The Nintendo Virtual Boy was a portable game console that used a parallax effect to give the illusion of depth through rapidly oscillating mirrors in the unit itself. It is notable for being the first game console to display graphics in true 3D as well as being one of Nintendo's biggest market blunders. All Virtual Boy games are rendered in a monochrome red and are viewed through a dark, neoprene, binocular-like device, rather than a standard screen. The Virtual Boy launched August 14, 1995 carrying an MSRP of $179.99.
The Virtual Boy's hardware is truly the core of the platform, as only 14 games ever made it to North America. It all works with high-resolution LED display technology developed by Reflection Technology Inc. Each LED display has over 200 lights that turn on and off rapidly to create the game's image, which reflect off the oscillating mirrors. The vibration from the mirror creates the apparent thickness of the image, which is actually simply a vertical line of LEDs. This image is then focused through the adjustable lens and passes into the player's eyes. To create the 3D effect, the image in one of the eyes is shifted over using a technique called interocular distance. Each LED has 4 shades of red and 32 levels of intensity. The process of rendering the image is very CPU intensive, as 2 screens need to be rendered at the same time.
Nintendo never explained why they designed Virtual Boy to render images in monochromatic red-on-black. One possibility is that it used LEDs instead of an LCD screen, which provide a much sharper contrast with the dark background. LCD screens typically require backlighting of some kind, making a multi-color display cost-prohibitive for the time. (Red LEDs are also the cheapest to purchase and cause less eye strain than other colors.)
The unit itself features 2 display tuning controls. One adjusts the inter-pupil distance, which is the space between the player's eyes. The other, a slider, controls picture clarity. When perfectly focused, the Virtual Boy produced a convincing 3D effect, with sharper resolution than contemporary handhelds like the Game Boy.
The Virtual Boy's controller resembled a hybrid Gamecube/NES device, with A/B buttons, Start/Select, and dual 4-way directional pads mounted above pistol grips. Some games balanced 3D controls across both pads, with one controlling "forward-back" and the other "up-down." Others copied the same controls to left and right sides, allowing players to choose which they preferred. (For example, right-handed or left-handed.)
Nintendo announced a 2-player link cable at system launch for head-to-head play, but never released it. Their clip-on power pack, which allowed use of the SNES AC adapter instead of 6 AA batteries, remains its only official add-on. The Virtual Boy's short battery life made this plug-in pack almost essential for extended play sessions, disappointing for a supposedly "portable" system. (Both power sources connect to a compartment under the controller itself.)
CPU - 32-bit RISC processor @ 20 MHZ
Display - RTI dual mirror-scan, high-res LED displays
Resolution - 384x224px (Each screen)
Software - 8/16 Mb ROM game paks (Mario's Tennis bundled at launch)
Sound - Digital stereo sound
Controller - Double-grip with two directional pads and 6 buttons
Power - Six AA batteries (9V), SNES AC adapter (10V)
Size/Weight - 14x10x7" assembled; 5lbs
Criticism and Failure
The Virtual Boy was poorly received in the market, selling just under 800,000 units. It is Nintendo's biggest and only true market failure. The main issues with the unit were obvious. It did not have color, it caused a strain on the eyes when used for periods as short as 15 minutes, third party support was nearly nonexistent, the two player link cable was never released, it received bad press, and due to the visor the experience could not be shared with others. The unit may also have been overhyped as a machine that projected 3D images into the air, which led to obvious disappointment. The solo experience is perhaps one of the greatest factors leading to the system's quiet demise. Players were unable to actually understand how a Virtual Boy worked by watching someone play, or even through descriptions provided in print media. To counter this fact, Nintendo partnered with Blockbuster to rent out units for $9.99 with 2 games. The campaign obviously never worked, and despite price cuts to as low as $30 the Virtual Boy only moved just under 800,000 units.
Future of Gunpei Yokoi
Gunpei Yokoi was virtually exiled from Nintendo after the flop of the Virtual Boy. He was well known at Nintendo for the Game & Watch series, Game Boy, and Metroid series. The idea of the Virtual Boy seemed interesting and innovative, but pressure from Nintendo forced Yokoi to rush it out for Christmas, leaving the Virtual Boy in a prototype stage when released by Nintendo.
After the failure, Nintendo started to question Gunpei Yokoi's ability, and Yokoi lost his job soon after.
Comparison to 3D Systems
Despite the bad press it gets, the Virtual Boy is actually quite revolutionary. It easily bests the Vectrex in terms of graphical quality and library size. It has a much sharper image and does not suffer from the ghosting problems the Vectrex does. It looks much better than Tomy 3-D, 3D Sega Master System games and 3D NES games. It was truly the peak of 3D graphics at the time.
With only 22 games released worldwide and 14 games in total released in the US, the Virtual Boy is a highly collectible system due to the ease in completing the entire library. Only one game is truly rare in North America, Jack Bros; a Treasure game that can fetch up to $100 in second hand markets. WaterWorld is also notable for being considered one of the worst games of all time by many outlets, and is rather obscure as well. The one game that received a good deal of positive critical acclaim on the Virtual Boy was Virtual Boy Wario Land. Unlike most Virtual Boy games which focused on a single, repetitive concept, Virtual Boy Wario Land was a full-fledged 2D platformer which took advantage of the system's 3D capabilities by having a foreground and a background.
- 3D Tetris
- Galactic Pinball - (Release game)
- Jack Bros.
- Nester's Funky Bowling
- Virtual Bowling - (Japan only)
- SD Gundam Dimension War - (Japan only)
- Virtual Lab - (Japan only)
- Vertical Force
- Panic Bomber - (Release game in Japan)
- Space Invaders Virtual Collection - (Japan only)
- Virtual Boy Wario Land
- Insmouse no Yakata - (Japan only)
- Virtual Fishing - (Japan only)
- Mario Clash
- Space Squash - (Japan only)
- Virtual League Baseball
- V-Tetris - (Japan only)
- Mario's Tennis - (Release game)
- Teleroboxer - (Release game)
- Red Alarm - (Release game)