Monday Spotlight - The Virtual Boy

Each and every Monday I take an in-depth look at one video game topic. This can be anything related to games and the industry, from individual titles and consoles to developers and prominent figures, and everything else in-between. All related topics are fair game and I will offer some history, commentary and insight for each. Check back each Monday for a new spotlight, and click here for past entries.

Gunpei Yokoi had the golden touch. A career that spanned three decades with Nintendo saw him work on classics such as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Kid Icarus and Metroid; games which came to define the Kyoto based company and ensured global success. Yokoi was an accomplished inventor, creating the Game & Watch which would go on to sell over 43 million units worldwide. Legend has it that in 1979, whilst riding the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), he took note of a salaryman amusing himself by playing with an LCD calculator. This chance encounter was the genesis of the Game & Watch concept, as Yokoi went about designing a handheld game ideal for killing time and preventing businessmen from having to entertain themselves by spelling BOOBLESS on a calculator.

From the Game & Watch was born another of Yokoi's inventions - the Nintendo Game Boy - one of the most influential and best-selling consoles of all time. Released in 1989, the 8-bit handheld was a phenomenon, outselling and outliving a number of technically superior products and giving rise to a brand that flourishes to this day with the DS and 3DS. Between the original model and the later Game Boy Colour, it shifted almost 120 million units worldwide.

Gunpei Yokoi would leave Nintendo in 1996. Moving to Bandai, he developed the WonderSwan, a Japan only handheld, but was tragically killed in a car accident a year later, aged 56. He left an unmatched legacy of innovation and flair for designing products with mass appeal, but while the Game Boy may have been the most memorable of his creations, his final, new device would be disastrous. His once spotless record was sullied by one of the biggest failures in Nintendo’s illustrious history: The Virtual Boy.  

The first gaming console capable of 3D graphics “straight out of the box”, the Virtual Boy was a portable in only the very loosest sense of the word. Consisting of a head-set, stand and controller it required a flat surface to play comfortably and leaves the player completely oblivious to what is going on in their peripheries. If you tried playing the VB on the train, not only would you have looked ridiculous, but also likely to fall off the platform when you disembarked.

The VB achieved its 3D effect in a distinctive palette of monochromatic reds, after it was discovered that full colour visuals would create a double-vision effect as opposed to a sensation of depth. Powered by a not very environmentally sound six AAA batteries, it was as ugly as it was unwieldy, sharing none of the ergonomic design of the Game Boy.

Unveiled in November 1994, it tapped into the Virtual Reality craze – one that would be rather short lived – and generated a great deal of hype from consumers unsure of how the 3D effect would be displayed and how it would look.  Japanese gamers found out for themselves on July 21 1995 for ¥15,000, and America would get it three weeks later, priced at $180. Mario's Tennis, Red Alarm, Galactic Pinball and Teleroboxer constituted a decent launch selection but it would be slim pickings the rest of the way for VB owners.

Due to its short lifespan and Nintendo’s reluctance to support third party development for fear of a dip in software quality, only 22 individual games were released (Japan had the choice of 19 titles, North America 14), making it one of the most under-supported platforms in gaming history. 3D Tetris proved to be the system's swansong and Virtual Boy Wario Land is widely regarded as the high water mark for the failed piece of kit.

It was an unequivocal flop, only shipping 800,000 units worldwide before being discontinued in Japan within the same year of release, followed a few months later in the US. Apparently units were available for as little as ¥980 and retailers were almost giving away software once Nintendo had made clear their intent to no longer support the VB – surprising considering its current status as an expensive collector’s piece.

The VB's failure cannot be narrowed down to one single cause, but rather a number of factors which had it doomed from the word go. Consumers were unconvinced by the 3D effect, something which couldn’t be conveyed through screenshots. Without trying the VB first hand, potential customers couldn’t experience the revolutionary display and magazine screenshots could portray only simple, red and black monochromatic images which were a disservice to the product. Nintendo continues to battle a similar problem conveying 3D effects through images and footage with the 3DS.

With the coming of the fifth generation, and the impressive leap in visuals offered by the Saturn and PlayStation, the high retail price of the VB was not palatable. Due to its clumsy unportable-like nature, the VB was compared to the new era of home consoles far more than Nintendo had intended, instead of its true portable competitors, and that was not a battle it could win nor one it wished to fight.

Rumours circulated about the VB having a detrimental effect on long-term vision and that it could cause epileptic fits. Though these claims were largely false, Nintendo couldn’t deny that users were complaining of headaches and eye strain after extended sessions and their own health warnings perpetuated the belief that the VB was dangerous. After every 15-30 minutes of play, an automatic menu appears on-screen asking the player if they would like to take a break, and game and console manuals were littered with alarming health warnings, such as the following:

"This product MUST NOT be used by children under the age of seven years. Artificial stereo vision displays may not be safe for such children and may cause serious, permanent damage to their vision"

"Failure to follow all instructions could injure you and cause serious damage to your vision or hearing"

These statements didn't imbue consumers with confidence and it is difficult to comprehend why such a product, largely aimed at children, would be seen as being fit for release. I own a Virtual Boy and I can attest that, on the few occasions that I have played it for more than 10 minutes, I have been left feeling slightly nauseous, with a nice goggle-shaped imprint left around the eyes!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the VB was clearly destined for failure and one must wonder why Nintendo, a company with an excellent track record of releasing quality products, would have released it in the first place and how, more specifically, a project with the Yokoi midas touch could be so spectacularly flawed. It is claimed in David Sheff's book Game Over, which I found via wikipedia, that Yokoi never expected the console to be released in its present form and was pressed into finishing it prematurely, so that Nintendo could focus on the Nintendo 64 and its forthcoming battle with SEGA and Sony.

Yokoi left Nintendo soon after. Some claim he was forced out, his reputation tarnished by the colossal failure, whereas others are adamant that it was always his intention to depart Nintendo once the development of the VB was over. Whatever the case, it was a sad end to a very profitable relationship and the end of an era for both the inventor and Nintendo, who would continue to lose market share until hitting back with the Wii a decade later. It would tragically be Yokoi’s last major contribution to the industry he worked so hard to champion.

The VB is a strange piece of kit. The idea of a dedicated, 3D console was a novel one and is being explored again this generation with the 3DS. I believe there is a certain amount of indifference to 3D gaming and no matter how well the Virtual Boy had been designed it still likely would have failed. The simplistic visuals of the Game Boy were less of a hurdle as they were outweighed by the quality of the software, and the compact nature and low cost of the hardware. Afforded none of these luxuries, the VB's primitive looking graphics made it appear antiquated at the start of the fifth generation, and not the first step towards the future of gaming that Nintendo had hoped.

If the future of gaming lies in true 3D (consider me sceptical) then we may come to look back at the VB in a more favourable light, as a forward looking console that went all in on the 3D fad where previous consoles had only dared dabble. But that would ignore the simple fact that it was, and remains a badly designed and ill-conceived mistake by a company and creator who rarely put a foot wrong. Still, it does make for an interesting conversation piece sat on my living room shelves, collecting dust.

The Toomanywires-UK Century

My next post will be the 100th here at toomanywires UK since its inception last October. I have no idea how I will celebrate this meaningless milestone, but I'm sure I will think of something. It should be up this Wednesday so be sure to check back then to see if I've had some sort of epiphany.


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