Twenty Years Later, Let’s Remember The Virtual Boy, The Failure That Saved Nintendo

Twenty years ago today, Japan saw the first low-budget consumer VR system, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. A year later, Nintendo would quietly discontinue the system. Along the way, it equally quietly changed how video games were developed.

The Virtual Boy was created by Gunpei Yokoi, a long-serving Nintendo employee who worked for the company before it even made video games, and who turned out to be in many ways the man who defined the art form. Yokoi mentored Shigeru Miyamoto, created Nintendo’s iconic D-pad, oversaw beloved franchises like Metroid, and, most importantly, was the point man in creating the Game Boy, the device that created modern mobile gaming and put Nintendo at its forefront for decades.

Yokoi’s approach to development was summed up in a phrase: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. It wasn’t the chips and bits that were important, it was the gameplay; put together the equipment from cheap, widely available parts and make good games for it, and the fans would follow. This has become one of Nintendo’s core principles, and you can see it reflected in its decisions over the decades.

It paid dividends: The Game Boy came together because Yokoi noticed he could easily scale down the guts of an NES and pair it with a cheap liquid crystal display. And Yokoi was fascinated by virtual reality as only a tinkerer can be. So, why was it such a disaster?

What we know as the Virtual Boy was not what Yokoi intended to put onto the market. The issue wasn’t that the technology didn’t work; Yokoi’s prototypes were by all accounts some of his best work as an engineer. But they were just that, prototypes, and he was struggling to turn them into actual, marketable products.

Yokoi had rejected a color display due to cost, and used red LEDs instead, giving the games a distinctive look, and gamers an issue where they had to stop playing every few minutes to avoid eye strain. It also had a “parallax” system to create the illusion of depth, which looks great but didn’t help with the eyestrain issues.

It also wasn’t a true VR system; you couldn’t control where you looked by moving your head, for example. It was impressive, but it was hardly what consumers thought of as “virtual reality.” Unfortunately, Nintendo did something it rarely does: It jumped the gun. It remains unclear why Yokoi’s prototype, which he made abundantly clear he was unsatisfied with, was rushed to market, but rushed to market it was.

Nintendo is often blamed for poorly promoting the system, but the truth is that they promoted it brilliantly. Nintendo worked out a deal with NBC and Blockbuster where NBC plugged the system as a rental from Blockbuster, and after you returned the rental, you got a $10 off coupon.