On July 21st, 1995, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was released in Japan and later hit North America more than a month later on August 14th.
Virtual Boy’s story as a forward looking game device and its infamy as a commercial failure for Nintendo have become legends since its debut — and end — since the 90s. In hindsight, it’s easy to wonder just what they were thinking. But the at the time, virtual reality was something of a buzzword that a number of companies were eager to crack from PC developers to Sega’s 3D glasses for their Master System a generation earlier.
The 1990s were abuzz with different companies spinning promises to crack the virtual reality market. One of the most prominent was W Industries whose Virtuality systems were poster children for the VR movement — huge devices delivering a dose of polygons and sound to those strapped in for the ride. Targeted for arcade venues, these were excitedly flaunted as the future of gaming.
Even though the graphics were crude, as noted in CGW’s take on VR in a 1992 article titled “Affordable VR by 1994”, the feeling of immersion in a virtual reality still translated over despite the low resolution graphics. These didn’t need to have cutting edge visuals, just an approximation of a specific space fooling the senses into believing you were somewhere else. And from the press’ excitement over this technological wave, it seems to have worked.
I remember playing with a virtual system when they were briefly at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center, though I’m not quite sure what kind of unit it was though I think it may have been one of Virtuality’s. The helmet was snug, had a trail of cables dangling behind my head like a long, rubber plated ponytail, while I stood in the center of a ring contraption that came down around me (like in the pic above, but larger with more space between me and the ring) which detected my movements.
The game was some kind of Pac-Man derivative which had me walking in place to simulate moving in one direction, collecting dots, and having me physically turn to get around the low-res, poly maze, though those cables connected to the helmet limited my turning. If I wanted to spin around and go the other way down a corridor, I’d have to think around the cables that could get in my way. But it was a lot of fun! At the same time, I didn’t really want to replace my Sega Genesis with one of those just yet.
Unfortunately, big time VR devices like these never caught on to replace every cab in existence. The biggest reason was price. Some of the more sophisticated rigs in the tens of thousands of USD were easily many times more than a single arcade cab which might only be $3,000 USD. And in venues where space was at a premium, the large units represented a giant investment that gobbled floor space one or two high profile arcade titles may have fit into instead. If you’ve never really seen these outside of major cities or theme parks, cost and space are good reasons why these remained niche.
Yet what if you could shrink that down and take it home? After all, consoles like the NES and the Master System were doing a pretty good job in bringing that arcade experience into everyone’s living rooms. What about VR?
It was a question that Sega would try again to answer. In 1991, they would announce plans for Sega VR, a project that revolved around a headset equipped with dual LCDs, headphones, and promised to immerse players into a new level of gameplay. An archived article by Ken Horowitz writing for Sega 16 in 2004 covers this mysterious project that had been bandied about but never materialized which only added more fuel to the VR fire that others would fan.
Even Nintendo had dabbled with the idea way back in 1987 with the Famicom 3D System which functioned similarly to Sega’s SegaScope 3-D glasses, though it was never released outside of Japan and was considered a commercial bomb. But a few years later, with the VR world revving up alongside the 3D revolution being seeded on PCs in the late and early 90s as graphics adapters and CPUs improved, Nintendo apparently felt the time was right to revisit that dream with the Virtual Boy in 1995.
On the surface, it seemed to have everything going for it — affordable VR, portable, and backed by a company widely regarded as responsible for reviving the console market in the West. The problems, unfortunately, were realized almost as quickly as it had hit the shelves.
Despite being portable, it wasn’t comfortably portable. The thing was still clunky with its own stand and the large visor device that sat on top of it. This thing was like having a futuristic set of binoculars, only slightly wider and larger, so sticking it and the controller into your pocket wasn’t going to happen.
Also working against it was its monochrome display of red against black which goes back to the argument that you wouldn’t need sophisticated graphics to provide immersion. Yet in this case, the lack of head tracking only made the games feel less “virtual” as opposed to feeling more like you were staring straight ahead at a 3D diorama.
The 3D effect also did little to hide the discomfort felt by long term use or how awkward it could feel in leaning into a visor for long periods of time. The Game Boy’s games didn’t look fantastic, either, but they were still a lot of fun and didn’t give anyone a migraine. The same couldn’t be said about the Virtual Boy.
Price-wise, it was hard to justify buying the Virtual Boy which debuted at $180 during a time when the Sega Saturn Sony PlayStation were vying for everyone’s dollars at the same time along with the still immensely popular Game Boy. There was also a price war about to erupt between the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, not to mention the massive markdowns in the following year for the Atari Jaguar. And then there was the anticipation for the Ultra 64 — the Nintendo 64 — slated for ’96.
The Virtual Boy sold far below Nintendo’s expectations which hoped for 1.5 million units to be sold by the end of the year. By December, Nintendo had only moved 350,000. Months later, even after showing new games for the system at 1996’s E3, the system was all but quietly killed off. First in Japan by the end of ’95, mere months following its release, and then a few months later in North America as the Nintendo 64 closed in on its own release in the same year.
Gunpei Yokoi, the wonder engineer who was one of Nintendo’s shining stars having been responsible for creations such as its Game & Watch line and the Game Boy, was the genius behind the Virtual Boy and quietly left Nintendo on August 15th, 1996, which many speculate to have been because of its performance in the market. However, before leaving, he had finished work on the Pocket Game Boy as one final hurrah.
He went on to form his own engineering house, Koto Laboratory, after leaving Nintendo and was later asked by Bandai to bring his talents into designing Bandai’s WonderSwan. Unfortunately, Yokoi was killed in an auto accident in 1997. In 1998, the WonderSwan was revealed in Tokyo.
The Virtual Boy was a commercial failure but it stood out as a great example of the Nintendo philosophy in using existing technology in new and innovative ways while allowing the games to make the most of it — a philosophy that Gunpei Yokoi would write about and which would continue to become Nintendo’s engineering mantra for decades. It’s also not the only system to have failed to catch on — many VR attempts during the early 90s faded into obscurity, or were repurposed into new technologies outside of gaming. But because it was Nintendo, it has gained something of a mythic label attached to it…probably because after a long string of bold successes, its poor performance left everyone scrambling in surprise to piece together why.
At the same time, like many of the efforts in those days, it was a pioneering step forward albeit many years too early. The 3D technology would later emerge in the 3DS years later and Nintendo’s dabbling with VR would extend into the Wii’s motion controls, dramatically impacting the industry and forcing Microsoft and Sony to both recognize its importance with their own efforts. Gunpei Yokoi wanted to fulfill that promise made by CGW’s article in 1992 with affordable VR. Although the Virtual Boy didn’t succeed, Nintendo still proved to be an able student, remembering the lessons it and its creator would leave behind and bring them back once the technology had finally caught up.