The Virtual Boy was a 32-bit portable... thing from Nintendo released in the summer of 1995 in Japan and North America. It remains the company's most notorious hardware failure, comparable to Sega's tumorous 32X. It was the brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi, father of the Game Boy and co-creator of the Metroid series.
In the 1990s, the possibilities of virtual reality gaming was beginning to manifest right alongside the industry-wise Video Game 3D Leap. It seemed like the natural evolution of the medium would have us fully immersed in 3D gaming spaces, and many companies tried their hand at creating VR headsets and the like. And it wasn't as though such attempts were completely unsuccessful: the same year that the Virtual Boy released gave us the $700 Forte VFX1, which functioned well enough given the tech at the time. So what happened to suddenly make virtual reality so unappealing to everyone for an entire decade? There are probably a few reasons, but Nintendo's foray into the market with the Virtual Boy likely didn't help.
- Many of the things that would have made the system an actual VR headset had to be removed either due to cost or safety concerns. It was intended to be a head-worn system with motion tracking, but ongoing concerns about motion sickness and Japanese safety regulations meant that it became more of a stereoscopic 3D system instead, with the goggle design being converted to the unappealing tabletop form-factor of the final product. Considering that it was marketed as a portable system, being stuck with a device that necessitated sitting or laying in an uncomfortable position in order to play it didn't make for a great first impression.
- The graphics were an unappealing black and red. The reason for this was two-fold: a full-color display would have shot the price north of $500 (for perspective, the Nintendo 64 launched two years later at $200), and there were once again motion sickness issues that came about when testing color LED displays, so monochrome was the best option. The most inexpensive color combo turned out to be red LEDs against a black background, even though it made even the most lighthearted games look like Nightmare on Elm Street.
- Despite Nintendo's best efforts, extended use caused eye strain. Games did come with an optional automatic pause feature to relieve this, as did the ability to adjust the focus and IPD, but people who casually used display kiosks or didn't read the instruction manual just assumed that it caused headaches and eye strain all the time, giving the system bad word-of-mouth.
- The games library generally missed the whole point of the system: to provide immersive gaming experiences. While a few games were in first-person, most were either simple sports games or parallax scrollers (this includes Virtual Boy Wario Land, which is often cited as one of the best games in the system's library), and many failed to give the illusion of 3D.
- This a minor one, but most forms of entertainment tend to do a good job of demoing themselves to potential consumers, since you can usually see someone else partaking in that media and gauge it secondhand: in the case of video games, watching a friend play one while sitting next to them. Many would say that watching someone else play a game can be fun in its own right. The Virtual Boy didn't let you do that, as unlike other virtual reality devices created both before and after, the action isn't automatically mirrored to a television or monitor, nor was there any method to do so during its original run. Outside of emulation, there was no method to record from official hardware until 2018, 23 years after its release, in the form of the short-lived Virtual Tap mod by Furrtek.
The Virtual Boy was dead-on-arrival, with industry pundits remarking that it was a novelty at best that had no long-term prospects. And they were right, as the system was discontinued after only five months in Japan and eight months in North America, selling an estimated 770,000 units globally. The Virtual Boy would never set foot in Europe. Nintendo would go on to be pretty blatant about how much of a failure the system was as well, as it's their system to never see its games re-released in any form. The company would completely ignore its existence until Super Smash Bros. Brawl, as the game's "Chronicle" feature contained a full list of the VB's first and second-party games. Nintendo became far more comfortable acknowledging the Virtual Boy after that, up to and including the point of open Self-Deprecation. All hail the Virtual Boy, indeed.
Shigeru Miyamoto stated in an Iwata Asks interview that the Virtual Boy's failure killed all enthusiasm for stereoscopic 3D within the company, making it hard to generate support for the Nintendo 3DS. He believes that the system would've succeeded if it was marketed as a toy instead of a game console. Yokoi likely shared the same mindset. As the man who created the Virtual Boy and was forced to release it in an essentially-unfinished state (Nintendo wanted to shift all hardware development resources to the upcoming Nintendo 64, and needed something to sell for the 1995 holiday season after it was delayed to 1996), he had planned to retire shortly after the system's release, with the Virtual Boy being a parting gift. Its failure meant that he decided to stick around for a bit longer to create the Game Boy Pocket (a hardware revision of the original Game Boy with a slimmer build and higher-quality display) in a failed attempt to ward off rumors that the Virtual Boy got him booted out of the company.
As an aside, Nintendo decided to use cheap glue on the display ribbons, rather than soldering, meaning that when the glue decayed, the display stopped working. So pretty much any Virtual Boy you manage to find these days might not function, or have been refurbished with soldered display ribbons. The fact that less than a million of these consoles are out there also means that both the system and its games go for stiff prices on auction sites like eBay, so get your wallet ready if you want to experience playing a Virtual Boy yourself.
As with any defunct platform, there is still a cult of Virtual Boy fans and collectors out there, as exemplified by the comprehensive Planet Virtual Boy, which includes homebrew games dating back to at least '99.
- A custom NEC V810 32-bit RISC Processor @ 20 MHz.
- 128KB DRAM
- 128KB VRAM
- 64KB WRAM (Window RAM)
- 16MB ROM cartridges with an additional 16MB of RAM if needed. Games only used up to 2MB of ROM and 8KB of battery backed RAM in practice.
- Dual monochrome red-and-black LED displays.
- 1x224 resolution per screen. The LEDs actually strobe through 384 columns really fast, but it's also stressful for the eyes, hence headaches.
- VSU-VUE custom sound hardware - 5 wavetable channels and 1 noise channel, easily comparable to the PSG of the PC-Engine, which was released about 8 years earlier)
- Took 6AA batteries or a 10V DC power adapter.
- Much like the Game Boy, the Virtual Boy had a serial communications port that was intended to be used for multiplayer purposes by having two systems link together. Due to the system's failure, this function was never officially utilized. However, devoted fans have managed to reverse engineer the protocol and a few homebrew titles are actually capable of making use of it, provided you are able to build your own cable and have two Virtual Boys to work with.
- 3D Tetris (US only), basically an Obvious Beta of Tetrisphere. A Japanese version called Polygo Block was planned but not released, although a playable build was present at Space World '95. One of two games on the system that uses both of the controller's D-Pads.
- Galactic Pinball, a collection of four space-themed pinball boards that predates Metroid Prime Pinball as Samus' first appearance in the genre.
- Golf (T&E Virtual Golf in Japan), a golf game featuring 47 virtual opponents.
- Insmouse No Yakata (Japan only), a surprisingly creepy first-person shooter/Survival Horror game based on the Cthulhu Mythos. The only FPS released, with an American localization planned as Mansion of Insmouse (a prototype build of which surfaced in a 2004 bankruptcy sale auction, where Acclaim's stuff was sold).
- Jack Bros (with the subtitle No Meirô De Hiihoo! in Japan), the first Shin Megami Tensei game to be released in North America.
- Mario Clash, a revamped version of Mario Bros. Revisited as a microgame in the first WarioWare.
- Mario's Tennis, Mario's first outing as a tennis player (he'd been a referee in Tennis for the NES and Game Boy).
- Nester's Funky Bowling (US only), the only game to officially star then-Nintendo Power mascot Nester. (However "Lark" in Pilotwings 64 is clearly Nester by a different name.) It's bowling. With Nester. And it's funky. If bowling was ever by any measure of the imagination "funky".
- Panic Bomber (Tobidase! Panibon in Japan), a Match-Three Game spinoff of Bomberman also released for several other platforms.
- Red Alarm (Red Alarm Virtual 3D Shooting Game in Japan), which looked like Battlezone and played like a hybrid of Star Fox and Descent. One of only two games that actually tried the "3D first-person simulation" angle.
- SD Gundam Dimension War (Japan only), one of two games released on the Virtual Boy's last day in Japan.
- Space Invaders Virtual Collection (Japan only)
- Space Squash (Japan only)
- Teleroboxer, best described as "Punch-Out!! WITH ROBOTS!" or "Real Steel: The Video Game". One of two games on the system that uses both of the controller's D-Pads, and one of only two games that actually tried the "3D first-person simulation" angle.
- V-Tetris (Japan only), a really bad idea due to being Tetris (i.e., addictive) on a system with an "LED strobing that gives you headaches if you play too long" element.
- Vertical Force, a Vertical Scrolling Shooter by Hudson Soft, playing like Star Soldier on two layers.
- Virtual Bowling (Japan only), the second of two games released on the Virtual Boy's last day in Japan and the rarest of all 22 that got released.
- Virtual Boy Wario Land (with the subtitle Awazon no Hihō in Japan), more than likely the closest thing the system had to a Killer App.
- Virtual Fishing (Japan only). An American version was planned for release in Winter (later Fall) 1996, but never released.
- Virtual Lab (Japan only), a puzzle game which was clearly unfinished upon release (for one, it uses a password-based system with nowhere to input said passwords).
- Virtual League Baseball (Virtual Pro Yakyuu '95 in Japan). Notable for being one of the few baseball games that allows you to play with international baseball teams rather than club-based baseball teams from a specific country or fictitious ones.
- Waterworld (US only). 'Nuff said. The only non-Japanese game developed for the console, and the sole movie-based game on the system. Called a case of The Problem with Licensed Games by The Angry Video Game Nerd.
- 3D Tank, a Battlezone-esque title by Boss Game Studios Inc. that didn't get any farther than a one-level demo.
- A Donkey Kong Country game, in development for only a few weeks before being scrapped.
- Doraemon: Nobita no Doki Doki! Obake Land, based on the Japanese Doraemon: World of Faries manga and scheduled for release in March 1996.
- Faceball (NikoChan Battle in Japan), an entry in the series that would've supported the unreleased Virtual Boy GameLink cable. It's also one of only two unreleased games for the console to have been dumped, and the build appears to be about 80% finished.
- GoldenEye, unrelated to the game eventually released on the Nintendo 64 - this one was a racing game.
- Interceptor, a Japan-only shooter by Coconuts Japan Entertainment Co., Ltd.
- Invincible Iron Man Gagaga-In, an action/fighting game by Hudson involving giant mecha. The game was canned not far into production, though a demo ROM is known to exist.
- J-League 3D Stadium, a soccer game by J-Wing which was scheduled for release on March 20, 1996.
- Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, developed by Bandai, which was scheduled for release in Fall 1995 but was later delayed to Winter 1996. Possibly cancelled due to the then-imminent launch of successor series Power Rangers Zeo.
- Night Landing, a game by Pow. Other than that... nobody knows what it is.
- Out of the Deathmount, a shooter (although the existing screenshot makes it seem like a Shadowgate-esque point-and-click game) by J-Wing that was scheduled for release on March 1, 1996.
- Proteus Zone, a game by Coconuts Japan Entertainment Co., Ltd. that was scheduled for release in March 1996.
- Shin Nihon Pro Wrestling Gekitou Densetsu, rumored to have been released in Japan in extremely limited quantities during December 1995.
- Signal Tatto, a Japan-only game by J-Wing. Nobody knows what it is.
- Sora Tobu Henry, a Japan-only game (although despite five pictures existing, nobody knows what it is) scheduled for release on December 15, 1995.
- Star Seed, a game by Coconuts Japan Entertainment Co., Ltd. Nobody knows what it is.
- Strange Animal School, a Japan-only game which might have been something like Tamagotchi.
- Sunday's Point, a game by Coconuts Japan Entertainment Co., Ltd. that was mentioned as an upcoming game at E3 '95. Nobody knows what it is.
- VB Mario Land, a fusion of traditional side-scrolling Mario platforming with the "jump into the background" element of Virtual Boy Wario Land and top-down Zelda-style areas. Based on pictures shown in Nintendo Power and other publications, plus a recording of the one-level demo shown at the Winter CES '95, it appears that Wario was meant to be the villain. While the game was canned and Mario Clash rose from its ashes, the system's lack of a true Mario title definitely hurt its chances more.
- Virtual Block, a 3D Breakout/Arkanoid/Alleyway game with two paddles, each connected to one of the D-Pads. A playable build was present at Space World '95.
- Virtual Bomberman, an entry in the long-running series with 3D explosions. Hudson's booth at Space World '95 showed off the game, which was scheduled for release in December 1995 but pushed to February 29, 1996. Most likely the inspiration for Bomberman World for the PlayStation three years later.
- Virtual Dodgeball, a dodgeball game.
- Virtual Double Yakuman, the third entry in the Mahjong-based game series (the first two were released for the Game Boy and Super Famicom, respectively). Scheduled for release on February 1, 1996.
- Virtual Gunman, an FPS that was shown at Space World '95 and scheduled for release in March 1996.
- Virtual Jockey, a horse-racing simulator (maybe) and one of the few unreleased games to have official artwork released.
- Virtual League Baseball 2 (Virtual Pro Yakyuu '96 in Japan), a sequel to Virtual League Baseball/Virtual Pro Yakyuu '95 that was scheduled for release in March 1996.
- Wangan Sensen Red City, a Japan-only Asmik game that, based on the two available pictures, might have been a tactical war simulator.
- Worms, an entry in the series that was canned a few weeks into pre-production when the developers looked into the console and decided it was destined for failure.
Around March 1996, three games prominently took the spotlight in what was to be a relaunch of the console in both America and Japan. These looked to be the Killer Apps that stood a good chance of at least keeping the system around for a few more months (if not saving it outright), possibly even giving some of the above games a better possibility of seeing release:
- Bound High!, a very well-done 3D game that took full advantage of its platform. Scheduled for release on February 23, 1996 in Japan and August 26 in America, it's one of only two unreleased games for the console to have been dumped - and the build appears to be finished.
- Dragon Hopper (Jump Dragon in Japan), a Zelda-ish action/adventure game that appeared at Space World '95 and E3 '96 along with being previewed by Nintendo Power. Scheduled for release on August 26, 1996.
- Zero Racers (called G-Zero early on), an F-Zero sequel that was also previewed by Nintendo Power. Scheduled for release in Fall 1996.
While Nintendo Power Issue 87 (August 1996) previewed Zero Racers and listed the aforementioned three games as having release dates of "Fall '96" on the Forecast page, the magazine was evidently told they wouldn't be released and the system was in fact dead - the Virtual Boy section of the Forecast page was dropped immediately afterward and the magazine stopped coverage of the system altogether after Issue 89 (October 1996), which printed a few codes for Jack Bros. and Panic Bomber. The magazine did revisit the system a few times between 2005-09, though.
- Dolphins Demo: Dolphins and water effects (a theme Nintendo would use for other systems' tech demos), including a 3D beach scene where the water appears to come in from the horizon. Shown at Winter CES '95 and E3 '95.
- F1 Demo: A 3D first-person driving demo that runs about 30 seconds. Shown at Winter CES '95 and E3 '95.
- Mario Demo: The startup screen of the Virtual Boy prototype shown at Shoshinkai '94. The sequence shows a rendered Mario under a simple Virtual Boy logo, the letters of which fly one at a time toward the viewer.
- Sample: Some very simple code that came with the VUE Debugger software, where the user moves a ball around a 3D playfield.
- Sample Soft for VUE Programming: A sample program for Virtual Boy programmers, which also came with each VUE Debugger. The demo consists of five programs, selected with the L and R buttons.
- Starfox Demo: A Star Fox-like ship made of filled polygons (as opposed to the empty ones of Red Alarm), spinning and zooming in 3D. Shown at Winter CES '95 and E3 '95.
All Hail the Virtual Boy!