When Virtual Boy launched in 1995, however, monochrome didn't really cut it. Sega was selling the Nomad by that point, a portable Genesis with very nearly all the features of its console counterpart. Gamers expected something at least on par with that, but no -- Virtual Boy, at least at first glance, generated graphics that resembled redshifted Game Boy visuals. They were low-resolution monochrome sprites. That sat at odds with the fact that Nintendo was selling the machine on its revolutionary graphics; of course, they really were revolutionary, but appreciating the system's achievements required patience and study. At first glance, Virtual Boy was simply a pricey, unwieldy new Game Boy.
Its unwieldiness was an even bigger flaw; while word-of-mouth probably would have helped the system overcome the negative first impression it gave, the real problem was that no one actually wanted to use the damn thing. It didn't fit into any of the spaces people alloted to gaming. Too self-contained to be a console, too personal to be a personal computer, requiring stability that made it unsuitable for handheld use, Virtual Boy simply didn't belong anywhere. Its unique optics required players to stick their faces into an enclosed headset and sit staring at a dully glowing red playfield. It was impractical, and perhaps worst of all for the x-tremely badical, attitudinous, image-conscious teens of the '90s, it made you look damn silly.
As a final nail in Virtual Boy's coffin, it didn't even work for everyone. The stereoscopic 3D effect was startlingly realistic and caused those monochrome sprites to jump out and perform spectacular visual feats -- or so I'm told. Having been severely amblyopic as a kid, I've never been able to get much use of the system. My left eye is weak and struggles to focus, and when it does it never quite works with my right eye the way it's supposed to. Those stupid Magic Eye prints that were so popular at the time Virtual Boy was launched never worked for me, either. The system is less than useless to someone like me; but even more than that, people with great vision also struggled to play Virtual Boy for any amount of time, because the system works by effectively forcing your eyes to lie to your brain about scale and depth. After a while, this led to eyestrain and headaches for everyone.
The saddest thing about Virtual Boy, though, is that I can actually see how it fits into the larger picture of Yokoi's legacy of marrying innovative ideas to inexpensive tech. It was a sideways take on the virtual reality headsets of science fiction; unlike early experiments with the technology, though, it didn't require a massive, booth-sized setup costing tens of thousands of dollars. It rested on a tabletop, similar to the LED mini-arcade toys of 15 years prior, and cost a few hundred bucks. Yokoi designed a machine that performed feats no other game system had ever matched, let alone attempted. From a strictly engineering standpoint, it was the pinnacle of success: a clever hack.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of human interface design, it was a disaster. And, ultimately, usability is king when it comes to gaming. In fact, no company has more fully embodied that fact through the years than Nintendo. This is where Virtual Boy fell flat. Yokoi wasn't fired for his failure, because Nintendo is an old-school Japanese corporation, and old-school Japanese corporations simply don't do that. He was instead demoted, reportedly even forced to demo the system himself at trade shows. In the traditional Japanese style, he was systematically shamed until he did the right thing and elected to fall on his own sword. And he did: before long, Yokoi resigned from the company that he had helped transform into a videogame giant.
Yet for all the unpleasantness that surrounds Virtual Boy, it wasn't the worst system ever made. It really was a sophisticated machine, especially for 1995 -- the Vectrex of its day. Furthermore, it was an essential step in the evolution of Nintendo hardware, and not only as a lesson in what not to do. For one thing, the controller was almost like a prototype for the GameCube's (unfairly scorned) game pad. And it actually did offer some really good games: Wario Land was every bit as good as you'd expect a Wario adventure to be, Teleroboxing was sort of like 3D Punch-Out!!, and Jack Bros. was (believe it or not) the American debut of the Shin Megami Tensei series. So just think, without Virtual Boy we might never have seen Persona 3.
OK, so that's stretching it. Virtual Boy's legacy is a dour one, and without the Game Boy safety net it might have scuttled Nintendo beyond salvaging. For all that, though, I don't think the system was evil... merely misunderstood.