Virtual Boy (1995 – 1996): Nintendo’s Short-lived 3D Gaming Console

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Yesterday, for the first time, I tried my hand on Oculus Virtual game from Facebook. And all I could think of was the Nintendo Virtual Boy 3D gaming console. Boy, this was a failed project from Nintendo, but should they had kept it alive; it would be competing on the same level or even higher with Oculus.

Though short-lived, Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s first 3D gaming console. It was pushed out of the market quickly by the Nintendo N64 and the likes of Mario’s Tennis. Well, the Virtual Boy did not receive the much attention it deserved and its high price also contributed to its failure in the mid-90s. The monochrome display also did not fit well with some gamers, not to mention its weight. The Virtual Boy received a fair amount of criticism, although I happened to like it, despite the health concerns and the low-quality games. Around the mid-90s, I would say having any kind of 3D games was just awesome irrespective of the quality of the display.

The launch price of the Virtual Boy gaming console was $180 at the time, and this locked out many gamers at the time. If converted to today’s money, it could have been somewhere close to $500! This made the Virtual Boy the second-lowest selling gaming console after the 64dd. It is because of this that by early 1996, Nintendo ceased its distribution and game development. They only released 22 games for the system. It is a sad state of affairs because Nintendo had spent over 4 years developing the virtual boy console. They even went to the extent of building a factory in China to be sued exclusively for Virtual Boy manufacturing.

The big bummer was also the multi-player system. During development, Nintendo promised the ability to Lynx system for competitive play, but the systems’ EXT extension port was never officially supported and no official link cable was officially released. However, a virtual link cable was developed later by depended developers to finally multiplayer on the console but you could only play homebrew games like Hyper Fighting 3D, 3D battle snake, and Tic Tac Toe which were never officially released.
The fun fact was that you could actually make a Virtual Boy link cable by modifying two Nintendo AV cables. Mario’s Tennis was intended to be a multi-player game and carries a dormant code on it that a user on the planet VB forums was able to use to issue a patch to the game enabling two-player doubles matches. Which was so cool, it requires the use of a Flash Boy. It was like a fake virtual Boy cartridge that you can just sort of flash a ROM onto and then actually insert in your official real virtual boy hardware. That was a cool modification.

Let us take a look at the background of the Virtual Boy 3D gaming console:

The background history of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 3D Gaming Console.

The Virtual Boy 3D Gaming console was the first Nintendo’s 32-bit tabletop handheld video game console produced and manufactured by Nintendo. It was released in 1615417105307.png19995, it was advertised as the first console that was able to display stereoscopic 3D graphics. The player uses the screen like a head-mounted monitor, pressing the head against the eyepiece in order to see the monochrome display. It uses a parallax effect to generate the illusion of depth.

Sales failed to reach expectations, and Nintendo discontinued distribution and game production in 1996, having published just 22 games for the system. The Virtual Boy’s development took four years and started under the name VR32. Nintendo entered into a licensing agreement with a US company called Reflection Technology which had been in operations since the 80s. They even went ahead to establish a plant in china for the production of Virtual Boy Consoles only. The console technology has been reduced due to high cost and possible health risks, and the development of the Nintendo 63, the next home console for Nintendo. All the resources were diverted from Virtual Boy hence leading it to suffer a natural death.

The lead game designer Shigeru Miyamoto worked on virtual boy briefly around the mid-90s. In 1995, the virtual boy was still unfinished but had to be brought to the market in order to concentrate on the production of the Nintendo 64. This made Virtual Boy suffer poor reception from gamers which led to poor sales.

The Virtual Boy was criticized and even after repeated price falls it was commercially unsuccessful. Its failure was due to its:

  • high price,
  • its monochrome appearance,
  • its stereoscopic effects which were not cool,
  • lack of portability and health concerns.
The later years also brought more popularity to stereoscopic technology in video game consoles, including Nintendo’s 3DS handheld console.

The Development of the Failed Nintendo Virtual Boy 3D Gaming Console.

The Virtual Boy (VB) even after repeated price cuts, was panned by critics and was a business failure. Its failure was due to design and usability issues. A Private Eye headed by Gunpei Yokoi, General Manager of R&D 1 and designer of the Game and Watch and Game Boy handheld console, made Nintendo receive enthusiastic attention. He considered this to be an exclusive technology for competitors. In addition, Nintendo's status as an innovator was enhanced by the resulting console and in games to encourage innovation. Nintendo had entered into an exclusive agreement to license the technology for their displays with Reflection Technology Inc. called VR 32 project.

With the four years spent in the development and construction of a dedicated manufacturing plant in China, Nintendo tried to transform its vision of the VR32 into an affordable, health-sensitive design. Yokoi kept the red-lighting of the RTI because it was the checker and because it could create a more immersive sense of infinite dept, as contrary to a backlight LCD, its perfect blackness. Unfortunately, this was prohibitively costly for RTI and Nintendo to distribute. It was also said that a color LCD system caused snapshots in tests. With continued concerns about motion sickness, the danger that young children could develop lazy conditions in the eye, and new product liability law for Japan from 1995, Nintendo removed head tracking functions and turned its front-mounted glass design into a stationary, hard, high-precision, steel shielded tabletop factor in line with the Schepens Eye Research Institute guideline.

Virtual Boy’s skills were demonstrated by several technology presentations. Driving Demo is one of the most advanced demonstrations and provides a view of driving through road signs and palms in a 30-second video. The demo was shown in 1995 at E3 and CES. Shoshinkai 1994 was used for the startup screen of the prototype Virtual Boy. Press was granted a very trusted forecast of selling by March 19996 in Japan three million hardware units and 14 million software units.

The demo of the Star Fox game showed an Arwing doing spins and motions. Film camera angles, like those in Star Fox 2, were a key component. They were seen at the E3 and CES in 1995.

As the internal resources rivalry alongside the Nintendo 64 flagship increased and lead game designer Shigeru Miyamoto reduced his involvement in the project. Virtual Boy software was created without Nintendo’s full attention. The increasingly reluctant Yokoi never intended the ever-lesser Virtual Boy to be published in the final form, according to David Sheff’s book Game Over. However, Nintendo moved it into the market so that they can concentrate their effort on the next console, Nintendo 64.

Why the Virtual Boy stood out despite being released Prematurely.

The Virtual Boy’s history as the project leading to the Nintendo fighting of Gunpi Yoko was interesting yet torturing. Although, despite the failure, I still believe the Virtual Boy had some unrealized potential that could have been exploited at the time if it were not for the rush to develop the Nintendo 64.

This console was technically outstanding for its time. It was actually ahead of all gaming consoles at the time. It still remains the best console for homebrew games since the 90s. Who would have thought of a 3d game at the time when a 32-bit machine was still an incredible thing?

The VB was a 32-bit console, so in polygons, you would expect it to be decent. Just that it had to render things twice, one for each eye. This reduces what it shows in a tolerable framerate complexity. It would site on a stand instead of head mounting, so you can turn your head with it on. That made people sick, and the impact was mitigated by forcing them to look one way.

Most of the games didn’t appear to be real 3D. They were either 2-dimensional scroll titles seen on SsNES but with a depth trick (Wario Land VB) linked to the perception of depth or mode 7 (Mario’s Tennis). Red Alarm was one of the only titles to handle 3D visuals, while bare. Not even polygons filled, which visually confused some sections of the game.

This time with a mix of vectors and filled polygons, 3D Tetris was another completely 3D title for VB. Many videos from VB show both eyes, so you can watch it on your phone to make an idea of what the handset was like when you have Google Cardboard or something like it. Insmouse no Yukata was a JDC crawler base on H.P Lovecraft works. A strange combo? However, it exists, it was not even fully 3D, not even in Wolfenstein’s 2.5D approach. Rather it is the fake grid-based, old school pseudo-3D of first-person RPGs such as Wizardry or A Bard’s Tale.

The released games were not visually impressive, but the challenge for homebrew programmers had risen producing such 3D marvels as Zpace Racers. Hunter was an ST game of Amiga and Atari that was a long way ahead of its time. It was the precursor of such a modern series as Far Cry and Just Cause, featuring entirely polygonal graphics, great open worlds and vehicles to traverse. It’s a real wonder to see it carried to Virtual Boy.

The venerable Yeti 3D engine was carried to Virtual Boy as well (along with every other platform that ever existed). The hand and weapon differently colored since they run in an emulator. Of course, only black and different red shades were possible for actual hardware.

Below is a less fancy but smoother demon of raycasting engine. Much like Wolfenstein 3D, it reveals that we might have got a cable link 3D shooter if the Virtual Boy lived a little longer. It would have been a long way to restructure the system, but it was a possibility.

The Virtual Boy had some other cool homebrew projects like Faceball and Remastered that had a better implementation of 3 Dimensions (2.5D) engines.

Promotion of the Virtual Boy Gaming Console.

Nintendo promoted the Virtual Boy widely and estimated to have invested over 25 million dollars in early ads. Advertising marketed the machine as a paradigm change from previous consoles. Some pieces used cavemen to suggest historical development. Nintendo targeted an older public with Virtual Boy ads and stepped away from the conventional child-focused approach he had previously employed.

The Machine, as its name suggests, was described by Nintendo as a virtual reality. Nintendo concentrated on the technical bits of the new console in its press releases ignoring the specifics of the game. The business collaborated with Blockbuster and NBC in a joint campaign in response to the challenge of 3D gaming on 2D ads. NBC’s fall line-up alongside the Virtual Boy was sponsored by a 5-million-dollar campaign. Americans were encouraged to rent the console for $10 on a local Blockbuster through TV ads on NBC. This encouraged many players to try out the system and created over 750,000 rentals. When the unit is returned, the renters were awarded a $10 discount from the sale of VB from any store.

Three thousand Blockbuster destinations, including trips to see tapes of NBC series, were included in the promotions. The successful renting scheme was detrimental to the long-term success of the Virtual Boy and enable players to see what the console is not interactive. Blockbuster sold its Virtual Boy units for $50 each by the mid-90s. The overall marketing strategy was widely regarded as a failure.

The hardware of the VB gaming console

The console was running on a 32bit RISC chip making it the first 32-bit system from Nintendo. The Virtual Boy uses a 1x224 linear array (one per eye) and scans the array quickly across the view region of the eye with oscillating flat mirrors. These mirrors vibrate at very high speed back and forth, hence the mechanical smoking noise within the device. Every Virtual Boy game cartridge does have a choice of Yes/No that allows the player to pause automatically every 15 to 30 minutes before any injury comes to the eye. The player receives audio per ear from one speaker.

Virtual Boy Gaming Console Display

The VB is the first Video game console to be able to view a virtual reality stereoscopic 3-Dimensions graph. Although many video games use single-size indications to achieve the three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional screen, the Virtual Boy gives the phenomenon known as parallax and image of depth. The user sees an eyepiece made of neoprene on the front of the engine, as with a head-mounted display, and then the monochromatic (in this case red) view is provided by an eyeglass-style projector.
The monitor is compromised of two single-bit red 384/224 pixels display and an approx. 50.27 Hz frame rate. A single LED-based pixel line can be transformed into a complete pixel field by using an oscillating mirror. The company chose to use a monochrome display, Nintendo said, because a color display would have made the device too costly and resulted in Jumpy pictures. Nintendo had a mix of red, green, and blue LEDs to create a color display. Blue LEDs as the time were already considerably costly and the price of the finished product would increase in turn. This together with other disadvantages, has contributed to Nintendo’s decision to release the Virtual Boy as a monochrome product.

The Virtual Boy Controller

1615417320422.pngWhile sitting at a table, Nintendo said it’d release a harness for players to use while they stood. The Virtual Boy was supposed to be used like this. But this harness was never released. The strong focus of the Virtual Boy on 3D movement allows the controller to function on a Z-axis.

The controller is an attempt to mount dual digital D-pads to control 3D components. Like a Nintendo 64 controller, the controller is shaped as ‘M’. The player has a special extendable power that slides on the back of the device containing six double-A batteries on each side of the controller. A wall adapter can be used to replace the batteries for constant power with a slide-on.

The two-directional pads are interchangeable in more conventional two-dimensional games. Each pad controls a different function for others with a more 3D world, such as Red Alarm, 3D Tetris or Teleroboxer. The control system symmetry also enables connected gamers, like the Atari Lynx, to reverse their commands.

Virtual Boy Networking

Nintendo promised the ability to connect competitive play systems throughout the course of its growth. The third quarter of 1996 saw the development of a Virtual Boy cable in Nintendo. The EXT port of the device, located below the controller port, was never officially sponsored, and there have never been any official multi-player games. While the EXT port was supposed to be used on multiplayer functions has already been removed and the latter has been canceled. Later a cable was made for the reproduction connection.

Virtual Boy Games
Initially, three Virtual Boy games were presented by Nintendo. The games were expected to start, and two to three a month later. Due to the limited lifetime of the device, on 22 games have been released. Nineteen of them have been published in the Japanese market, and fourteen in North America. In contrast to previous Nintendo systems, the support of third parties was extremely limited. Gunpei Yokoi confirmed that Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi had dictated that the Virtual Boy Hardware should be show to only selected few third-party developers before formal disclosure, to minimize the chance of bad software.

Nintendo, President Reggie FilsAime, said he couldn't respond because he was unfamiliar with the platform when asked if Virtual Boy gameplays would be available for download on the Nintendo 3Ds Virtual Console. He observed that it would difficult to argue for the inclusion of games into the virtual console considering his lack of familiarity.

Two previously unreleased games, Bound High and Niko Chan Battle have been developed by the hobbyist group on Planet Virtual Boy. It is the Japanese version of Faceball.

The rise and fall of Virtual Boy.

The Virtual Boy has been criticized and was a business failure. For many factors, it struggled, including its high price, the play discomfort, and was generally regarded as a marketing campaign that was poorly executed.
The gamers who previewed the device at the 1994 Shoshinkai Show argued that the Mario demo wasn’t sufficiently realistic, that it wasn’t full color, and that it didn’t follow the player’s heads in motion. Electronic Gaming’s leading editorial Monthly after this exhibition, Ed Semrad predicted that due to the single screen, the lack of true portability, the unimpressive arrangement of games on display at Shoshinkai, and the price he claimed could be as low as hardware, but still too high for the device experience, the Virtual Boy would have a poor launch. The editors of next-generation were also uncertain about the prospects of the virtual boy when they left the show and concluded by commenting “So who’s going to purchase it? The Virtual Reality (example 3D effect) does not add anything to the game: it is just portable, unpleasant to use, 100% anti-social (contradictory to multiplayer SNES/genesis games), it is too costly, and – most importantly – it does not and to the game of all
The Virtual Boy reviews appeared to praise his novelty after its release but questioned its ultimate intent and feasibility for long periods. The Los Angeles Times called the gameplay “once familiar and weird. While the column celebrated movement and immersive visuals, the hardware itself was repetitive and not portable. The machine was found to be a bit social in a later column by the same investigator, even though it had hope in the future of the console.

Reviewing the device shortly after its launch in North America, the Next Generation said, “Any virtual boy is unusual groundbreaking as the boy has the game, but it’s more difficult to see the VB succeeding to the same worldwide degree as the game boy. Although the 3D effect was impressive, the system’s appeal is severely limited by factors such as the monochrome display and possible vision damages to young players. They added it was a good gaming library but could not draw on the best-selling Nintendo franchise (Zelda and Metroid games were missing and the Mario games were not in that style as the most popular installment of the series).

Final Thoughts

Did you get a chance to play any game on the Virtual Boy, if yes, which one was your favorite?

Would you wish for a revival of the Virtual Boy?
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Omega Geeze
Jul 13, 2019
I never had one of these as a kid and I'm glad I didn't lol this would have been so dissappointing.
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New Geeze
Sep 24, 2020
That's the problem about partnership, am sure that was the cause of the problem cos all the problems they were facing back then was due to the management board or some kind of disagreement. C'mon, if we can look at the rate at which people purchases their product, am sure the company must have been making millions