I've mentioned this before, but in 1994-1995, Nintendo was more or less on the top of the world.
It's kind of amazing to know that some people still use "Nintendo" as a stand-in for video games as a whole. Nintendo themselves haven't done that since 1991, and yet the practice still stands. Nintendo had managed to transcended the marketplace and become a part of pop culture. No other company has accomplished that to the same extent as Nintendo.
Nintendo took full advantage of that status, too. They capitalized on the NES' popularity by making tons of awesome games (and putting a strangehold on third-party developers, but that's another show), and they launched into the 16-bit era with some instantly-classic games like Super Mario World and F-Zero, effectively ushering in the second half of their Golden Age in the video game industry.
In the mid-1990s, however, things began to change quite a bit. Compact disc technology was becoming more affordable, and the benefits of CDs over cartridges as a storage medium were immediately apparent. Sony had a falling out with Nintendo, and they decided to release their own console, the Playstation. Sega had the Saturn. Nintendo had...
Well, they didn't have much, at least at the time. The Nintendo 64 was in development, but there was no way it was going to be out before 1996. They needed something to fill in the gap, since their Super Nintendo games were getting a little dated compared to the other consoles at the time. Pokemon had yet to be released in the US, and wouldn't be until 1998, so the Game Boy was floundering a little bit. What was Nintendo to do?
They called upon the genius of Gunpei Yokoi, the man who designed the Game & Watch games, as well as the Game Boy, and had him create the next new thing for Nintendo. That thing was supposed to usher in a new age of gaming. It didn't. It was the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
The Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s attempt to make a virtual reality game console in the mid 1990s. Y’know, since virtual reality was the wave of the future back then, if Lawnmower Man and Jonny Mneumonic were to be believed. The Virtual Boy looked a hell of a lot like what you would expect a virtual reality device to look like; it was a big pair of goggles that you had to look into to see the game, and a nifty game controller that had two directional pads, which was kind of novel. Note that I said “novel”, not “useful” or “needed.”
Sounds pretty cool, right?
Well, yeah. It is. It’s friggin’ sweet. There’s a few very glaring flaws with the system design, though.
– The system uses special black magic to allow the user to see games in 3D. This is something that’s all the rage right now, so to see it on a console that was released in 1995 is pretty amazing. The flaws of stereoscopic 3D still plague the system, however. It is very hard to play games for more than a few minutes at a time due to the eye strain that occurs when looking at the screen for long periods of time. There was even a disclaimer on the box that warned that children under the age of 6 shouldn’t play the console due to the potential for it to cause PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE.
– The Virtual Boy used a red and black color scheme to display its games. This, coupled with the 3D issues listed above, made for a sometimes-disorienting game experience. Some people have claimed that it also makes red things harder to see once you stop playing, as well. This odd design choice was due to a cost-cutting measure during development: The Virtual Boy was originally supposed to be a full-color system, but blue and green LEDs were expensive to use, and would have brought the price of the unit to WAY beyond consumer-level. As a result, the machine primarily used red LEDs, which were much cheaper to use, hence why all of the games are red and black monochrome.
– There were a little over a dozen games released in the US, so there isn’t much to choose from. It’s unfortunate, too – A lot of the games are really good. Even more tragic is the fact that every game is unique to the system - there is very little chance any of the games will see a re-release in the future.
The game lineup was definitely interesting. Here are a few of my favorite games for the console:
Wario Land is probably the best game on the Virtual Boy, and it’s usually the first one that people track down for the system. This was the game that made me need a Virtual Boy, back when I played one in a Service Merchandise while my mom was shopping for school clothes and stuff that actually mattered.
It’s a ridiculously fun platformer, where you play as Mario’s even-more-overweight and greedy opposite, collecting coins and elbowing enemies in the face. This game plays similar to the rest of the Wario Land series, but it’s most similar to the first one on the Game Boy. The visuals are really nice; the game looks like a monochrome Super Nintendo game moreso than a Game Boy one. The 3D effects give the backgrounds some amazing detail, and the sense of perspective you get when playing is really awesome. Despite the fact that this game was more or less the killer app for the Virtual Boy, it hasn’t seen a release since ’95. This game, more than a lot of others, needs a 3DS Virtual Console re-release. It's excellent.
V-Tetris. This was actually a Japan-only release, developed by one of my favorite companies, Bullet Proof Software. They’re the people responsible for games like Yoshi’s Cookie, Hatris, and… Michael Andretti’s Indy Car Challenge. I've talked about BPS before, so go check my other blog post if you want to know a little more about them.
It's also worth noting that there was another Tetris game released for the system: 3D Tetris was the last US-released Virtual Boy game, and, contrary to the name, it's actually a version of Welltris, which is an official spin-off of Tetris made by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. Welltris is basically a 3D version of Tetris where you have the same block-stacking objective but instead of stacking blocks in a 2D tower, you did it in a 3D cube. It's confusing, and not nearly as fun as normal Tetris. Fun fact: Bullet Proof Software developed the original version of Welltris on the PC, but they didn't develop 3D Tetris on the Virtual Boy, instead making V-Tetris. Goddamn, this got confusing.
Now, Tetris is a game that is hard to screw up. And, honestly, BPS didn’t really screw up here. The biggest hurdle to overcome was the 3D effect with the Virtual Boy, and they didn’t quite do it. Now, don’t get me wrong. The 3D works fine. It’s actually a really cool effect that made me flinch a little bit because it actually looked like the blocks were actually coming towards me.
The game definitely plays great. The problem is that Tetris is an addictive game. Putting an addictive game on a console that has the potential to physically harm you is a terrible idea. I played this for about an hour straight earlier today, and I felt awful afterwards. Most of the Virtual Boy games are designed for short bursts of gameplay, so you can take a break from playing when you feel lousy. Tetris doesn’t quite work like that.
Nester’s Funky Bowling. There isn’t anything particularly “funky” about it. It’s just a bowling game, starring Nester.
Who is Nester, you may ask? (Damn kids...)
Why, he was the long-time mascot of Nintendo Power, which was a magazine that, for twenty-something years, was the be-all-end-all of Nintendo news and info. Unfortunately its publication ended just after the launch of the Wii U. Nester appeared in a monthly comic strip for Nintendo Power, which highlighted a different game for each comic. He originally was partnered with Howard Phillips, a former employee of Nintendo of America, but eventually he started headlining comics without Howard.
Nester’s Funky Bowling is one hell of a bowling game. It’s a genre that I honestly have no interest in since the last time I went to a bowling alley it was less about bowling and more about downing $3 Sam Adams, but this particular bowling game manages to actually be enjoyable. It’s satisfying as hell to actually get a strike, and Nester’s reactions whenever you don’t get one are very amusing since Nester is a sore loser.
The Virtual Boy’s library was small. Most of the games didn’t see a release outside of the console. There’s a few more gems in the VB library, such as Vertical Force, a shooter by Hudson Soft, and the incredibly-rare Jack Bros., which is a dungeon crawler in the style of Gauntlet. Jack Bros. is actually the first game in the Shin Megami Tensei series to be brought over to the US. It was published by Atlus, which basically means that it’s incredibly expensive on the aftermarket because Atlus didn’t make nearly enough copies of the game, like always (see: Run Saber, Snowboard Kids 2, Ogre Battle 64, Trap Gunner, etc).
The Virtual Boy was a gigantic failure for Nintendo. In fact, it was their first “real” failure in the game industry. The general public just didn’t catch on to the whole craze of virtual reality once all of its flaws were apparent, and the sales of the VB reflected that. This thing was nearly given away by 1996. It’s treated as a huge black mark on Nintendo’s history, even moreso than the perceived mistakes they made when developing the Nintendo 64. Needless to say, Nintendo really doesn’t like to talk about the Virtual Boy right now.
Even worse, the Virtual Boy was also the device that ended Gunpei Yokoi's success with Nintendo. The blame for the Virtual Boy's failure was placed solely on Yokoi's shoulders, which led him to leave Nintendo in late 1996.
I think a lot of the criticism of the Virtual Boy is valid. The console is not well-designed for any sort of serious gaming session, and the pain that can be caused by LOOKING AT THE SCREEN is a huge issue that cannot be avoided. Despite this, a lot of the games on the VB are really good, and it’s a shame that a lot of people didn’t experience it. Most people who have heard of the VB in passing will dump it with truly horrible game consoles, like the Tiger Game.Com or the Hyperscan. That’s not really fair. The Virtual Boy actually has good stuff on it, and you owe it to yourself to at least give it a play if you ever see one. Just make sure to bring some eyedrops.