On July 21, 1995, Virtual Boy hit stores in Japan and took the world by storm. No, it’s not a storm. whatever the opposite. Did you have a very pleasant day with low humidity and a light breeze? It failed so spectacularly that it looks like the Wii U was a huge success. Its sales were so bad that Nintendo doesn’t even list the total number on its corporate site, even though it lists every console it’s ever made. According to figures Nintendo provided to Famitsu in 1996, Virtual Boy sold 770,000 units worldwide. In other words, the N gauge sold more than the Virtual Boy.
It also has the distinction of being the only non-special edition console released and discontinued by Nintendo in the same calendar year. By December 1995, the same year Nintendo released Virtual Boy, Nintendo quietly canceled Virtual Boy, saying that it would only be available in Japan for five months. He disappeared from the state in August 1996, living on the West Coast for almost a year.
So was Virtual Boy the victim of poor marketing? Were stereoscopic 3D consoles really ahead of their time and just failed because video game consumers in 1995 weren’t ready to embrace the first standalone 3D video game consoles? It was really bad.
Have you ever noticed that the virtual boy isn’t appearing in the “actually it was good” discourse that seems to dominate online conversation? In 1995 virtual reality was the hottest techno buzzword. The 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, which featured a virtual world, was successful enough to spawn an even worse sequel. His VR helmet appears in Fisher Stevens’ apartment in the movie Hackers, and it shows just how cyberpunk this guy is.
With the release of Windows 95, computers moved from hobbyist to consumer, so everything suddenly felt cyberpunk and futuristic, and no field captured the unrealized promise of our technological future like virtual reality. The fact that Nintendo never managed to live up to its hype in the mass market speaks to how crappy the Virtual Boy was to actually play and use.
Virtual reality was the hottest trend of the 1990s, but it wasn’t quite ready for the mass market (some would argue it wasn’t yet). The headset was ridiculously huge. The graphics were surprisingly primitive. And it came at a huge cost, both in money and computing power. Virtual Boy took the popular notion of what virtual reality is and tried to recreate it for $179.99. The result is a device that basically does nothing that virtual reality promised.
First, virtual reality back then relied on headsets as much as it does today. I wrapped a giant helmet around my head and fought low-poly pterodactyls at 13 fps. The Virtual Boy, on the other hand, was just a display on a crappy stand, with no real adjustments to suit your personal needs other than the most basic adjustments in angle. You stuck your face to it, and if you had to bend your neck to do it, that’s your problem.
The very idea of one of virtual reality’s biggest and best features—motion tracking—was completely impossible because the Virtual Boy wasn’t meant to be worn on the face. To be fair, the technology would have inflated the cost further (his $179.99 in 1995 was a lot higher than it is today), but it would have been closer to real virtual reality.
When it comes to cost, the famous red graphics were largely due to the lower cost of red displays compared to full-color displays. It was said to be easy on the eyes, but it only made it look worse for people who stuck their faces in it. Ever wanted to play a video game through the periscope of a submarine? Nintendo gave you the chance to experience it firsthand.
The red graphics, the fact that you have to lean against your device, the odd controller, and the headache-inducing stereoscopic 3D all worked together to smash your chances of success. The experience was so unpleasant that it doesn’t matter if any of his 22 official games on Virtual Boy were his 10/10 bangers, you wouldn’t want to play them anyway. If a meal personally cooked by Gordon Ramsey was served in the middle of the garden, would you eat it? Probably not. But either way, most of the matches weren’t great. Not bad! But it matters little to the overall Nintendo experience.
We’d love to say Virtual Boy was ahead of its time, and talk about its hidden best games, or how it inspired an entire generation of consoles, but it really wasn’t. Nintendo finally returned to his 3D arena with his 3DS. The main difference from the 3DS was that the 3D was great, stretched out and in full color. Also, 3D got a lot of attention when the 3DS came out. Virtual Boy was released at the height of his VR madness in the 1990s, but it was far from the cyberpunk virtual landscape we were promised and was only remembered as a failure.
It was not ahead of its time. Sadly, it was never included in any era. It was just an idea that never resulted in anything of value. If you are ever in a position to try it, you will see for yourself how impossible it is to enjoy it.
Still… I’d like to own one as a collection.