Nintendoâ€™s philosophy has always been to wait and see what their competitors are up to, then go one step further and better their products. It happened with the SNES, it happened with the Nintendo 64 and it arguably happened with the Wii. Back in 1995 however, the Kyoto giant went head first into the world of Virtual Reality, despite claims that Atariâ€™s prototype Jaguar VR headsets – along with others – were giving testers motion sickness and headaches.
It was a move that didnâ€™t pay off: within a year Nintendo pulled the plug and had cancelled the proposed European launch. A lack of decent titles, the imminent release of the PlayStation and Saturn – not to mention the Nintendo 64, known then as Ultra 64 – and the fact that you were susceptible to having â€˜kick meâ€™ signs stuck on your back while playing, all added up to the machineâ€™s demise.
Only 33 games were released in total – 14 in the US and 19 in Japan. Many more, including GoldenEye 007, VB Mario Kart and VB Mario Land, were in development but were swiftly canned. Figures suggest that there were only 770,000 consoles sold in total, with 140,000 of those in Nintendoâ€™s home country.
Designed by the late Gunpei Yokoi, the machine launched in Japan in July 1995 and August 1995 in North America for $180. It ran off six AA batteries that lasted for around 7 hours, and was bundled with the reasonably enjoyable Mario Tennis. Although the machine had a 32-bit processor and was capable of producing 3D visuals, the Virtual Boyâ€™s forte was to create an illusion of depth through rotating mirrors inside the headset. Think along the lines of wearing a pair of 3D glasses. In Wario Land, Wario could jump out of the background and foreground to avoid swinging blades and such, whilst in 2D shooter Virtual Force the craft could move up and down to different planes to avoid foes. Those expecting to be plunged into virtual words seen in the likes of Lawnmower Man were severely disappointed.
Due to its quirkiness – plus the fact that it was made by Nintendo – the machine has managed to sell for a steady price on the second hand market. Itâ€™s also quite easy to get hold of original sealed copies of games: the machine was such a flop that many stores were left with countless unsold games eventually flogged for next to nothing. Some of the final releases can go for hundreds on a good day, while obscure Japanese release Virtual Lab is sought after due to the misspelling of Nintendo (â€œNintenndoâ€) not just on the back of the box but also on the cartridge itself.
Perhaps one day Nintendo will release the best games the Virtual Boy had to offer on the Wiiâ€™s Virtual Console. Without the depth of vision some of the appeal will be lost, but at least we wonâ€™t have to suffer headaches every time we fancy having a quick go on Red Alarm or Wario Land.
And yes, we have named this feature after a Hugh Grant film. Sorry about that.
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