Retrospective: Nintendo's Handheld Legacy • Page 3

From Game & Watch to the DSi.

Virtual Boy

Everyone gets it wrong now and then, and it's nice to know that, when a giant like Nintendo gets it wrong, the results are hilarious. The Virtual Boy is unwieldy, heavy, and looks like something an ophthalmologist might make you peer into before announcing that you have eye cancer.

Magazines and marketing people hated it because its stereoscopic 3D meant nobody could take screenshots of any of the games, players hated it because of the migraines it gave you after half an hour of use, and Nintendo hated it because it was a big fat radioactive money bomb which it would be forced to ditch in under a year.

No matter how charitably you try to frame it, the Virtual Boy was a total disaster for everybody except eBay traders. The only way the whole project could have possibly gone any worse was if holding the device's controller magically triggered earthquakes.

Announced in 1994 and released the following year, the Virtual Boy was designed by Yokoi's famous Research and Development Team 1, and utilised technology originally devised by the Massachusetts company Reflections Limited. Reflections had been pitching its stereoscopic 3D display around for years, according to Steven L Kent in his lovely book, The Ultimate History of Videogames, but with little success.

Virtual Boy (1995).

This was basically down to two simple reasons: everybody who heard the idea of a single-colour, hooded game device that used two mirrors to create the illusion of 3D objects hated the concept, and everyone who subsequently tried it out for more than 40 minutes felt, like, totally weird afterwards and had to have a few Anadin and a lie down. Try putting that on the back of the box.

Yokoi liked it, however, and thought it might be the future of games - this is a little like NASA staring at a broken owl-shaped money box and deciding it's just the ticket to get them to Mars, incidentally - and, after exploring the possibilities of a system that worked in, y'know, full colour, which would have been far too expensive, settled on an all red display, as red was kinder on the batteries than other LEDs, and was easier to distinguish, too.

Sadly, red also makes all of Nintendo's games look like they're taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland where the horizon glows with the embers of radioactive ash.

A lot's been written about how uncomfortable the Virtual Boy is to use, and how oddly unsatisfying its rather flat approach to 3D can be, but few mention just how alarming it is to actually play: Mario's Tennis looks like a piece of nihilist theatre in which a group of idiot friends knock a ball around on Ground Zero as their DNA goes through the shredder, while Wario glows a distinctly ominous shade of scarlet in his own, pretty good Wario Land platformer, where he ducks chains that swing in and out of the screen, and even mucks about with the foreground and background a bit.

Mario's Tennis (bonkers).

Even Tetris gives way to a murky kind of chaos in this all-red world, its friendly and recognisable blocks reduced to the kind of thing you might expect to see in some new manner of the Voigt Kampf test, and Teleroboxer - a first-person robot fighting game with some genuinely snazzy 3D elements - looks like it's taking place in the Fallout universe, for all the wrong reasons.

Curious and clearly possessing too much money, I bought a Virtual Boy a couple of years ago, played around with it for a few hours until I succumbed to a truly memorable headache, followed by a night spent hallucinating that I was sitting in a Victorian boating house talking to a woman made of rust. I was probably coming down with flu, or something, but I haven't used Yokoi's bright red dream machine that much since.

Yet even this wretched, hobbled relic had a handful of decentish games: Wario's not bad as I mentioned, and Jack Bros is a fascinating Megaten spin-off that plays from a top-down perspective. Besides that, there's no escaping the fact that playing a Virtual Boy is a unique experience - not just because it's red, it's 3D, and it makes your brain hurt. With your eyes deep inside the rubberised cowl, the Virtual Boy makes for an intimate experience - the rest of the world seems removed, and it's just you, a controller, Jack Bros, and a killer migraine. Good times.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.


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