Virtual Boy
Image: Nintendo Life

We've pleased to present a chapter from Bitmap Books' excellent The Games That Weren't, which looks at an unreleased Virtual Boy title that aimed to emulate the success of Atari's Battlezone – but sadly never saw the light of day.

Nintendo helped rejuvenate the games industry after the 1983 crash with the Nintendo Entertainment System in the US, followed by blisteringly successful launches of the Game Boy and Super Nintendo. It seemed the company could do no wrong at the time. So, when announcing that its next console was to be a portable virtual reality gaming device, there were one or two raised eyebrows. However, this was Nintendo, and ‘failure’ wasn’t a familiar word to them.

To form a successful launch, it was crucial to gain the support of development studios to build up a solid pre- and post-launch portfolio. Also on the horizon was the new Nintendo 64 (N64) console (then under the early guises of Project Reality and Ultra 64), where a number of studios were keen to become officially licensed developers. One such studio was to be the newly-launched Boss Game Studios in 1994.

The studio was an offshoot of film company Boss Film Studios, seeing the potential that games were perhaps someday going to be as big or bigger than the film industry. “We were a small studio set up with the intention of making games using facilities of the special FX studio in Marina del Rey, California,” Boss Game Studio’s creative director at the time, Seth Mendelsohn, told us. “It was felt that we could use this facility to make content for games and also build a games development studio too. One of the managers had a connection with folks at Nintendo, so it was decided to open an office in Redmond, Washington – just down the street from them. We would start developing content for Nintendo from the start, prior to the launch of the N64.”

With a working relationship firmly established early on with Nintendo, Boss Game Studios would commence work on what would eventually become Top Gear Rally. Although not planning to develop anything for the upcoming Virtual Boy, Nintendo had a clever ploy, where some smaller studios had to agree to make a game for the platform in order to develop for the upcoming N64. The studio was hit with this requirement but didn’t see it as a problem, rather more just another stream of income to help the fledgling company to get a foothold.

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Top Gear Rally was Boss Game Studios' first N64 title

The Virtual Boy was an intriguing device, a 32-bit console built as a headset with two eyepieces to view games in stereoscopic red and black monochrome 3D. Part of the effect was achieved using parallax layers to give the illusion of depth. It was around the time that Virtual Reality was popular, thanks to the company Virtuality and its iconic arcade systems plus, of course, the film Lawnmower Man released a few years earlier. Thinking about what to produce for the unique hardware, it wouldn’t take long until the perfect game hit the studio.

“Whilst having discussions with Nintendo, they showed us the development hardware. I saw the two separate joypads and immediately thought of Battlezone. I said to Colin Gordon [vice president of product development] that this thing is perfect for that kind of 3D game,” recalled Seth. “Everyone said ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ and then, on top of that, it was very much in line with the look and feel of those old vector games, so it made even more sense to make a Battlezone style game. The control system could be literally the same thing – pushing both sticks forwards to make the tank go forwards, both back to go back, and opposite directions controlling the directional movement. It could follow the exact style and learnings of Battlezone. We asked Nintendo ‘Is anyone doing such a game?’, and they responded ‘Nope!’, and so off we went to create a pitch.”

In the original arcade, the task was simple: track down tanks and UFOs on your scanner and shoot them before they shoot you. You could hide behind rocks from enemy fire, but, most often, you had to quickly navigate your tank out of the firing line. The arcade controls were not everyone’s cup of tea, so replicating on the Virtual Boy could risk alienating some games players.

Seth maintained that this would have been compensated for accordingly. “I imagine that, if you had never played Battlezone, the concept of two sticks forwards and two sticks back, especially the turning, would seem very odd,” he admitted. “I imagine too that we probably would have looked into simpler control systems as an option anyway.”

Battlezone (3)
Atari's classic arcade title Battlezone was a key influence on Virtual Tank

From the initial idea, Seth fleshed out a short brief with more detailed suggestions and ideas. Back at the studio, the concept was then assigned to artist Todd Downing to spend a few weeks producing visual sketches and further ideas that would go into pitching documents to present to Nintendo. Seth would continue to oversee the evolving of his ‘baby’ with great interest, seeing as it was one of the studio’s first productions.

“It was never intended to be a full or hardcore simulation but just an action arcade game. We were aware that the style of the system wouldn’t suit people playing for five and six hours at a time, so it made sense to have things broken down into smaller doses,” explained Seth. “The flip side was that it still had to have more depth than the original Battlezone to take it forwards. Unlike the arcade that just really had the one button that fired, one intent was to have different types of firing missiles and shots and a larger variety of enemies with differing capabilities, giving much more depth than just straight driving and shooting.”

In many ways, it was becoming comparable with Realtime Game’s Battle Command, with the similarity of having missions and destroying certain targets or a number of different enemies. However, Virtual Tank would have landscapes with terrain that you could climb and descend and various obstacles to navigate past to hunt down enemies. Some of those enemies would be harder to kill than others, requiring particular weapons to destroy them effectively. Tracking enemies was also a very familiar affair, using the same style of enemy scanner as found in Battlezone.

Following from Todd’s sketches, 3D artist Hans Piwenitzky soon became involved, spending a month visualising the concept in 3D for a moving demonstration to present to Nintendo. “At the time, I was employed as a 3D modeller and texture artist,” began Hans. “Colin and Seth tasked me with creating a 3D demo movie of the concept. We were all excited about developing for the new platform, and I liked the concept as a whole as real 3D games were just in the embryonic stages.”

It was never intended to be a full or hardcore simulation but just an action arcade game

“The environment was created out of a red-lined grid, lines defining the edges of the polygons,” he continued. “I created the look of the environment, as well as simple polygonal shapes representing enemy units and projectiles. I used Autodesk 3D Studio as a modeller/UV mapper, Deluxe Paint to create textures and head-up display (HUD), and Autodesk Animator to assemble the different elements together to form a short demo. I had to teach myself how to properly apply a grid texture so the models looked lined in with the red vectors, as well as how to plot several series of complex animations as the tank moved through the environment and destroyed various enemies. It was also the first time I had really started to delve into Autodesk Animator. Very rewarding work, all in all.”

The effort from the trio paid off, and Nintendo was impressed with the pitch, giving the thumbs up to proceed with the development of a game that the hardware seemed destined for. By early 1995, Virtual Tank was fully born – at this stage, known simply as 3D Tank. Todd and Hans’s involvement on the project had, by now, come to an end, with both having moved on to other projects. “By the time the game was to start active development, I was already working on Spider: The Video Game for the PlayStation and was doing concept art for other titles. I did later check in once in a while and got to see the game take shape,” recalled Todd. It was now all about getting a playable game put together and completed.

According to the website Planet Virtual Boy, the May 1995 E3 event in Chicago revealed that the title was coming soon. Known only as 3D Tank at the time, very little was given away, but many would guess what the general premise would be. Shortly after the event, a final name was settled on which, seemingly all too obvious, was set in stone as Virtual Tank to fit in with the console moniker.

V Tank1

Boss Game Studios’ technical director Rob Povey was assigned to oversee the development of the project. “I remember making the decision to make Virtual Tank a real 3D game instead of one with sprites. I also remember hating the VB development kit,” recalled Rob. “We were short of engineers at the time, so the original idea was to have Brian Soderberg (a friend of our then-CEO) provide the rendering code. Because of a non-disclosure agreement, he didn’t have access to the actual platform.” Brian would end up writing the engine on a PC as a result, which would then later require porting across to the Virtual Boy by the studio. Working with Rob as lead engineer would be newly employed Warrick Holfeld, who first had to get familiar with the sparsely documented Virtual Boy architecture before he could make any start.

“There just wasn’t anyone to ask to get assistance with the development system. Unlike the other hardware over the years that I have worked with, there just weren't enough other people to reach out to at Nintendo,” explained Seth. “It was a lot of work to get the initial development hardware working and get anything on the screen, so it was not as simple as knocking out a flash mock-up. We were also very early on getting the development kit.”

Warrick couldn’t recall very much about the development due to how brief his time was on the project, but he did recall his first task of working with Brian’s code. “The engine was written in C on a PC, where I spent some time porting the code over to the Virtual Boy,” he explained. “I got the new code working, and, right after that, Rob came along and gave me the 3D engine he had written to use within the game instead.”

There was generally a feeling that this was something neat

In the end, the solution provided by Brian hadn’t been quite fast enough, not helped by his lack of access to the real hardware. Therefore, Rob decided to rewrite and produce a much faster 3D rending engine, working directly to the strengths of the hardware. Warrick began working with Rob’s engine to construct something playable, as well as implement the HUD elements detailed in the specification demo.

Rob would now mostly oversee Warrick’s development work but kept a hand in the project, assisting with bits and pieces of code when required to help out. Unfortunately, Warrick’s recollections ended there. “All I remember is that you could move around the 3D environment. I don’t remember if there were any characters, or if there was a UI or sound effects,” he concluded.

Luckily, Seth and Rob would be on hand to fill in the memory gaps, though no one could recall who handled the non-3D artwork for the game. It is believed that Hans’ 3D demo artwork was just translated and used as placeholder graphics, with additional bits and pieces probably added in by Warrick as required. Everything would likely have been tidied up towards the end of development, so the main focus, for now, was just on the 3D rendering and getting something playable put together.

Nintendo regularly saw the progress made by the team, giving input and any suggestions along the way to help ensure the game was on track. “One of the nice things of being in the area and knowing folks at Nintendo was that we could easily share what we were doing and get good feedback from them as to what to do and things to stay away from,” Seth confirmed. “A lot of it was not wanting to end up making a game that someone else had already made as well.”

As with Han’s demo, the landscape was implemented using plain vector lines, with undulating hills. The distant horizon was kept blank for now, but there were plans to include detailed artwork later to add more depth and make it even less visually like Battlezone. One major difference to the arcade was that enemies would be rendered as filled/shaded vectors, with the hardware and Rob’s engine more than capable at handling them at a decent speed.

V Tank2

After approximately 3–4 months of hard work, the game was fully playable, with a variety of ground, air enemies and targets that you could destroy. There was also a working HUD panel, complete with the familiar-looking enemy scanner. Just a handful of levels were present at this stage, enough to get a good feel for the game. During the development, the studio employed Barry Leitch as its audio director, with one of his very first assignments to produce sound effects and music for Virtual Tank. Barry briefly recalled the game but could not remember anything at all about doing work for it, being very surprised to learn that he was involved.

Everything was looking perfectly on track, with the studio now about to start looking for a publisher. It was now the summer of 1995, and the Virtual Boy was about to launch in July and August in Japan and the US respectively. Unfortunately, there was about to be a rather unexpected turn for the worse. Felt to be rushed to market with a number of critical flaws, poor visual effects, high price and weak initial titles, the launch ended up a disaster for Nintendo. The monochrome display, impracticality of the console, and rumours of it being ‘seizure-inducing’ meant that it was heavily discounted by stores early on. After just a few months, Nintendo waved the white flag and put the console to bed, swiftly moving on and putting all focus into the imminent N64 launch.

“We had all gone and bought ourselves Virtual Boys when it first launched and were really surprised at the speed that the platform died in the end. There was generally a feeling that this was something neat, and it was cool and definitely different to the Game Boy and any of the TV consoles,” remembered Seth. “I didn’t get any headaches from it, but part of the problem was your neck hurting after a while. It was hard to find the perfect table and chair for the thing to stand on, so I think that is probably more likely why it failed."

Boss Game Studios saw the writing on the wall early on, and associates at Nintendo just down the road would admit that they should probably just move their focus to the N64 developments instead. Virtual Tank was swiftly dropped, no longer required in order to produce Top Gear Rally. “The game ended up getting to something that I wouldn’t even call an alpha. It was probably between a first playable and alpha, where there was a tank that was rolling around and shooting. It wasn’t close to being finished,” explained Seth. Though far from being a finished product, with a just couple of levels, it actually had full presentation and options screens present. But, most surprising, was the early music and sound effects being included, something usually done nearer the end of a project's life cycle.

Sadly, a Battlezone-like experience was just never to be for the platform. Virtual Tank now remains a curiosity

Overall, a significant and impressive amount of work was put in within a very short space of time, and it was a shame that it would ultimately all go to waste. As the game was designed around the Virtual Boy’s hardware, there was nothing on the cards for transferring the idea to other consoles, so it was shelved indefinitely. The studio would focus on Spider (which Warrick also moved on to) and Top Gear Rally, before later creating games such as Stunt Racer 64 and Twisted Edge Snowboarding.

Thanks to the reveal of the game (under the name of 3D Tank) during the Internet era, Virtual Boy fans would be left wondering what it would have been like to play a Battlezone-like game on the hardware. Even mock-up screenshots surfaced of a potential arcade conversion at the start of the new millennium, with others clearly sharing the same vision as Seth once did back in 1994. The question now was whether anything of Virtual Tank could be found and shown after just over 25 years of being in the shadows. Both Todd and Hans confirmed that they no longer had anything relating to the game as everything was kept at the studio at the time. Warrick and Rob concluded the same, but there was better news to come.

Seth miraculously kept a final build of the game, digging it out to get it up and running so we could show it here. On these pages, you can see tidied-up screenshots, interpreted from photos of the game taken through the console’s lens. The screenshots show just how much the game was inspired by Battlezone and was comparable to the original arcade. No doubt, it could have been a showcase game for the platform. Unfortunately, Nintendo will not allow the release of the prototype as it is copyright protected, something that Seth cannot break. The only way it may ever surface is if another prototype somehow turns up by other means. For now, check out screenshots from the game and photos of the prototype. It is hoped that video and audio recordings will someday be available on the Games That Weren’t website.

Sadly, a Battlezone-like experience was just never to be for the platform. Virtual Tank now remains a curiosity that we hope surfaces someday to give a taste of what could have been. Hopefully, in time, a homebrew conversion of Atari’s arcade will give the platform the game it sorely deserves.

This feature – along with many others – can be found in Bitmap Books' The Games That Weren't, which can be purchased here.

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