Revisiting the Virtual Boy’s Library
Since the original Entertainment System, Nintendo has put out mostly classic consoles, with millions upon millions of sales, diverse libraries and nostalgic feelings among the kids (and big kids) of each and every generation since the 80s.
Note how I said mostly.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, released in 1995 to little fanfare, sold poorly, and definitely has more in the way of negatives than positives in the public consciousness.
The original hardware was, to be fair, quite forward-thinking. More akin to a ViewMaster mounted on a tripod than a traditional portable console, the two lenses that you stare through actually provide depth to objects in the games, not unlike many other systems at the time, and more modern efforts like Nintendo’s 3DS.
It did work up to a point, but had any number of side effects; many people reported things like dizziness and general sickness. Ways have been devised to play the games on more modern hardware, but one of the downsides is that it’s impossible to get the biggest feature – the depth – working on most hardware.
See, there’s a new way to play Virtual Boy games: virtual reality. Virtual reality technology works on a similar principle to the original hardware–two lenses for two eyes help you perceive depth. Combine this with an emulator that is capable of displaying these images properly, and you have a pretty accurate, playable Virtual Boy on more modern technology. I loaded up the entire console’s library on a VR headset of mine and gave all of the games released in English as fair a shake as I could.
I had to start with something that’s always made me chuckle; the fact that Waterworld, infamous massive flop that it was, had a game on this, a massive flop in and of itself, is a delicious kind of coincidence.
The game itself isn’t horrible, a Defender clone on the surface of the ocean with a very tank-like boat you use to defend people from raiders. However, it also barely excels, with very few actual things to look at and rather sluggish gameplay. The only noteworthy thing about it is the depth; things like objects on the water and flowing text.
This is something even Nintendo’s own properties can’t attest to having completely, exhibit A being Galactic Pinball. A neat depth-abusing title screen turns into an eye-strain fiesta when the actual tables come up, and poor ‘puck’ (yes, instead of ball) physics and table designs really bring it down. It’s hard to play for more than a couple of minutes, thanks to the bright red hue that slathers every single game on the system. (I ended up giving up on maintaining that part of the authenticity, changing the palette to a more tolerable white hue.)
On my futile quest to find more games that made effective use of the depth, I took a look at the honestly impressive Red Alarm, a 3D arcade space shooter in the vein of StarFox, but using wireframe graphics instead of solid polygons.
It serves its purpose well enough in giving out some speedy shooty action, and it has a neat touch or two, like being able to go into a first-person view, but the depth is practically nonexistent thanks to the absolute mess of lines from the wireframe art style, mainly reserved for keeping the heads-up-display in front of everything else. If you can’t focus, you basically can’t play this.
This problem of focus is so imbued into the design of the Virtual Boy that the majority of games have the option to automatically pause the game every few minutes so that you can take a break.
Even on a headset over twenty years removed from the original release of the hardware, some of the design decisions inherent to the Virtual Boy still make your eyes strain to see what’s going on. After needing to take my headset off twice in the writing of this article, it’s easy to see one of the reasons it failed; if you can’t even play the thing for longer than it takes to have lunch, no wonder.
I gave up on the whole depth thing after this point and just started to pick games randomly from the list.
Both T&E Soft’s Golf and Virtual Bowling, rather grounded takes on their subject matter (with a surprisingly high difficulty to boot) worked well enough on the surface, and actually looked pretty nice for the hardware. With that said though, they are absolutely games you’ve seen a hundred times before, and probably play better without the eventual eyestrain…
Puzzle games weren’t an enigma on the Virtual Boy, with games like Hudson’s Panic Bomber, a Bomberman-themed Columns-style competitive puzzler.
It plays exactly like you’d expect it to by looking at a screenshot, and it’s always satisfying to clear your field with a giant chain of bombs, and they even make some cute use of depth with the text on screen when you win or lose.
Where things get more interesting though is Tetris; the competent but uninteresting V-Tetris from Bulletproof Software is blown out of the water by T&E Soft’s 3D take on the concept. 3D Tetris has a three-dimensional well, way more than the usual set of shapes, and makes full use of the weird dual directional pad controller design in a way that’s entirely natural and easy to pick up (most games before this point would just have both pads do the same thing, if not disabling one entirely), resulting in me playing a few rounds longer than I probably should have.
The dual d-pad design almost resembles the GameCube in controller shape, with triggers on the back and a few buttons here and there. I can’t think of a game that accurately took advantage of every method of control, and even then, it was quite hard to do so thanks to one design element; the battery pack or AC adapter was routed through the controller into the unit, so one small bump might knock the power out.
Even Nintendo didn’t know what to do with this design at points; games like Nester’s Funky Bowling and Mario’s Tennis display at least a decent understanding of how the depth works and are competent enough representations of their sports, but both are generic enough at the end of the day to not stand out.
I was pretty disappointed with the physics of Mario’s Tennis myself; the depth of everything can make it really hard to tell when to actually hit the ball.
However, not all of Nintendo’s attempts are misses.
There are three games in particular published by them that stand out, for three entirely different reasons, that show just what could have really been on the system if they managed to combine all three at once. It’s a shame we didn’t get more opportunities to see this kind of quality, but I guess all we can really do is make use of hindsight.
The first is Mario Clash, arguably the most hostile name of a Mario game ever before Strikers Charged.
It’s an arcade-style game, where you need to dispose of the koopas by making good use of their thrown shells, both on the same lane and across lanes, depending on the shell. Its main benefit is its lightweight but effective use of depth; a lesson learnt by the 3DS later on. Its dual-lane gameplay lends a subtle level of detail that actually helps the gameplay ever so slightly, and its length (100 stages) is probably going to keep you in the console the longest out of the entire library.
The second is Teleroboxer, which is basically Punch-Out, but with the added benefit of controlling both fists individually with the dual directional pads and triggers.
This makes fights intense; you can block, dodge and punch in multiple directions, and the enemies absolutely will take advantage. Even after a few tries, I can’t get any further than the third fight. It’s a good use of the unique controller included in the console, and it’s hard to think of any other game on the system that does much better.
And finally, Virtual Boy Wario Land. It’s more or less the same idea as the other Wario Land titles; a simple, powerup-based platformer which has the titular anti-hero seeking out as much money and treasure as possible.
The included stages are natural fits for the series, a neat use of depth by jumping into the background doesn’t distract from the gameplay, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a full, albeit short, experience on a system which really didn’t have many of its kind. If Nintendo managed to combine all three of these efforts together in some way, there would have been something really special on the Virtual Boy.
At this point I’ve touched on pretty much every English-released Virtual Boy game out there; the only two left are Vertical Force, an inoffensive scrolling shooter with a neat layer-switching mechanic. It doesn’t particularly make use of the depth but it works well enough. The other is Jack Bros, the only Atlus game on the platform, a maze-wandering action game with a good pace and decent variety. The depth is used when you drop down to a new floor, and it’s kinda neat in that way.
The Virtual Boy crashed out of the market almost as fast as it came out, barely lasting a year. (Heck, Japan barely got six months out of the thing.)
Sales were terrible; not even a million made it off the shelf. Gunpei Yokoi, the designer of the hardware (and previously the GameBoy) ended up leaving the company, and died in an unfortunate car accident not too long after. The hardware is an absolute failure in Nintendo’s eyes, and it’s easy to see why; while games like Wario Land and Teleroboxer made a good impression, the overwhelming amount of problems and lack of real heavy hitters may have put the console in the grave before it was released.
Despite the eyestrain I got from the horrific red and bad use of depth though, going back and experiencing what the Virtual Boy had to offer was still a fun time. You can still see parts of Nintendo’s vision for the future in there; the three-dimensional depth is the obvious one, but even things like the dual directional pads were ahead of their time (the dual analog controller for PlayStation didn’t come out until 1997). It’s little more than a curiosity now, but at least with Nintendo, their curiosities are always interesting. Now let me tell you about how Nintendo bought an American baseball team…