Let me set the scene for you. It’s the early 1990s. Executives at Nintendo are on an all-time high with the insane success of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems. Mario was basically the mascot of the century. Even your grandmother’s older boyfriend knew what Nintendo was and he was older than dirt. There seemed to be no end in sight for the gonzo amount of money the Japanese company was bringing in and to the average consumer, everything they touched was gold. So where to next? What do you do for an encore? What technological breakthrough do you unveil that will solidify you as an unstoppable juggernaut capable of potentially catapulting game culture into the same echelon as ending world hunger or curing cancer? You do what any company would do of course – you deliver an expensive turd. Brace yourselves, folks. You see this is not the story of the “VIRTUAL BOY”, one of Nintendo’s biggest failures. This is an examination of why it was the single dumbest fucking thing the house of Mario has ever placed it’s greasy Italian mustache on
Like every other kid on the planet during that time, when I was young, I had a Gameboy. It was perfect to bring places, easy to use (4 buttons), weighed less than half a pound and had fun games. In those days you either had a console to play at home, you had one to play on the go or you had both. But I never thought to myself “hey, there should be a machine that barely matches the quality of my home games with the portability of an air conditioner!”. And unfortunately, that is exactly what the Nintendo’s new console delivered. But before I get ahead of myself, I need to explain exactly what the “Virtual Boy” even was or at least what it was meant to be. It was meant to be the crossroads of an on the go handheld and the home video game console but basically came out looking like my 8th grade science fair project. I came in 3rd place by the way – couldn’t hack at the finals. And so too the Virtual Boy also could not compete with the big boys. But if Nintendo made it shouldn’t it have automatically been a hit? You would think so but even the somewhat clever tech could not help saving it from disaster.
If you are curious about what made it seem so special at the time look no further than the main selling point which were the 3D visuals created by a depth effect known as parallax. Parallax took background images and moved them more slowly than those in front giving the impression of movable three dimensions where there really were none. The machine itself was a console made for people who wanted (or thought they wanted) to make the leap to three-dimensional gaming so what better to do that than to appear on the somewhat futuristic side of things. The system included an inordinate binoculars-like head piece (about 1.7 lbs. but might as well be 50 lbs.) and a controller that looked like I took two fishing rods and glued them together for fun. As for the visuals themselves, Nintendo opted to avoid any real color because it made the images “jumpy”, so they went with a simple red/black graphics setting. Why the company decided on a color scheme that is usually associated with the prince of darkness himself is behind me. Plus, did they not remember that Mario’s original name was “Jump Man”? That could have been the perfect marketing tool but alas this is a useless argument now. Black and red seems cool, right? And when I say red, I do not mean “Mario’s hat” red. I’m talking traffic light red. Basically I’m staring into a deep, red abyss that’s subconsciously warning me to “STOP” the whole time I’m playing, yet I keep staring – hypnotized. And you might as well be hypnotized because I neglected to mention that you had to play this thing perfectly still. The headpiece would have to be mounted on a table so that the player could insert their face to view the display screen. But the legs holding the visor portion of the Virtual Boy wouldn’t bend to your will and command, so you had to place it on a table, get a chair and hope the height matches up or else you’d be hunched for 30 minutes. Why 30 minutes you ask? Because Nintendo put options in their games to pause every 15 to 30 minutes. Why would they do that, you ask? Because Nintendo found that the 3D effects can cause trauma and damage to the eyes. So, this console would allow you to play crappy games (one of them being an adaptation of Kevin Costner’s film “Waterworld”. Yay.) possibly get hypnotized, potentially fuck up your eyes permanently and make you hunch over for an unnecessary amount of time. And all this for the price of $180.00 plus tax, which isn’t bad considering I’m sure surgery to actually become Quasimodo from the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be way more expensive.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console was a financial and commercial failure. Twenty-two games were made and only a little over half were released in North America. It is one of Nintendo’s most embarrassing moments in the spotlight. But the interesting silver living of all of this was during all the disaster and possible destruction of the brand, there was another team hard at work creating the phoenix that would rise from the ashes less than a year from when the Virtual Boy was discontinued That savoir would he known as the Nintendo 64 and would wipe away any fear a gamer might have had about Nintendo losing their way. But that is a remarkable story for another time. So, before you go to sleep tonight, think about the people that thought any of what I mentioned was a good idea. Also think about the infamous day it was released because that will be the final nail I hammer in the Virtual Boy’s coffin. Nintendo released it on August 14th, 1995 in North America. Know what also happened on this day forty years prior? Japan surrendered to officially end World War II. Now I don’t know about you but between this and releasing the latest Super Smash Bros. game on the same date as the bombing of Pearl Harbor I’d say Nintendo really needs to do some research before finalizing release dates for these things. Maybe they should have asked your grandmother’s older boyfriend from the 90’s. He could have at least told them what World War II dates to actively avoid.