Community college student Palmer Luckey made a splash at CES 2013 with his 3D gaming headset, the Oculus Rift. The buzz was so strong, in fact, that Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014 for the staggering sum of $2 billion. The interesting thing is that this technology is not new news.
Indeed, VR sputtered and died once before. This came in the form of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, an ill-fated VR device released in 1995 that failed to capture the public’s imagination. And while today’s virtual reality technology exceeds expectations—it could even disrupt all of video gaming—the Virtual Boy is renowned only for how it failed to live up to those expectations. Here are the six principal reasons Nintendo failed to corner the VR market.
In advertisements leading up to the Virtual Boy’s release, Nintendo sold the device as a “portable console.” This was the first mistake in a long line of errors related to Nintendo’s foray into 3D land. In reality, the Virtual Boy was more toy than console. As for the claim of portability, this was only superficially true. Bulky, the Virtual Boy looked like an oversized View-Master—that old pair of toy 3D glasses from the 40s. (A product that actually worked, by the way.) Simply put, the Virtual Boy was too big to be considered portable; anything that requires a tripod to use isn’t fitting in anyone’s pocket.
Any gaming device that comes peppered with health warnings should be taken with a grain of salt, or overlooked entirely. Text on the Virtual Boy box warned that eye problems, headaches or even seizures could result if played too long. Even the games came with an automatic pause option every 15-20 minutes to help stave off neural damage.
While the selection of games for the Virtual Boy was certainly limited, the ones Nintendo did release didn’t knock anyone’s socks off. In fact, the general consensus was that most Virtual Boy games would probably have been better on a standard console, or even the Gameboy. Take “Panic Bomber,” for example. It was a 3D puzzle game similar to Tetris that would have been better served on a handheld device. And then there’s “Mario Clash,” a veritable redux of the 1983 Super Mario arcade game—one that should have stayed on the NES.
Nintendo may have touted the “cutting edge” nature of its VR device, but the reality was that it didn’t offer “true 3D graphics.” Sure, the principal was sound: oscillating mirrors displayed different images in each eye of the headset to deliver the 3D effect. But the graphics were monochrome, and the only colors seen were red and black. This made an already problem-riddled device even worse.
It was mentioned above that the Virtual Boy was oversized and cumbersome. Not only that, but the included tri-pod only ever did its job under optimum conditions. Players who setup the device found that unless they positioned the stand on a perfectly smooth, flat surface, the screen image would bounce and shake. Again, what “portable” gaming device can only be operated in a stationary position absent any movement whatsoever?
Virtual Boy’s price point was outlandish. It was simply unrealistic to charge people $179.99 for a portable gaming device, especially one as woefully subpar as the Virtual Boy. Nintendo did consider adding a full range of colors to the VB, but that would have pushed the MSRP into the stratosphere, to the tune of over $700.
In the end, the Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s biggest failure up to that time. It’s a disaster that could probably best be chalked up to lack of effort. They simply didn’t care. Few VB games offered first person perspective, and the ones that did never really replicated the full virtual reality experience. The graphics and game design were shameful as well. The lesson to be taken: Lack of technological resources + zero ambition = the Nintendo Virtual Boy. Rest in peace.