The Virtual Boy

Ah, the VeeBee, where to begin? Well, to put it plainly, this system was a massive flop. Unlike the glorious '80s, the '90s have been hard on Nintendo, and the VB was the first thing that revealed the chinks in Nintendo's armour. Back in 1994, Nintendo was announcing that they were working on a 32-bit, virtual-reality system. This announcement made everybody curious, who wondered what kind of magic Nintendo could deliver. A 3-D virtual Mario game? Too good to be true. As it turned out, Nintendo revealed the VB in late 1994 to the hushed murmurs of bewilderment. The VB was not a 'virtual reality' system in the sense of the term. It reminded people more of gimmicky 3-D View-Masters than anything like the Virtuality system that people had been seeing since 1990. Of course, Nintendo was a powerful and cunning company, so the revelation of this system stunned everybody. And everybody waited to see if anybody would buy the thing. And almost nobody did. Nintendo's VB lasted on the worldwide market for under a year, selling about 600,000 systems, I believe.

There were more problems with the VB than just the letdown from a promising buildup. The VB's graphics were monochrome, 4 glorious shades of... red. Deep LED red. Hardly pleasing to the eye. Also, the goggle part of the system was simply too big and heavy to wear on the head, so players had to play it on a tripod on a table. Hardly portable. Furthermore, use of the system for more than 20 minutes tended to put a strain on the eyes. Hardly something suitable for playing large platform games or RPGs for long stretches like regular consoles. In short, the Virtual Boy was a system unlike any of Nintendo's others, in the crucial way that gamers tended not to play it for very long. Ouch.

So, anyway, why do I own a VB then? Well, I had never played with one before. I found a VB unit selling in a pawn shop for $20 recently, so I figured I couldn't go wrong at that price. First impressions: Well, the 3-D effect is good. Very, very good. Extremely effective. I don't mind the red screen, as I'm the type of person who accounts for the technical deficiencies in systems before making a judgment. It's just a shame that the VB didn't have backlit dual colour LCD screens or something. Oh, well.

The games which I got shortly after my purchase of the VB were Mario's Tennis and Red Alarm. MT's pretty fun, actually, and that's coming from someone who isn't a sports fan. It plays a good game of tennis, because it's one of the few in which I can actually win some games. The sound of the VB is a disappointment, since it's the same kind of PSG found in GameBoy games. If it weren't for the scaling, rotation, and dual screens, you would be forgiven for not thinking that it was a 32-bit system. Red Alarm is more of what I like: 3-D vectors! It's a space shooter in the StarFox mould, and it runs rather smoothly even with many objects on-screen. The music and voices are excellent I really liked the soundtrack, which is unmistakably a pumping techno style, even though it is being produced by primitive sound hardware. The game itself is actually very fun, a totally intense shooter, albeit somewhat confusing to play. Unfortunately, the 3-D effect isn't as pronounced as in MT, particularly because the vectors are simply wireframe, instead of filled. I suspect that because the human eye is looking at thin wires instead of flat surfaces, the brain has a harder time interpreting them as true geometric objects with depth to them. Anyway, Red Alarm is truly a showcase item for the other features.

So, in the end, this is an interesting little system (not that I'm suggesting that you experiment with putting it in places like that!). The concept sounded perfect, but it was let down probably by the harsh economic realities of releasing a TRUE consumer VR system. It is historically significant in that it was the first system to show that Nintendo was not an unstoppable juggernaut, and that the late '90s would be even harder for the once-great company. The Virtual Boy was Nintendo's 32x.