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Of Nerds and Men: Archaeology

by Zachary Miller - November 11, 2013, 8:21 pm PST
Total comments: 7

The Virtual Boy is a thing that exists.

1995 was a rough year for Nintendo. They were developing the Nintendo 64, but the Super Nintendo was still plenty popular. The Game Boy Pocket was still two years away, so in order to move more Game Boys they started selling multicolored systems (“Play It Loud!”). In order to fill in the gap they produced the Virtual Boy, and more bafflingly, began selling it to consumers in Japan and North America. On our shores, a deal with Blockbuster allowed customers to rent the systems for $10, but this ended up being a bad thing. Returning customers hated the thing and vowed to never play it again. Gamers in both regions complained of headaches, nausea, migraines, and seizures. Sales and word-of-mouth was so horrible that all production ceased within a year, but Blockbuster saw the writing on the wall and started selling their systems for dirt cheap after six months. Nintendo swept the system under the rug and rarely mentioned it in the future (Reggie claimed to “not be familiar” with it). The Virtual Boy was an unmitigated disaster.

I spent $135 for mine.

I won’t get into how the system works because I don’t even really understand (something about oscillating mirrors and laser arrays). The point is that the Virtual Boy is supposed to be a futuristic “virtual reality” device that puts you in the game. It’s like an animated, very expensive View Master toy.

Oh, you magnificent bastard.

Mine even came in the original box. Isn’t it pretty? It screams, “THE NINTIES!”, and is clearly an evolution of the “Play It Loud” campaign. Look at all the things it says:

HIGH-RESOLUTION 3-D GRAPHICS

32-BIT RISC PROCESSOR

DIGITAL STEREO SOUND

BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED

EYE ADVISORY: VIRTUAL BOY IS FOR PLAYERS 7 YEARS AND OLDER

No screenshots! I wonder why? Also, Wario Land is called Wario Cruise. "Wario Cruise, tell 'em how you feeeeel."

Although batteries (6 AAA’s) are not included, you can get $1.00 off a six-pack of Duracell batteries as long as you send in this voucher before 1997. Oh, and look, the system comes with Mario Tennis!

Look at this fucking thing.

This was sold to the public during 1995.

Who would buy this? Who thought this was a good idea?!

Pictures don’t really do it justice. These goggles are enormous. The instruction manual encourages you to “press your face” against the tiny little screens. The eyeshade is not rubber; it’s thick cloth.

Note the volume control, headphone plug, controller port, cartridge slot (in the center), and an unusual, HDMI-looking mystery port.

Once you find a comfortable “tilt” for the goggles, you tighten this little sprocket here and BINGO—Dino DNA!

The base of the goggle housing clacks into the stand like an alligator clip. No, seriously, it does.

The controller houses all six AA batteries and looks like some unholy amalgamation of the GameCube and NES controllers. Yes, there are two D-pads. No, it’s not clear why. There’s also a power switch in the center.

See, maybe a GameCube controller came from the future to protect the NES controller's son from...the evil...Sony controllers? I didn't really think this through. Anyway, the Virtual Boy controller is John Conner.

Notice that the goggles have two adjustment controls: The IPD (Inter-Pupil Distance) dial matches the distance between the two screens within the goggles. “This is the same adjustment you make when using binoculars,” says the instruction manual. Then there’s this FOCUS slider, which adjusts image sharpness. “Failure to properly adjust the Virtual Boy may result in headaches, nausea, dizziness, or blurred vision.” Thanks, Nintendo!

I love and hate this machine at the same time.

My system came with two copies of Mario Tennis, Wario Land, and some Baseball game that I’ll never play. Let’s plug one in!It’s tough to know where to begin. The screens are really, really tiny, and you can kind of tell that they’re a few inches from the housing. I can see the space in front of them. For reasons I can’t possibly comprehend I need to wear my glasses when using this system, even though I’m near-sighted, because otherwise the image is hopelessly blurry. I can read and play handheld games without my glasses, but when the image is two inches from my face? Apparently I’m blind as a bat. If anyone has a theory as to this strangeness, please divulge.

I'm just amazed at how much plastic and technology surrounds a screen that's probably the size of a projector slide.

Oh, by the way, everything is red and black. Nintendo couldn’t get color displays to work well, and besides they were cost-prohibitive. So every game is red and black. This isn’t as horrible as it initially sounds, but it takes some getting used to in Wario Land. The sound comes out of the housing itself from speakers, one on either side (stereo).

The Virtual Boy’s 3D effects range from impressive, given the technology, to barely there. Wario’s facing arm always appears to be on a closer plane than the rest of him and many of the stages have him leaping between the foreground and background. Mario Tennis makes surprisingly good use of 3D, although I find that the viewpoint makes judging the ball’s distance difficult.

I love those primitive "shoulder buttons."

While I have yet to experience headaches or nausea, I can tell you that the Virtual Boy just isn’t much fun to use. Since there’s no chin-rest your muscles are responsible for keeping your head in the right position, and this becomes tiring after awhile. Nintendo was planning on releasing a head-strap, but the Virtual Boy didn’t last long enough for that to happen.

The one picture we took of me playing the device turned out poorly (our house has like one lamp that gives off good lighting), but don't worry. I'll update this post in due time. But at least you can get some idea of the horror that is the Virtual Boy. This thing could only be produced in the 1990's, the same era that gave us The Lawnmower Man and Jurassic Park: Trespasser (YEAH REMEMBER THAT?!). Truly, we were on the cusp of attaining true virtual reality, but the Virtual Boy sank that dream. Fortunately, we are blessed with the Virtual Boy's immediate descendant: the 3DS, which does 3D effectively and without the need for special, oversized, hilarious goggles.

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Talkback

purevalNovember 12, 2013

I am so jealous. I have been hunting for one of those for years. I wanted one when they first came out, but no one would buy it for me. I have been outbid so many times on ebay it is not funny.

MetalMario2November 12, 2013

I got one for Christmas the year it was released. I still have it, and six games.

CericNovember 12, 2013

I found it better to just kay down and lay it over my eyes

CyrianNovember 12, 2013

One of my biggest gaming regrets is not picking up all the games when they were being clearanced out for dirt cheap. Oh how I want Jack Bros...but not for $300...

KITT 10KNovember 12, 2013

I think I remember that they had Mortal Kombat 3 on this as well. When i saw the commercial for it i wasn't sure about it but (even to this day) I remained curious about it. Even when a friend of mine got it. He absolutely hated it and before I could ask to try it he returned it. I knew it died fast because I only saw the commercials for it (I think) 3 or 4 times and have never heard anything about it till I read this article.

Ian SaneNovember 12, 2013

This is like the Nintendo jump-the-shark moment.  At the time Nintendo were the undisputed gods of videogames.  This was the first system they released where my response was "what the hell is that?"  Nothing about it made sense.  There are the obvious factors like the red & black graphics and the potential for eye damage.  But while everyone makes fun of Sega for releasing the 32X when the Saturn was on the doorstep, you don't really hear Nintendo getting the same flack for doing effectively the same thing.

I had been following the "Ultra 64" in the game mags at the time.  Arcade games like Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA were also promoted as Ultra 64 titles so this wasn't just insider stuff.  When I first saw the VB it seemed utterly confusing because the Ultra 64 was the real next gen for Nintendo so what the hell was this thing?  It came across as a stop gap like the 32X, something I just assumed would have no future.  Well maybe the VB was the next Game Boy except that made no sense either because this thing was clearly not portable.  Plus it had monochrome graphics and after years of the GB's lack of colour being the butt of jokes it was clear that any worthwhile Game Boy successor was going to have colour.  Realistically this was its own thing but the need for such a "third pillar" was not obvious and it did not help that Nintendo couldn't advertise it on TV or in print.

I had a chance once to try it out at a Nintendo display at the PNE but I never did as I frankly found the idea of putting my head into it somewhat intimidating.  I regret that now.  It would have been neat to just have experienced it once.

Think of the real impact this had on Nintendo.  Gunpei Yokoi was essentially forced out of Nintendo for this failure (that was actually Yamauchi's fault as Yokoi didn't feel it was fit to release but Yamauchi went with it anyway).  Yokoi is one of the key individuals responsible for Nintendo's videogame success.  What impact could his feedback have had in future Nintendo decisions?  In the console front Nintendo started sliding downhill pretty quickly after the Virtual Boy.  Would he have made a difference?  At the very least the VB is the turning point from the savy Nintendo of the 8 and 16 bit era to the "can-and-will-fuck-up-anything" Nintendo of the present day.  This was their first of MANY dumb mistakes and it forced out one of their top guys.  I don't know if the VB is responsible for how things went but it is certainly the turning point.  You could easily divide Nintendo's videogame history as pre and post-VB.

AdrockNovember 12, 2013

Quote from: Ian

Yokoi is one of the key individuals responsible for Nintendo's videogame success.  What impact could his feedback have had in future Nintendo decisions?

Nintendo still designs their hardware based on Yokoi's philosophy: Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology.

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