Defending the Virtual Boy

by Kevin on

With the oncoming release of the DSi, Nintendo is making a bold move and creating a handheld system that will not play Game Boy Advance games. Now, I’ve argued before that this isn’t a big deal, since I have a lot of devices that can still play those treasured cartridges (and believe me, I still do play GBA games – just yesterday I played a still-fun round of Wario Ware: Twisted, one of the finest handheld games ever put on this, our Earth). What this means, however, for the Nintendo fans in the world, is that Our Most Favorite Company (Ever) is putting the “Boy” name to bed.

“Game Boy”, those the two words that brought a twinge of joy to any young gamers heart. Those two words that eventually led to awful Tetris addictions. Those two words that helped you get through unbearable car trips. I COULD GO ON, IT WOULD BE SIMPLE FOR ME. Through all of the various incarnations of the Game Boy (Play It Loud! Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light, Game Boy Colors, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Advance SP, Game Boy Advance SP “Mark II”, Game Boy Micro, Game Boy Advance Player, Your Mom’s Vagina), there has been one dark sheep with the “Boy” tag. One very, very sad entry into the series of Nintendo systems that were apparently only intended for a male audience.

Everyone hates it. Everyone who has used it, still remembers it, when they shut their eyes and let their brain wander to terrible crimson worlds. Intelligent, discerning readers! You all know that I am talking about the Virtual Boy. You read the title of this article. You know that trying to defend the (very much maligned) piece of garbage is not an easy task. Well, what have I got to lose? Nothing. I own a Virtual Boy, and I’ve played most of the games that were released for it. I bring it out at parties and watch people swallow laughter as they wrap their heads around the fact that I own one of these wee beasties. Only 800,000 were sold in the World. 800,000! It is constantly seen on lists of Biggest Video Game Failures, along side the Tiger, the Nokia N-Gage, the Infinium Labs Phantom, and the Sega Anything. Nintendo has all but brushed it aside in shame, only playfully joking about it in a tiny Wario Ware minigame cameo. It is not well liked.

For those few who don’t know what a Virtual Boy is, it was a video game system put out by Nintendo that featured a red and black headset that you looked into to play the games, which were projected on two side-by-side screens, thus allowing for 3D gaming. The graphics featured a stark palette of different shades of red, and the system was powerful enough to push simple wire-frame 3D graphics along with interesting 3D sprite-parallax-layer effects. Color would have put the price of the Virtual Boy at over $500. The controller was interesting and symmetrical, with two D-pads and a switch that powered the system. It was weird.

I actually think it’s an important piece of Nintendo history. I think that it’s thought to be much, much shittier than it actually is. I think that it can actually provide a very fun gaming experience. I think that the 3D video game experience is still quite novel to this day. Apparently, I think a lot of things. If you are interested in more of these things, read more of this article.

For a Nintendo fan, the Virtual Boy represents a kind of weird time for the company. In the mid 90s, Nintendo was enjoying the period that we all look back with jealous nostalgia. The SNES was huge. The Game Boy was King of the Mountain. Your friends with Genesises/Genesi/Genese were trying (still) to convince you that their system was better because of Blast Processing and Other Lies. Then they would pull out a Game Gear and you would laugh and laugh, because they would get something like ten minutes of battery life out of that brick.

At this point, Nintendo turned to their Handheld Ace In The Hole, Gunpei Yokoi, and asked for something new. Something amazing. This is the guy who made Metroid! He’s awesome! Well, he worked on the 3D system. Worked and worked and worked. But, see, Nintendo got a little annoyed with the amount of time he worked on it, and decided to rush it out to market. Thus, my precious Virtual Boy was rushed out the door and into the American and Japanese Markets in the middle of 1995.

Well, when I first played it, in September of that year, I had gone out and rented one from the local Blockbuster. Set up on my dining room table, it was a terrible spider of a system. Looking like a device that had fallen back in time, the Virtual Boy was something completely new. It wasn’t even Nintendo grey! And it was controlled by the most bizarre black pronged object. It did not belong in my house, but rather in an arcade, complete with a coin slot and covered in spilled soda.

I played it a great deal during that rental period. Years later, when I purchased a Virtual Boy of my own, I played it even more. I’ve even beaten games made for it. Before I go into why I think it is worth another look, I will say a few things that everyone knows: It is very, very hard to play games on it. The 3D effect, while done quite well, is very straining on the eyes. On the Wii, the system will chide you to put down the controller and go play outside (with an icon that always looked to me like you were supposed to leap from a window). On the Virtual Boy, there was an “Automatic Pause” option to remind you to rest your eyes. I assume that if you ignored this, you would eventually cry thick streams of blood, eventually losing your vision with such celerity that you would think you were masturbating to pictures of your sister.

Most of the games weren’t that great. Nester’s Funky Bowling? Virtual Fishing? Waterworld? These are not good games. I own Waterworld, and if there is anything worse than that miserable film, it is this awful, awful game. So, here’s the Virtual Boy. It has very few games. Most of those are terrible. You can’t play it for longer than ten to fifteen minutes without potentially ruining your vision forever.

Yet! It has it’s definite merits. Virtual Boy Wario Land is actually quite fun, and it’s the only title for the system I forced myself to beat. It is not really a game that needed 3D graphics, except in cute sections where you are able to move to the far background for some reason or another, but it is still a very good platformer. I enjoy the quirky Mario Clash, but it is not perfect by a long shot. I think that Red Alarm is fantastic fun, and while it’s quite difficult, it is a very cool 3D Starfox-style game. Finally, Mario’s Tennis is much, much more fun than people always claim. It is interesting to see the Mario characters on the tennis court five years before their N64 “debut”. So, some of the games…aren’t…that bad?

What I’d like to argue is that the Virtual Boy was a testing ground for innovation with Nintendo. When I argued for the Power Glove, I claimed that it paved the way for the Wii. Well, the failure of the Virtual Boy possibly gave Nintendo a little understanding as to how to deal with an innovation failure. The Virtual Boy was a failure. A huge failure. But, they survived it. After they released the Virtual Boy, they never released another system that did not have the option for less than four player multiplayer. The Virtual Boy was a device that represented a solitary, bleary eyed existence. They did not want to do that again, and thus they made the push in the opposite direction. The reason that I did not shit a house of bricks when the Wii was announced was that I realized that Nintendo loved the hell out of weird innovation, and unlike the all-red Virtual Boy, the Wii (and the DS, too), represented a step in a very correct direction. Nobody wants to hang out with friends and play Virtual Boy, but people love playing Wii.

I think that my favorite part of the Virtual Boy package, though, is the controller. It is very interesting to see how the problems of moving in a 3D environment were faced by Nintendo with the Virtual Boy controller. Red Alarm requires maneuvering in three dimensions by using both D-pads at the same time to control your ship’s motion. In future controllers, Nintendo would address the 3D issue with a control stick, but keep their treasured D-pad off to the side juuuuust in case. The large grips of the Virtual Boy controller bring to mind the future of Nintendo controllers, from the wonky looking N64 controller to the Gamecube’s streamlined retread of the Virtual Boy controller’s M-shape. Adding an on-off switch to the controller is something that makes so much sense it hurts, but of course we didn’t see it again until the GODDAMN WII.

Finally, the Virtual Boy was 3D! There aren’t a lot of 3D games that have ever been made. Rad Racer had an obnoxious 3D mode. Virtual Image Productions came out with an awful, awful arcade game called “Hologram Time Traveler,” which was 3D, too. The Virtual Boy occupied a weird, weird niche for a while. I still have fun with it, from time to time, and I know if I want to have the worst headache of my life, I am just fifteen minutes of red, floating, Dennis Hopper heads away from Paintowne USA. Choo-choo…next stop? Crying in the Shower.

So, I can’t really defend it that much beyond saying that Nintendo learned from it’s mistake, kind of. They drove Gunpei Yokoi away by blaming the failure of the system on the loveable game designer. That’s sad. Do I want a Virtual Boy 2? No. But, I am glad it exists. I’ve had fun with it.