For this week’s instalment of our Temple of Time section of reviews for older games, I have kidnapped William and hid him in a locker in an unspecified location, giving him nothing but an empty matchbox and a singing Armadillo to try and aid his escape. Why did I do that though? I mean, aside from the comic mischief it could create. The reason is, because I have something special to feature for this week’s Temple of Time. The week before last, I was in town window shopping in my local Gametronics store (a GAME refitted to emphasise used items). A part of me was curious to see how much money I could get for trading in my Aqua Blue Nintendo 3DS (as I have been using the Pikachu limited edition XL since last January). As I scanned the vast cabinets of used items though, something caught me eye – a Virtual Boy and of course, I had to have it. I’ve been playing the Virtual Boy and the copy of Virtual League Baseball that came with it for almost a week now, so I thought I might as well share my thoughts on the console with you:
In the late 2000s, the entertainment industry was truly in the middle a brand new wave of 3D hype, with James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar being responsible for kicking off a whole new love of 3D movies. Two years later, the Japanese video game giant Nintendo released the Nintendo 3DS, which offered gamers the opportunity to play video games in 3D without the need for any glasses or other peripherals – all you had to do was turn a 3D slider up and look at the screen. At first, the 3DS had a very troubling and slow start but it has quickly skyrocketed into being the highest selling video game console of last year. Despite the renewed interest in 3D in the last decade, this wasn’t Nintendo’s first attempt at bringing the technology to the world of gaming though.
Sixteen years prior to the release of the Nintendo 3DS, in an attempt to find something to fill the gap before the release of the Nintendo 64, the Virtual Boy was released in Japan and North America and was to be the penultimate Nintendo product to be designed by the visionary Gunpei Yokoi, who was responsible for designing the many toys such as the Ultra Hand that would bring Nintendo success in the late 1960s, as well as the huge early video game successes of the Game & Watch and Gameboy. Despite being behind some of Nintendo’s most important early successes though, Yokoi’s Virtual Boy was not one of them and is in fact, known as Nintendo’s biggest failure to date – it was released in 1995 and discontinued a year later.
One of the things I noticed very quickly when using this console is that it doesn’t really seem to know if it wants to be a portable or a home console. It runs on batteries (6 AAs to be exact) as opposed to a mains socket, doesn’t have to be attached to a TV and can be taken from place to place, so it must be a portable right? However, with the headset being 10.5cm wide it is hardly going to fit inside your pocket (especially with a height of about 5cm and a depth of 7.5cm) – and that size is before we take into account the stand which adds another 11cm of height, making it taller than a Wii U on its side. With the console requiring its peripheral controller (as the battery pack and power buttons are located on the device) as well, you’ll definitely struggle to store a Virtual Boy in a handbag, never mind your pocket and with the player being limited to one controller per unit and having to play the game through the console’s headset, this is hardly a home console either. The whole console-handheld debate is further confused by the fact that while you can move the Virtual Boy from one place to another, you’ll need to use the console stand on a flat surface in order to play (or lie on the floor) – which is complicated further by the stand simply not being tall enough to be at your eye height while sitting at a standard western table.
Apparently, Nintendo did plan to release a harness to let you play the Virtual Boy while standing up but…if people texting while walking is a problem, imagine how troublesome someone wearing a Virtual Boy headset while on the move would be. So it has a similar portability to playing games on the Wii U GamePad – in that you can go to whichever room of the house you want, but you’ll have a hard time taking it outside. Nintendo aren’t known for simply giving up on ideas (them returning to 3D with the 3DS following the Virtual Boy is a sign of that) and they did attempt this concept of a “third pillar” again eight years later with the Nintendo DS, but that ended up simply taking the place of the Gameboy Advance as their second pillar, so maybe Nintendo might have learned that the third pillar approach doesn’t work? In fact, I’d argue these days about them needing to simply merge into a single pillar, but that’s another discussion for another time.
In terms of the console’s design, like most products from Nintendo, it’s well built. The Virtual Boy has an iconic, science-fiction look that would still look futuristic if released today and to be honest, makes a remarkable display piece – it’s definitely one of Nintendo’s prettier consoles. One notable problem though is that the headset is too large to fit a hand around and there isn’t a handle like Nintendo’s later Gamecube would have, so the only way you will be able to carry this one handed (unless you have big hands) is to clip the Virtual Boy onto its stand and hold that or using the slight grooves on the underside, but when you realise that you’ll also have to carry the controller and stand, it becomes clear that carrying a Virtual Boy is a two handed job. The volume control is weirdly located on the underside of the headset, which makes it almost impossible to locate while playing a game, as well as forcing you to take a hand off the control just to try and locate it; I personally would have added it to the controller.
One thing that I find very interesting about the Virtual Boy is the relationship between the headset and the controller. As your eyes will be focused on the headset, you won’t be able to peer down at the controller as often as you would be able to with console games which means that you have to learn the placement of the buttons very quickly, with the button layout’s symmetry helping out with muscle memory. The controller itself is comfortable to hold, although it might have been better if the hand-rests were shorter. I think the Virtual Boy wins the award for the worst shoulder buttons on a video game console though – they are basically two large face buttons at the back of the controller that are awkward to use.
In regards to gameplay, the Virtual Boy is a 32-bit system (so it’s placed between the SNES and the N64), so graphically it’s closer to the SNES but there are some examples of this going further, like the 3D model of a baseball player that appears on the title screen of Virtual League Baseball that looks closer to what we would later see in the Nintendo 64. Playing a game feels like being a giant in a cinema – in that the game’s screen is towards the back and directly ahead of you, whereas your peripheral vision is pitch black. So for those of you expecting a kind of Oculus Rift experience from the headset, unfortunately that doesn’t happen (to be fair, considering the era the Virtual Boy was released in, it’s kind of obvious that it wouldn’t). Every game on the console is limited to being in black and red (apparently a full colour display would have made the console even more expensive than it already was) and like with the 3DS, the 3D brings a level of depth as opposed to it jumping out in your face. The headset also has a couple of sliders that allow the user to customise the depth and focus of the 3D, although unlike the 3DS, there is no way to disable it altogether.
As someone who always plays his 3DS with the slider all the way up, I can attest to the eye-strain that was widely reported when the Virtual Boy was released – my eyes feel weird within minutes of playing and when I finally lift my head from the headset, I have a slight headache like the one I had when I took off my 3D glasses after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar. I simply cannot see myself wanting to play the Virtual Boy for an extended period of time (and that’s not just because I suck at Virtual League Baseball).
I can’t really talk too much about what the video game industry was like when the Virtual Boy was released, because it was never released in Europe and I was only three years old at the time, but even ignoring the fact that it launched at a higher price than its competitors, it’s clear to see why this system frankly, failed. It doesn’t really know what it is and it’s actually rather uncomfortable to play. However, I am also glad that the philosophy of this console was not abandoned as quickly – the Virtual Boy was about changing the way people experience games, which has led to some of the more popular innovations of recent gaming history with the DS and Wii and of course, the 3D’s return with the 3DS. The Virtual Boy appearing as a collectable item in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is quite possibly an indicator of just how important the lessons learned with this console are to to the company.
The Virtual Boy turns 20 years old next year but it is certainly worth remembering – because it carries a message that is as important today as it was back then – that even a company like Nintendo can get it wrong at times and yes, they can recover from it.
It would be rather silly to give a console a score out of ten because it’s really the games that make the experience, so I won’t, but basically, I can understand and appreciate why the Virtual Boy was a failure.