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20 Years of Consumer VR: Virtual Boy

Nintendo’s ill-fated step into the world of virtual reality (VR) arrived 20 years ago, with the Japanese launch of the Virtual Boy on 21st July 1995. Often cited as a failure due to design, the culling of the console in it’s relative youth was actually a decision made at Nintendo to avoid any negativity being attached to the family-orientated image they’d done so well to establish with their home consoles up to this point. Looking beyond the rumours and confusion, there remains some truly exemplary gameplay ideas on the Virtual Boy that VR designers today could well learn from.

Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game & Watch systems and the designer of the phenomenally successful Game Boy, the demise of the consumer-grade VR device is often thought to be the reason for Yokoi’s departure from Nintendo. However, in reality Yokoi remained at the firm for another 12 months to complete work on the Game Boy Pocket.

Virtual Boy

The discontinuation of the device came not from the relatively poor sales but rather the media attention levelled at it’s red and black display, suggesting that it could cause headaches and potentially permanent brain damage through extended use. Of course, many similar worries are re-emerging in the modern era with a new wave of VR head-mounted displays (HMDs), and while simulator sickness is a very real issue it’s been proven that improved hardware combined with experiences designed with overcoming these difficulties at the forefront can minimise the risk.

Of course, Nintendo never intended to launch a system that would cause it’s users any discomfort. The videogame titles themselves were designed with the same ethos as more traditional console experiences – fun above all else – which was proven in a selection of the first-party titles made available during the Virtual Boy’s short shelf-life. Virtual Boy Wario Land, for example, took the now familiar principles of a Wario Land 2D platform videogame and transplanted them into a world of parallax exploring. Similar in concept to the movement between layers of level design seen in Rayman Legends, however rather than zooming into the background Virtual Boy Wario Land simply held the camera position and instead allowed Wario to move between distances, making full use of the then innovative stereoscopic 3D display.

Virtual Boy Wario Land screenshot

Mario Clash and Mario Tennis used a similar concept to recreate their console counterparts in stereoscopic 3D. The former was based very closely on the original Mario Bros. design, wherein the player would stand near the camera and attempt to launch the shells of defeated Koopa Troopers at their foe who lies in wait not next to them, but on a separate level further from the player’s viewpoint. Mario Tennis was arguably one of the most enjoyable titles launched for the Virtual Boy – and that which came closest to the ‘virtual reality’ moniker – in that immersion was heightened simply by the sense of speed and weight of the ball. The videogame had such a convincing stereoscopic 3D visual design that the player would actually feel as though the ball was moving towards and away from them, opposed to simply being limited within the confines of the HMD’s screen.

Of course it could be argued that the Virtual Boy was not a VR device at all. While it was a HMD, it did not feature any head-tracking of any sort. The player was offered immersion that was arguably greater than any 2D panel in the corner of a room could ever achieve, yet remained an onlooker to the action opposed to being involved directly in it. Whether first-person experiences (indeed, Teleroboxer was an intriguing first step in this direction) or fully 3D worlds could be delivered on the device is not actually known, due to the early discontinuation of the device, yet 20 years after launch it remains an interest sideline to a medium which is only just about to come of age.