Do You Remember 1995?
A Time For Transition
Nintendo up to that time was the industry leader of innovation. Even now we credit everything from rumble, to motion controls, to even the D-Pad as Nintendo generated. They were the company that dared to be different, driven by fun as much by the company bottom line. Thus the Virtual Boy arrived with a high bar standard to meet. During this period the original GameBoy wound down, and the Super Nintendo tired after its storied battle with the Genesis faded into history. Yet the gaming world Nintendo had saved was already evolving. New competitors had arrived with powerful processors, and new ideas such as the Playstation and Sega Saturn. Nintendo’s heavy hitting answer the Nintendo 64 was still a year away. Nintendo felt the need to do something, to return the narrative to their brand. Enter the Virtual Boy. Yes before the Oculus Rift dazzled our over worked eyes, the Virtual Boy graced store shelves promising us a world of 3D gaming never to be seen before. Yet now it sits as a tale of folly, a noted blemish on Nintendo’s storied record. With such a promise of innovation what went wrong?
The Idea Rabbit Hole
The Virtual Boy rocked a 32bit processor, a controller utilizing dual D pads, as well as trigger buttons. Did I mention the first ever console 3D display? Nintendo felt they were primed to hit the gaming world by storm. Having purchased Reflection Technologies Inc “Private Eye” Technology for five million dollars, they were able to have an edge on competitors by developing something never seen. Nintendo toyed with several ideas scrapping head band worn optics in favor of a table top stand (yikes). The next blunder was screen coloring. The overwhelming success of the GameBoy, which utilized green and black back coloring told Nintendo fans wouldn’t object to a dual colored game experience. They had attempted color however there was distortion and blurring during tests. Perhaps it was over confidence, perhaps it was the condensed timeline trying to push out a new product. Either way opting for a two color scheme was not the way to go. Granted the red and black coloring blurred less with sprite movement than the green and black, it was safe to say fans were not pleased.
Failure On Launch
The over all result was a finicky display as well as numerous complaints of headaches and neck aches. The library was small with only a hand full of games. That 32 bit processor I mentioned earlier, it was being used for two separate LCD screens (one for each eye) so its computing power was far less than one would expect. The Games looked like a rich man’s Gameboy, or a poor man’s SNES. At least that was the case for the 15 minutes you could play without eye strain. Perhaps the greatest reason for its “dead on arrival” status was given by a product that had not been released yet. A product from its own parent company. Yes the Nintendo 64 was slated for arrival in 1996 and was siphoning both resources and hype away from the maligned system. The Nintendo 64 had most of its development completed in 1995 but was not released until a year later. This left a gap that the Virtual Boy was rushed out to fill. It did not succeed selling a paltry 770,000 systems in both Japan and America. It was never released anywhere else.
Nintendo’s history is fraught with poor releases followed by huge hits. They are a company that takes risks with the idea of enriching the experience for their fans. The 3DS of today would likely not be around without the Virtual Boy of yesterday. Similarly we can see the Wii U’s failures honed into the Switch’s strengths. They say fortune favors the bold. With Nintendo’s 129 year history that started as a playing card company that morphed into a gaming giant, that has held true. The Virtual Boy will boy will forever be haled as a failure, but for its execution not its vision. Its successor in my opinion is the 3DS a wildly successful product selling over 73.53 million copies. Same vision, better execution. The moral of the story I find is don’t mock the Virtual Boys of today. They may turn out to be the progenitors for the 3DS of tomorrow.