The new Steven Spielberg movie “Ready Player One” imagines a not-too-distant future where the population spends a majority of its waking hours inside a virtual reality system known as “The Oasis.” The movie is set in 2045, so if real-world technology wants to catch up with the story’s premise, we’d better hurry up.
In 1995, Nintendo tried to cash in on the virtual reality craze… sort of. That year, the company released the Virtual Boy console, which didn’t technically count as virtual reality. It offered gamers a 3D experience they couldn’t get on TV screens or handheld devices. Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy didn’t click with customers, and it was discontinued less than a year after its debut. With around 770,000 units sold, it remains Nintendo’s worst-selling console of all time.
We got our hands on a vintage Virtual Boy at the retro video games store VideoGamesNewYork in Manhattan’s East Village to get a better idea of why the system stumbled out of the gate, existing as a bizarre blemish on Nintendo’s otherwise impressive record. To learn pretty much everything there is to know about the history of the Virtual Boy, we highly recommend visiting the Planet Virtual Boy website, where you’ll find an exhaustive, comprehensive library of almost everything ever written or researched about the Virtual Boy. Following is a transcript of the video.
Ad: Virtual Boy, a 3-D game for a 3-D world!
Graham Flanagan: Remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy? Probably not.
Ad: Virtual Boy, see it now, in 3-D.
Flanagan: Nintendo released it in August of 1995. Less than a year later, it was discontinued, and it remains the worst selling console in the history of the company. So, what happened?
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Ben Gilbert: In 1995 Nintendo was seen as the biggest game company in the world, the Super Nintendo, as well as the previous console, Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Nintendo Game Boy, were all completely dominating at the time.
Ad: You’ve gotta play it, you’ve gotta have it, you’ve got a reputation.
Gilbert: There was a lot of excitement around virtual reality, as a result, Nintendo was trying to essentially, compete, and to take advantage of this new technology.
Flanagan: In 1991, Nintendo paid 10 million dollars for exclusive rights to technology created by a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And it spent the next four years developing what would eventually be known as Virtual Boy.
Gilbert: When the Virtual Boy was initially announced by Nintendo there was some kind of hopeful positivity, it looked like it was doing something kind of new, and as a result there was some kind of I think hope for this device.
Ad: The first 3-dimensional stereo immersive 32-bit video game system, ever.
Ad: Virtual Boy!
Flanagan: Virtual Boy debuted in Japan in July of 1995, it hit North America in August, selling for a retail price of $179.99. Nintendo made a deal with Blockbuster Video, where customers could rent the Virtual Boy system for $9.99. Only 22 games were released on Virtual Boy. Each system came bundled with Mario’s Tennis. Needless to say, the options were pretty limited. With games like Galactic Pinball, and a game based on the 1995 movie Waterworld.
Gilbert: It was immediately clear I think, that this was a pretty bad device, I was 10 or so at the time, and it was terrible to me as a 10-year-old.
Flanagan: Sales stalled, by May of 1996, Nintendo dropped the price to $99, and just two months later, the company officially pulled the plug on Virtual Boy, less than a year after its initial release. So why did it fail? Where should we begin?
Ad: Virtual Boy is so advanced, it can’t be viewed on conventional T.V. or LCD screens.
Flanagan: Here we go, I’m gonna go into virtual reality.
First of all, even though it was called the Virtual Boy, it wasn’t virtual reality, it was just 3-D. The system used a pair of oscillating mirrors to turn a single line of LED pixels into a 3-D projection, made of red pixels against a black background. That’s another thing, the only colors it was capable of displaying were red and black. Also, playing it wasn’t exactly comfortable.
I feel like within about five minutes, my back is gonna start hurting from just leaning on this. The headset had to be attached to the stand. That was mainly for liability reasons. Here’s why.
Let’s assume the stand was optional, and you could actually wear the headset, and move around while you played it. That actually sounds like a lot of fun. Wow, look at him go! That is until he bumps into something and gets hurt. Nintendo didn’t want to be responsible for any potential damages. Along with warnings about headaches, nausea, and dizziness, Nintendo also warned that kids under the age of seven shouldn’t play Virtual Boy, because eyesight is still developing at that age, and playing Virtual Boy could result in having a lazy eye.
What would’ve made this even more fun, or fun period, was if you could play against your friend, you’re only playing against your computer. You’ll notice there’s an input for a connector that would connect two Virtual Boy systems, where you could play your friends in two player mode, but because the console failed so quickly, they canceled the connector and it never came out so every Virtual Boy has this input where you could connect the two things, but it died so fast it just never happened.
So yeah, the Virtual Boy never took off, but it’s still sought out by collectors. At Video Games New York in Manhattan, vintage Virtual Boy systems are for sale, and they go for up to $400, and some of the games, like this factory sealed copy of Wario Land, go for up to $200. As for Nintendo…
Gilbert: In the wake of the failure of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo was much more successful. The Nintendo 64 came out in 1996. They didn’t retain the market dominance they’d had in previous years, but they’re still a huge force in the video game market. They even actually make passing joking references to the Virtual Boy and its failure, now, sometimes. It’s become something they are able to kind of be light-hearted about, even though it was clearly their biggest hardware failure in Nintendo’s history.
Flanagan: Y’know what, I wanna let Noah try. Okay, I’m gonna take over the camera.
Noah Friedman: Got it. Huh. I moved my fist up but it’s not moving towards him at all. Oh, that was pretty brutal.