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32 Features

History Lesson: The Virtual Boy's red dead redemption

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 16th Mar 2014 at 11:00 AM UTC

"Warning. This product MUST NOT be used by children under the age of seven years. Artificial stereo vision displays may not be safe for such children and may cause serious, permanent damage to their vision."

Concerning words pulled straight from a Virtual Boy instruction manual. As far as 'things you wouldn't want to put near your eyes' go, by Nintendo's own admission the Virtual Boy ranks just below dog muck, acid-throwing machines and Rod Hull's Emu.

The warning is indicative of Nintendo's attitude towards Virtual Boy as a whole: an intense distrust. Rewind to 1992. It was three years since Gunpei 'Father of the Game Boy' Yokoi... er, fathered the Game Boy, and Nintendo's very own technological oracle was peering into the future once more.

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Despite a booming SNES scene, Yokoi pondered how long the general public's taste for traditional displays - TVs and pocket-sized screens - could last. Few other Nintendo minds shared the inkling, as proven by their decision to pursue the traditional next step to the SNES: Project Reality (later the N64).

Squirrelled away with his team in Nintendo R&D1, the acorn in Yokoi's head was watered by a US company, Reflection Technologies, and a quirky new display technology. And we mean quirky.

A horizontal strip of LEDs shine onto a mirror, in turn reflecting them into the user's retina. The mirror spins 50 times a second, thus creating the effect of individual animation frames. Sounds like a scheme even Heath Robinson would 'pfft' at.

This is where we remember Yokoi's key design principle: 'the lateral thinking of withered technology', also known as canny use of technological leftovers.

Yokoi didn't see the battiness, he only saw the power and cost efficiency of LEDs. And with that, he saw the ability to double the displays. And with that, he saw the ability to treat the retinas to exclusive images. And with that, he saw the gateway to a 3D illusion.

Withered technology for an experience like no other? How could he resist? But how did this technology become that strange tripod device gathering dust in a few hundred thousand American attics?

The enclosed environment of the headset was required for the retina-targeting tech to work, though it probably helped that it tapped into the early '90s kooky fascination with virtual reality headsets.

Why wasn't it head-mounted? Yokoi joked to the press: "If a woman wearing make-up was to use the head-mounted design, the next person might be hesitant in wearing it!"

Joking aside, there was something a little off when Virtual Boy debuted at Nintendo's Space World trade show in 1994. Yokoi was on hand to defend design decisions - he promised a shoulder-mounted adaptor for table-free play sessions - but the event smacked of hurriedness.

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Behind the scenes Nintendo slaved away on N64 as Sega and Sony sprinted towards a late 1994 release for their Saturn and PlayStation respectively. Afraid of falling behind, it was clear Virtual Boy was being rushed out to shops for damage limitation.

Space World write-ups were not kind. Virtual Boy was unwieldy to try (journalists had to stoop to use it) and the three games were underwhelming.

Teleroboxer was a limp futuristic Punch-Out!! clone short on 3D tricks. Galactic Pinball was much better, with nice depth of field effects as the space puck rattled up and down the boards. Mario Clash was the NES' basic Mario Bros with a background layer adding 3D play. Our write-up would probably have been mean too.

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Complaints were aimed at the unorthodox red visuals (the price to pay for the cheap price of LEDs), but most ire was reserved for sore eyes. In truth, this probably had more to do with poorly calibrated units.

On the final model you use small dials to adjust and focus the innards for your eyes. The Virtual Boy's start-up screen even incorporates this tweaking into its design - you adjust the switches until rectangles can be clearly seen in each corner. A wise choice, but a rather glum design. At Space World, the start-up logo featured a lovingly rendered 3D Mario, as the letters making up 'Virtual Boy' swooshed towards you as all good 3D things should.

Journalists at the time also failed to discuss the novel controller. Dual D-pads were included to handle the transition into 3D space (the N64's analogue stick was yet to be shown at this point), but of more interest is its symmetrical design. It's one of the few ambidextrous controllers: whether right or left-handed you'll always have a D-pad, A and B buttons to hand. Few games made use of it, though.

With Nintendo predicting three million sales in the machine's first year, Virtual Boy launched in Japan on July 21, 1995 for roughly $180. The queues around Akihabara that defined any major Nintendo release? Absent.

An indifferent audience couldn't fathom the device Nintendo had unleashed upon them: not quite handheld, not quite home console, yet adorned with a price expected of a 32-bit machine (Virtual Boy was 32-bit, but splitting the power between two screens massively undermined the fact).

Fretting after the Japanese launch, Nintendo of America applied an age-old ointment to the August 14 US launch: mega bucks. A five million dollar campaign with Blockbuster let punters rent Virtual Boys (virtual rent boys?), refunding the price if they went on to buy one.

Elsewhere, a frankly inexplicable advert showing a caveman leering at the Virtual Boy beckoned the public to spend a "day in the third dimension". Being a caveman, he clearly wasn't clued up when it came to the dangers of artificial stereo vision displays.

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What happened next wasn't pretty: sales graphs that could double for log flume schematics. Why the lack of interest? After all, as our sister magazine Super Play said at the time: "The system holds promise, if only because it's a Nintendo product, which means Nintendo software."

Super Play's crystal ball was clearly faulty: four games at launch were followed by one in September, two in October and then just a handful more until the release list dried up completely in March 1996.

Question is, did Virtual Boy fall or was it pushed? The facts suggest an unhappy childhood: Nintendo's then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi blocked most third-party development under the guise of quality control. Starving a machine in its infancy? Cruel.

There's also the mystery of the link-up cable. A socket on the Virtual Boy waited patiently to tether itself to another Boy for two-player action, but it never materialised. It's as if Nintendo just gave up.

By May 1996, shop owners couldn't see the back of Virtual Boy fast enough. An already decreased RRP of $99 was being ignored, with prices as low as $20. By August 1996 Gunpei Yokoi had left Nintendo.

Did he leave out of shame or was he forced out as punishment for the Virtual Boy catastrophe? Although it's hard to imagine Nintendo callously throwing out the man who gave it its Game Boy fortune, anecdotal evidence supports this glum turn of events.

Oddly, plonk a Virtual Boy down now and people swarm to it (as evidenced by the queue of PC and PlayStation journalists who were standing by our desk as we wrote this). Sure, they come to see the freaky machine - Nintendo's very own Elephant Man - but few walk away without a goofy smile on their face. You just don't see that many bright red 3D worlds these days.

Forget the Virtual Boy's safety warning: the only thing to cause serious, permanent damage to Yokoi's vision was Nintendo itself. That the boy never became the man is perhaps its biggest fumble.

Dead On Arrival

The Virtual Boy was quietly discontinued a mere six months after its initial release, resulting in the cancellation of numerous in-development games. At the time of its death there were a number of third-party developers working on Virtual Boy games, hopeful the system would see an upturn in fortune.

What remains of these games is a handful of blurred screenshots, screenshots we're going to blur even more by showing you them really big. These are the 'best' of the Virtual Boy games that never were.