Back in the mid 90’s the Virtual Reality craze was taking the world by storm. A new generation of games consoles promised processing power like never seen before and we were led to believe that virtual reality (VR) was finally on the verge of becoming mainstream. Of course our expectations were way too high and consumer VR never really materialised. The technology of the day was bulky, uncomfortable, underpowered and grossly expensive. There is however one piece of hardware that stands out from the crowd. This comes in the form of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.
In 1995 at the height of the VR craze, Nintendo released its first standalone consumer VR system – The Virtual Boy. Although the Virtual Boy was initially only available in Japan, it later became available in the US for a tidy $180. Although not massively expensive, the Virtual Boy was more costly than some games consoles of the time. It was also riddled with problems.
Ultimately the Virtual Boy was doomed from the beginning.
The virtual Boy was slated as being the worlds first 32bit gaming console. Although Nintendo was heavily engaged in developing the N64 at the time, the Virtual Boy was still more powerful than the current 16bit systems. The system incorporates two LED displays (one for each eye) and creates a 3D effect via two rapidly oscillating mirrors. Although graphics were rather limited by the red monochrome display, it was praised for its high resolution – 384 x 224. The whole system was powered by 6 x AA batteries.
Although described as a portable device, the Virtual Boy was far from such. It had a bulky cumbersome design which required being set up on a flat surface to use. It was not truly portable in that you could not sit it on your knee and play it on the bus, for example. As such, it was far from a comfortable gaming experience with users ofter having to hunch over to play.
Another issue derived from Nintendos decision to use monochromatic screen technology which incorporated only red LED’s. Nintendo claimed that this helped to keep costs down but in reality it just made for a very miserable gaming experience. Literally everything was red, black or something in between. This slightly undermined the 3D effect and made the experience less immersive.
Unfortunately, users of the Virtual boy complained of eye strain, sickness and general unease during gameplay. This was largely attributed to the monochrome display and poor design ergonomics. Although Nintendo had incorporated pauses into gameplay it did little to improve the overall experience.
Another nail in the coffin resulted from a serious lack of games – only 14 were ever available in the US!
Whilst the Virtual Boy did not deliver the virtual experience that we expect today, it did go some way in creating a unique and immersive gaming experience with had not been seen before. Unfortunately because of the various issues with the system Nintendo just couldn’t shift enough units. Even subsequent price reductions did little to increase sales and Nintendo struggled to get developers on board.
Ultimately the Virtual Boy was a commercial disaster and was discontinued in the US in early 1996. The Virtual Boy did however show Nintendo’s commitment to innovation and certainly paved the way for the immensely popular 3DS – a truly portable 3D games console.