Computer and video game companies often dive into the deep end of innovation in a bid to capture the next big thing in gaming. The driving force is revenue, profits and capturing market share from competitors. Some innovations will be major financial successes, many others though will be mega financial disasters.
Like any other company in the video game industry, Nintendo have had their fair share of successes and failures. You remember the Nintendo Power Glove from 1989 don’t you? It was popularized in the film, The Wizard, as some sort of awesome extra gaming power controller to play your games and amaze your friends with. In reality it was a failure, it only lasted a year on the shelves, only had two compatible games to use it with and became the butt of jokes and social media memes because it turned out to be utterly useless and a crap gimmick at best.
The Gameboy on the other hand, also launched in 1989, was a worldwide success story for Ninetendo. This innovation brought portable gaming to millions of game players across the world. By 1995 the Game Boy phenomenon had also brought rise to the girl gamer market, Nintendo stated that 46% of Game Boy gamers were female. The Game Boy is one of Nintendo’s best innovations, becoming a video gaming industry cultural icon.
Like most years throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the video game market was powering ahead. Nintendo had become the biggest home video game and console company dominating world wide sales. 1994 / 1995 proved to be a very challenging year for Nintendo though. Its competitors Sega, released the 32 bit, 5th generation, Sega Saturn console and Sony released the 32 bit, 5th generation, Play Station console. In comparison Ninetendo had decided to discontinue sales of the NES, relying solely on the SNES as its main home console in the marketplace. It decided not to release any new normal consoles as its competitors had. The N64 would not hit shelves for at least another year. To coin a phrase it was a year of transition for Nintendo.
What Nintendo decided to do in 1995 was take a gamble on one of the biggest buzz words in gaming during the 1990’s – “VR”. Virtual Reality was “in” and normal gaming was “out”. Movie titles including The Lawnmower Man (1992), Brainscan (1994), Arcade (1993), Disclosure (1994), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995) and Virtuosity (1995) all helped to foster the belief that VR was the future of gaming. Arcade venues and movie theatres were places where people could try out this new VR goggle technology. Nintendo had seen the new VR market was emerging which led them in 1995 to launch their own version of VR called the Virtual Boy.
Straight to the point – Nintendo’s Virtual Boy dubbed the “goggles on legs machine” was a spectacular failure. It lasted just 6 months after its initial release. Why did it fail ? It wasn’t from a lack of development, Nintendo had spent four years and millions of dollars advancing the project which had originally been code named “VR32” – presumably and obviously because The Virtual Boy was a 32-bit video game console. Such was the high expectations of VR gaming, Nintendo had built a dedicated manufacturing plant in China to manufacture and work on the Technology of The Virtual Boy.
Where the VR technology came from within the Nintendo Virtual Boy is traced back to an American company called Reflection Technology Incorporated (RTI). As early as 1985, RTI had developed a red LED eyepiece display technology called the Scanned Linear Array. It produced a “3D” stereoscopic head tracking prototype called the Private Eye, featuring a tank game. RTI had been demonstrating and pitching the technology to all the major toy and computer game companies but most of them declined to use it because of the single colour display and concerns about motion sickness for the wearer of the headset.
Gunpei Yokoi, the then General Manager of Nintendo’s Research and Development arm and the inventor of the highly successful Game & Watch and Game Boy handheld consoles, embraced the new VR tech demonstrated by RTI. Where others had dismissed it, Gunpei Yokoi looked at it as a unique new technology that Nintendo’s competitors would find difficult to emulate.
If Nintendo had believed in VR gaming so deeply, then why did the Virtual Boy fail ? Was it because the tech was inferior as to why it failed? Well, yes. Even though consoles were advancing more rapidly than ever, gamers still loved the traditional console entertainment package – a console hooked up to a tv with a controller to play their favourite games. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was completely different to the normal console. It marketed and advertised the Virtual Boy as the ‘first ever mobile console’ capable of displaying stereoscopic “3D” graphics. Very strange when you consider the unit was quite bulky and heavy to actually be called a mobile console. While it sounded like awesome new technology, breaking ground and breaking barriers in traditional gaming, it didn’t really offer anything different at all. The main change in game playing came about in how a gamer played their games and this proved to be one of the Virtual Boy’s many downfalls.
To use The Virtual Boy console you didn’t wear it like you would wear normal VR devices of the time period – no not on your head, instead you placed your head against the eyepiece of the Virtual Boy console. You had to crouch down to be able to see inside it The reason for this headless design came about from new concerns over children developing lazy eye symptoms and new laws, in particular, Japan’s new Product Liability Act of 1995. The head mounted google design was scrapped because of these and other safety concerns. The company also feared that wearers of a head mounted goggle based gaming machine, could fall down a flight of stairs in their homes, injuring themselves while playing the mobile battery packed portable VR machine. So with Nintendo’s legal team worrying about future liability costs, a heavy steel shielded table top design was implemented conformant to the recommendation of the Schepens Eye Research Institute.
When you looked into the Virtual Boy to play games you received a view of an uninspiring monochrome display of red and black. VR had been widely popularized in movies and tech mags as being a new world of amazement, an extraordinary colourful fantasy land that would blow your mind, yet Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was monochrome! Furthermore, to create an illusion of depth or a “3D” environment, games on the Virtual Boy used a parallax effect, which was not anything new or groundbreaking.
Why the choice of monochrome colours ? Nintendo had been very successful with bringing colourful games to their NES, Super NES and arcade cabinet games, why was Virtual Boy different ? Gunpei Yoko stated that “we experimented with a color LCD screen, but the users did not see depth, they just saw double. Colour graphics give people the impression that a game is high tech. But just because a game has a beautiful display does not mean that the game is fun to play. Red uses less battery and red is easier to recognize. That is why red is used for traffic lights.”
Another reason for the use of a monochrome display was due to costs. RTI’s red LED was used in Nintendo’s Virtual Boy because it was the cheapest to manufacture. A colour LCD display would have put a huge cost on the project and would have meant the store price would have put it out of reach of many people. Colour LCD displays were also said to cause “jumpy images” in device and game testing.
At a retail launch price of US$179.95, the Virtual Boy was far cheaper than the Sega Saturn’s US$399 and Sony’s Play Station US$299. Yet the Virtual Boy just could not meet its lofty sales targets. Nintendo Japan initially projected sales of 3 million consoles and 14 million games. Nintendo of America had projected 1.5 million Virtual Boy console units and 2.5 million in games sales by the end of the year, the reality was that Nintendo shipped 350,000 units of the Virtual Boy by December 1995, three and a half months after its North American release. Nintendo never made a PAL version of the Virtual Boy console. According to data that Nintendo provided to Famitsu after the system’s cancellation, 770,000 Virtual Boy units were sold worldwide, including 140,000 in Japan. As an indication of just how poor this is in the overall scheme of console failures, the Virtual Boy ranked 5th on Game Pro’s “Top 10 Worst Selling Consoles of All Time” list in 2007. The Virtual Boy is Nintendo’s second
lowest selling console after the 64DD. Virtual Boy’s sales figures pale into insignificance when compared to Nintendo’s other consoles. The Super NES had sold at least 20 million units worldwide by 1995, the NES sold 61.9 Million units while the Game Boy had sold 40 million units.
With such a short life span only 22 games were made for the Virtual Boy console, 14 of those released games landed in the USA. Four games were launch titles – Mario’s Tennis, Red Alarm, Teleroboxer, and Galactic Pinball. In North America, Nintendo shipped Mario’s Tennis with every Virtual Boy console sold and “3D” Tetris (1996) was the last official commercial title sold for the Virtual Boy. Nintendo did announce more games for the console at the E3 Expo in 1996, but these were never released. Most games were by Nintendo’s high standards below average, hitting the bottom of the barrel in terms of colour, graphics, gameplay and sounds. Most games were developed by Nintendo Corp with a few games like Jack Bros by Atlus and Panic Bomber by Hudson Soft developed by 3rd party game developers. Virtual Boy Wario Land is considered the best Virtual Boy game to have been released. It is one of the few games that actually takes advantage of the Virtual Boy’s hardware allowing Wario to travel back and forth between foreground and background with the environment.
The reason why Nintendo’s Mario is only featured tokenly in a few games on the Virtual Boy is because the then Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi, had instructed Gunpei Yoko to de-emphasize the use of Mario in any Virtual Boy games as the company viewed the Virtual Boy as a ‘fill in’ concept before the launch of the N64 machine to be released a year later, in 1996.
By this time in 1995, Sony’s Play Station had begun to take away market share from Nintendo, meaning the focus on getting the N64 to market became an even more pressing issue for the company. With poor Virtual Boy sales, increasing competition and advances in next generation machines the Nintendo Virtual Boy disaster would sink most companies, fortunately for Nintendo with its massive revenues, profits and world wide gaming intellectual property gaming character presence it did not.
The machine lacked the usual fun associated with playing Nintendo games. It had many problems that it just could not overcome, The games library was small which just wasn’t who Nintendo were. As the biggest video game company in the world they were renowned for large game libraries consisting of brilliantly designed games. The Virtual Boy had none of this. Unfriendly controls, an awkward method of playing the games by crouching down to look into the device, games being played in monochrome instead of full colour and the bold exaggerated claims of having “3D Technology” nobody else had, all added up to critics and gamers alike savaging Nintendo for such a poorly designed and executed console. Some media outlets such as Next Generation magazine went as far as stating that the Virtual Boy was “anti social”.
What was promised by Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was a 3D virtual reality experience like no other. The end result was far from what everyone had been thinking of, hoping for and wanting. The Virtual Boy did not provide any real 3D experience, it did however provide a VR experience like no other – a VR experience that just didn’t feel real. Closer to reality than virtual, the Virtual Boy failure brought about the demise of the original developers of the technology, RTI. They could not recover from the experience closing down its operations in 1997. Reports in game magazines at the time suggested that Nintendo had placed blame on the failure of the Virtual Boy directly on Gunpei Yokoi. He would later atone the Virtual Boy failure with better success in launching the Game Boy Pocket, ultimately leaving Nintendo in 1996 to start a new company.
Virtual Boy may have been dead and buried back in 1995 but it did not stop Nintendo’s development approach or focus on innovation. The company continues to prosper and be a leading innovator in developing new games, new consoles and new intellectual property. The Nintendo hand held console launched in 2011, saw games with real autostereoscopic “3D” visuals. It was able to do so by producing the desired depth effects without any special glasses and was light and portable, a complete contrast to the Virtual Boy. Surprisingly, new games have been made for the Virtual Boy. The hobbyist community at Planet Virtual Boy has developed Virtual Boy software. Two previously unreleased games, Bound High and the Japanese version of Faceball (known as NikoChan Battle) were released. Despite its poor reputation as a games console and a complete failure commercially, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and games are now considered valuable collector’s items as so few were sold at its release.
Virtual Boy Specifications
32-Bit RISC Processor at 20 MHz clock speed
1MB of DRAM, 512 of KB P-Sram
1 KB Cache
Reflection Technology Inc SLA dual mirror-scan,
high resolution LED displays
Resolution: 384 x 224 pixels
50.2 Hz Horizontal Scan Rate
4 colors with 32 levels of intensity
Six AA batteries (lasts for approximately four
hours) or an AC adapter
Built-in Stereo Speaker
8 Pin Cable
Bandwidth 50-100 KBit/second
8.5”H x 10”W x 4.3”D
128 MBit addressable ROM space
128 MBit addressable RAM space
Toshiba TC538299AFT and TC5316200AFT
ROM chips in 16 bit mode.