Day 271: Virtual Boy – A Virtual Disaster

originally published September 27, 2012

Well this was supposed to change the world.

Growing up, I’d always considered Nintendo to be the everything of video games. They invented the console that defined a generation, or at least the kids within that generation who didn’t leave the house very often. The Super Nintendo’s release coincided roughly with the time in my life during which I experimented with mind-quirking drugs, and its video games helped those experiments along.

But in 1994, everything was supposed to change. Instead of sitting on my couch, plunking away at plastic buttons like I was trying to avoid a Whammy (yes, that’s a Press Your Luck reference, intended to further the bond among those of us old enough to remember this stuff), I could be truly immersed in the gaming experience.

Finally, games could go from this:

To this:

Back in 1994, people spoke of ‘virtual reality’ in hushed, excited bursts. By strapping something on our heads, we could escape this drab existence, filled with acid-wash jeans, crimped hair and low-speed white Ford Bronco chases on LA freeways. It was a dark time, and we wanted out.

Enter the Virtual Boy. The game-changer. The catalyst. The dawn of a new era of fantasy and indulgence. We could walk around our living room and believe we were walking along Omaha Beach, shooting bad guys. We could turn our heads and the virtual world would turn with us. It would be like Tron, but with the ability to pause the game if we had to pee. Seriously, what did Jeff Bridges’ character do after he was sucked into that computer? Did his digestive functions cease to be? I didn’t see so much as a urinal in that neon-tinged world.

That’s not important. What matters is that everything was about to change; our world was about to expand into the infinite. Then we got this:

Okay, the first-generation system wasn’t going to be perfect. And I’m flogging at a fallen equine by picking on the Virtual Boy – history has already written its condemnation to the sewer of ill-conceived gamery, but I still feel it’s a story that needs to be told.

Gunpei Yokoi was the man behind the console. By 1994, Gunpei was Nintendo’s executive ATM, spitting out money with almost frightening consistency. First he came up with the Game & Watch, after observing some guy on a train who was trying to amuse himself with a calculator (probably typing ‘55378008’ and flipping it upside down). Gunpei wanted to invent something people could play on the go, so he gave us this thing:

And 59 other games just like it. Then, Gunpei supervised the creation of Donkey Kong. He worked on Mario Bros. He was the guy who suggested making it a multiplayer game, and giving Mario the ability to leap off high platforms and not be hurt. After producing more money-makers like Kid Icarus and Metroid, Gunpei designed the Gameboy. After the first day’s receipts on that thing, you just know the top brass at Nintendo had commissioned at least six or seven solid gold statues of the guy.

Gunpei’s work wasn’t always a cashable blank check from the Bank Of Everyone. He had a small number of missteps along the way. One of his first projects was the Love Tester, which contained two balls (heh), each attached to a wire that connects them to a central device, about the size of a remote control. Two lovers each palm a ball sensor then hold hands. A readout will rate the strength of their love on a scale of one to a hundred. This device was powered by the raw intensity of pure science and the sub-atomic wavelength of passion. It was also total bullshit, because it sold initially for about 1800 Yen, which translates to over a hundred American dollars in 1970 money.

It’s possible that my math and monetary conversion is way off, but anything more than fifty cents in any era would be too much to pay for a gag gift like this. It makes the Magic 8-Ball look like the Oracle of Delphi.

Gunpei also concocted R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy, which was an add-on for the Nintendo Entertainment System. As a kid, I wanted one; I’ve mentioned before that a robot friend is one of the childhood dreams that my future has still denied me, along with the goddamn flying car. This particular robot worked with two Nintendo games, that was it.

Then along came the Virtual Boy. The intent was to have pure 3D graphics right out of the box. They couldn’t produce a color system though, that would have cost way too much, and at $180, they were already stretching to sell this thing to the middle-class market. The Nintendo marketing team came up with a brilliant plan: launch a $25 million campaign to promote the hell out of the console, then invite people to head to their nearest Blockbuster to rent one for ten bucks.

This was a great deal. Brand new technology – immersive, 3D, cutting-edge – and you could try it for a sawbuck? Count me in.

And that’s how the world figured it out. You had something strapped to your face, blocking out the surrounding world, but it wasn’t the immersive promised land it claimed to be. Turning your head did nothing; essentially you interacted with the unit the same way you would interact with a Super Nintendo if the graphics were a thousand times worse and you’d tied your television to your head.

The graphics were unimpressive, monochrome (or red/blue to give a 3D effect), and tiresome. The unit itself provided the gamer with a number of potentially unpleasant side-effects, like nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Turns out having a game console literally hanging off your face can be somewhat uncomfortable.

Only fourteen games were made for the system in North America, and the Virtual Boy was subsequently discontinued about five minutes after its release. Gunpei Yokoi left Nintendo soon afterwards, though he claims it had nothing to do with this flop. Around 770,000 units were shipped, so given how many were tossed upon bonfires in utter disgust, the remaining Virtual Boys have become collector’s items.

It could be the world simply wasn’t ready for an encompassing virtual reality experience. Maybe we still aren’t; we have the internet now as a virtual escape, and the trend is to multitask with our distractions rather than soak ourselves in a single one. Virtual Boy was a gamble that didn’t pay off, mainly because this wasn’t the way we wanted our video game technology to go. Kind of a shame, really.

Oh well. Back to work on the flying car.

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