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.

It was a campaign that got consumers to try the system and even cut down the cost of a system that ran nearly $300 in today’s dollars. It was just, well… nobody liked it. It hurt your eyes, it was clunky, it didn’t feel immersive, and it just generally was poorly conceived.

Adding to the problem is an issue Nintendo fans know all too well: Those who did buy a Virtual Boy found themselves without reasons to play it. Yokoi had put his ample game development experience to work, but few developers bothered going near the system after they tried it, and only 22 games were ever made, with only 14 even being released in the U.S. It should tell you something that one of the last Virtual Boy games released in the U.S. was Waterworld.

By the end of 1996, the Virtual Boy was discontinued. Yokoi left the company a year later, after finishing the Game Boy Pocket; tragically, he’d die in a car accident in 1997. And that would seemingly be that…except, in its own way, the Virtual Boy has lingered in the back of Nintendo’s corporate mind. When the Nintendo 64 debuted in 1996, its controller clearly took cues from Yokoi’s design for the Virtual Boy. The Wiimote is, in fact, based on VR controller technology. And the 3DS’ top screen uses the same basic principles as the Virtual Boy.

More importantly, though, Yokoi’s game development work led the way for Nintendo to smoothly transition to 3D gaming. Super Mario 64 is one of the rare platform franchises to transition from 2D gaming to 3D without a hitch, and it’s clear that Yokoi’s work thinking about three dimensions was a powerful influence. He didn’t work on the game directly, but he got Nintendo, and his protege, thinking about three dimensions as more than a gimmick.

On its own, the Virtual Boy was a failure. But the work that went into it, and the spirit behind it, ensured Nintendo transitioned from a 2D company selling platform games to a modern force. Even if it did give everyone a headache.