Seeing Red

Nintendo Virtual Boy

In the annals of NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. history there is no more spectacular failure than the Virtual Boy. Sure, there have been games that haven't done well (does anyone even remember Devil's Third?), licensed product that fizzled (the old Philips CDi games), and even related materials that came out horribly wrong (need I mention the Super Mario Bros. movie?), but none of those compare to the incredible flame out that was the Virtual Boy. It's legend lives on in infamy.

How did Nintendo miss the boat so amazingly with this device, the supposed successor to the Game Boy that, instead, was beaten by the little black-and-white system that could? The fact is that all the things that were supposedly selling points for the console were, instead, factors that worked against it. The first and most obvious is that for a "portable system" the Virtual Boy was far from portable. This was not a device you took on the road with you (not like you could with a Game Boy).

The setup for the device was that it was, in effect, a set of stereoscopic goggles that you could use to play 3D games in real, true 3D. Because of those goggles (which, in effect, were also the whole base station for the system), you had to set the device up with a kick stand and a controller, meaning you were taking up a table or other flat surface with it. God help anyone that tried to play this device on their lap, in the car, as that could not have gone well. This console was portable in the same way I used to take my Nintendo Entertainment System with me on road trips and set it up on TVs are various hotels (i.e., it wasn't).

Of course there was also the fact that the 3D wasn't really all that great. Oh, it worked well enough and managed a pretty decent effect when done right, but only a few games really managed to embrace the 3D properly and use it in any meaningful way. Mario Clash used the effect for front and back planes but, realistically, that effect could have been faked to get the same game play. Wario Land VB did a similar thing, having moments where the hero could go back and forth in the window, exploring a larger front section or a tiny back section but, again, this could have been done in a fake sense just as well. When even Nintendo has trouble justifying the 3D effect beyond a simple gimmick, you know there's a problem.

That is only compounded by the fact that the red tint of the Virtual Boy made for some pretty ugly looking games. Nintendo, in a cost-saving move, elected to make the system monochrome, black-and-red, which did bring the price point down in comparison to if they'd done full color. The went with red because it was sharp and bright, and I can understand the impulse -- you want something clean and legible that doesn't cost $600 bucks to make (let alone how much it would have cost to sell). And yet, the red was frankly kind of hard on the eyes -- it worked but you kind of wish Nintendo would have gone with a different solution (or simply waited on the console).

Between the red of the graphics and the 3D effect in general, the Virtual Boy actually had to actively tell you not to play it. It came with a warning that said it wasn't meant for children under 7 -- a blow to their market when you consider the Game Boy was the "even little kids can play it" system. Baby's First Console, if you will. You had to be over a certain age to play the Virtual Boy, and even then it would warn you after 20 minutes, "hey, bruh, take a break." That gave the console this weird air, the system you actively shouldn't play.

Those hard to see 3D graphics didn't come cheap, even in monochrome. That forced Nintendo to sell the Virtual Boy for $179.95 which may was more expensive than other full-color handheld consoles of the era (like the Sega Game Gear or the Atari Lynx). And, of course, when you compare it to the Game Boy which was still going strong, had a giant library of games, and cost only $80 bucks new at the time, Nintendo priced this console out of its own market (for another point of comparison, when the VB was on clearance I managed to get it, with two extra games, for only $70). But then, it did dump it out there to try and get rid of the thing.

Nintendo has admitted that they foresaw this thing being a loser. The cost to produce it, the increasing costs of development, the health concerns, and everything else associated led the company to shove it out the door in what they said was an "unfinished state" (although they didn't admit this until later, and only via secondhand reporting). At the time Nintendo made it seem like this console was going to be the true successor to the Game Boy, with big spreads in Nintendo Power to gussy it up and wipe away any possible stink. It didn't help as the Virtual Boy crashed and burned immediately at the market, arriving and then leaving within the span of less than a year. It came out, fizzled, and then died.

Now, the thing is that when you actually had the thing setup and going, the Virtual Boy was pretty fun. I used to have it up in my room, on a tall table, and I'd stand to play it, going through Wario Land VB and Galactic Pinball for a couple of hours at a time. Neither were deep games but they were fun larks and, end of the day, they provided a fair bit of entertainment. Had they been releases on a big console I might have been annoyed at the relatively sparse length of these titles (and many more that were also released), but for a cheapy console (especially on clearance) that was meant to provide short bursts of entertainment, it worked decently well. I still preferred by Game Boy and my Nintendo 64 more at the time, though.

That's probably a big reason why, even among those who picked it up, there wasn't much good word of mouth: the experience was fleeting at best. The games generally had good ideas, from the enjoyable Megami Tensei spin-off Jack Bros. or the tidy pack-in Mario Tennis, but they were all built around one or two simple game play ideas that repeated for a bit and then either ended or looped. It was like old arcade games, just spit out again with 3D graphics, to provide the same experience. That worked at the dawn of the NES but, 10 years later when even the Game Boy was providing deeper experiences, it just didn't make for a compelling experience.

But then it's most telling that a Pokemon game never even was considered for this system. Nintendo wanted this system out there as quickly as possible to recoup any expenses they could get before they moved on to the Nintendo 64 (which had its own troubled development to deal with). The Virtual Boy was a failure from day one and Nintendo just wanted it gone.

To this day the Virtual Boy is Nintendo's biggest failure (by just about any metric you can think of). It was unplayable for some, a fleeting experience for others, and it hardly managed to deliver on any of its promises. By the time it left the market is had only moved 770,000 units, a depressingly small number that even Nintendo's second biggest failure, the WiiU, managed to beat it by over 14 Mil units. Nothing Nintendo will do will ever compare, I'm sure, to this total flame out. In that regard then, Virtual Boy, you managed to accomplish something.