Hardware Classics: Nintendo Virtual Boy
Posted by Damien McFerran
Nintendo's nadir, or misunderstood masterpiece?
According to the history books, the Virtual Boy is Nintendo's biggest failure — both commercially and critically — in the hardware arena. Launched in 1995 to almost complete consumer apathy, it bypassed Europe entirely and was discontinued the following year. It is also thought to be the reason that creator Gunpei Yokoi — who was also responsible for the Game Boy — was ousted from the company. Failure within Nintendo wasn't treated with sympathy during Hiroshi Yamauchi's tenure, and Yokoi would go on to mastermind the Bandai WonderSwan before tragically losing his life in a road-traffic accident. The Virtual Boy is seen by many as a blight on his otherwise impressive CV, but in recent years consumer confidence in the system has improved.
Even so, the Virtual Boy remains an odd system. Neither portable nor truly domestic, the console occupies a strange middle ground; it's small enough to move around the house or even take over to a friend's, and it runs off AA batteries, which implies portability. However, it's also a long way from being a mobile gaming platform. You need a flat surface and chair to use it, and it's so bulky we can't imagine many people would feel comfortable about taking it out of the house. The console itself resembles a chunky VR headset, with its vibrant red casing matching the equally red viewing experience that lies within. Rumour has it that Nintendo picked red LEDs for the console because they were cheaper to produce and placed a modest demand on the batteries (an adapter is also available which allows you to run the system from the mains). Infamously, the console caused many players to experience painful headaches during use, something which predictably didn't help the console's commercial fortunes back in the mid-1990s.
Given the short lifespan of the Virtual Boy, it should come as no great surprise to learn that very few games were produced for the console. The entire library consists of 22 officially-released titles — 19 in Japan and 14 in the US (amazingly, even though it has such a limited selection of games, the Virtual Boy is home to not one but two versions of Tetris). Of these games, Virtual Boy Wario Land is generally considered to be the best of the bunch, with honourable mentions also going to the likes of 3D Tetris and Vertical Force. Unreleased titles like Bound High and Faceball are finally getting physical launches thanks to the efforts of dedicated fans, proving that the console still has followers out there, despite its rather dire reputation.
As is often the case when it comes to retro gaming collectables, the Virtual Boy's chequered history means that it's perfect fodder for enthusiasts, and unsurprisingly the system is steadily growing in value on the second-hand market. Boxed systems — once sold for next-to-nothing by North American retailers — are now commanding prices well in excess of their original RRP. Loose consoles are also worth a fair amount, although you should ensure that all of the original parts are included before parting with your cash — many second-hand Virtual Boys are lacking either the stand or the fabric eyepiece, both of which can be removed from the main console itself. It's also worth noting that the stand is prone to cracking, and finding a pristine example today is easier said than done. Finally, due to their age Virtual Boy consoles often fall foul to screen issues caused by the cables inside the unit working loose.
Given that Nintendo has made reference to the Virtual Boy in games like Wario Ware, it's safe to assume that the company's once-chilly stance on its biggest hardware failure has thawed somewhat — Shigeru Miyamoto himself has even admitted that Virtual Boy games could make their way to the 3DS Virtual Console, which seems like the perfect place for them given the system's auto-stereoscopic screen. Despite its position as the black sheep of the Nintendo family, the Virtual Boy offers something that you simply won't find anywhere else. It may have a small collection of games, be unwieldy to use and cause migraines, but it's a console every self-respecting Nintendo fan needs to witness in the flesh at least once in their lifetimes.