Virtual Boy Turns 20
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Virtual Boy launch. Largely regarded as an embarrassing negative mark on Nintendo’s otherwise sterling history, I think I may be one of the very few people who have fond memories of the machine. When the Virtual Boy came out, I would bring it up to my peers and all they would express was disinterest because of the black and red color palette. But I felt differently. I had already developed my lifelong interests in computers and science fiction, and “virtual reality” combined these topics with video games, which obviously I’m incredibly passionate about. Consequently, I viewed the Virtual Boy with steadfast and naive optimism, despite the naysayers.
Of course, the system launched at an absurd price ($199.99), and I was a grade schooler, so there was no way I was going to be able to afford one. Perhaps I mercifully dodged a bullet, since the system lasted for such a short while and had such a small library of games that it would have been a waste of $200. Like most people, I got my hands on the Virtual Boy after its discontinuation. I forget the exact price I bought mine at, but I know it was going for ~$40 at the time. When I saw that price tag in the store, my heart jumped in disbelief and I blew all the money I had saved up to acquire the console. I don’t regret the purchase at all, since I had a great time with it for a decent while.
A mere 14 games were released in the United States for the system with a few more being Japan exclusive. All I’ve ever played for the machine are Mario’s Tennis (the pack-in) and Galactic Pinball, both I recall being a lot of fun. To be honest it doesn’t seem like a lack of quality games was the Virtual Boy’s problem. I’ve heard good things about many of the other games in the library, like Mario Clash and Teleroboxer. The Wario Land title for the system, imaginatively called Virtual Boy Wario Land, is generally considered to be the best game in the platform’s library. And I’ve even heard testimony from more than a few people who consider it to be the best in the Wario Land series. That’s high praise considering how amazing the rest of the Wario Land games are.
While the name “Virtual Boy” obviously draws a connection to Game Boy and implies a portable system, it’s only portable to a limited extent, since the headset requires a hard surface for the stand. You can’t really play in the bed or on an airplane. Instead, the real draw of the Virtual Boy was meant to be the stereoscopic 3D images it was able to produce. The technology is actually quite interesting. There aren’t actual screens inside the Virtual Boy per se. Rather, for each eye there is a vertical line of LED pixels whose reflection is rastered across the player’s view to create the image. The rastering is achieved by a series of mechanical oscillating mirrors. Yes, that’s right, the display is created by moving parts! But while it’s a cool technology, it also had one severe drawback. Many people believe that the red on black graphics were responsible for the notorious headaches that the system could induce, but actually it’s more likely that these headaches were predominately the result of the way the image was created by the rastering effect.
There’s just something about the Virtual Boy that I’ve always found cool. I think the engineer side of me always finds it fascinating to see inventive uses of limited and less advanced technology, which is also the reason I’ve always liked Game Boy. That’s something I really miss in today’s world. When I carry around a computer in my pocket that has a faster processor and is continuously connected to the internet at a higher speed than my PC had at the turn of the century, it’s become a lot harder to be wowed by new technology. But beyond admiration of the underlying hardware, I find it also appeals deeply to my attraction to the offbeat, and with its distinctive red and black graphics and 3D head mounted display, Virtual Boy is undeniably a peculiar part of gaming history. And the Virtual Boy packaging and promotional art makes it feel digital and alien in a way that conjures up a 90s nostalgia blast of what we all thought the cyber-future would be like at that time.
Unfortunately, I have no idea where my Virtual Boy is. I think it got tossed out during a move. When I heard about the machine’s birthday, I briefly entertained the idea of snagging a new one off eBay. But I feel it may be best to leave my Virtual Boy experience to my fond recollections. I have no idea how I would react to the device today. I fear it would be like how I feel about the Game Boy Color. I don’t think I ever had a problem with that handheld “back in the day,” but now, I find I have a low tolerance for the dimness of the screen and mostly play my GB games on my 101-model SP. I think I would probably have a similar response to the VB, where the harsh reality of the machine would collide with memories of my naive youthful experience which hadn’t yet been spoiled by the mobile technology of 2015.
But as there were a handful of worthwhile games for the machine, I would like to see Nintendo do a Virtual Boy Virtual Console for 3DS. To be honest, there were good games for the machine, but they were more hindered by the hardware than enhanced by it. Most of them would have been just as good, if not better, on the Game Boy or Super Nintendo. Considering they’re doing arguably odder things with Virtual Console (such as DS and GBA on the Wii U of all things), I’m surprised they haven’t already done it. Probably they just don’t think there’s any interest. Or maybe they want the machine to be utterly forgotten as it was a huge embarrassment for them. (It still stands as Nintendo’s only flat-out flop in the console market.) Regardless, I do think a lot of gamers would be thrilled to get a second chance at the Virtual Boy’s library, especially Wario Land.