The Nintendo Virtual Boy Deserves Your Respect

The Nintendo Virtual Boy Deserves Your Respect

In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a video game console billed as providing gamers a unique and immersive playing experience via its stereoscopic red-and-black 3D graphic display. Within a year, following a quickly soured public reception and meager sales, the company would unceremoniously discontinue it. In Japan, Nintendo’s home country, the Virtual Boy lasted just five months.

To this day, the Virtual Boy is remembered as one of the most infamous failures of the video game industry—an industry with plenty of candidates to choose from, mind you. Only 22 games were created for it, and only 770,000 units were sold, the lowest of any dedicated console produced by Nintendo. To many who know anything about it, the Virtual Boy is merely an ill-conceived, headache-inducing gimmick that tried to (poorly) cash in on the virtual reality craze of the 1990s.

But to the co-authors of the upcoming book Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, Jose Zagal and Benj Edwards, it’s much more than that.

Zagal is an academic researcher and professor at the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, while Edwards is a long-time tech historian and journalist. Both have previously written about the Virtual Boy during their respective careers. In their new book, the two have teamed up to not only extensively detail the console’s development history but the science behind how it works.

They ultimately make the case that while the Virtual Boy certainly had flaws, its creation wasn’t an impulsive decision to try riding the VR wave, but an honest attempt to build on existing technologies in order to give people something new and entertaining. And though the Virtual Boy came and went with little fanfare, they further argue that much of the philosophy underlying its design has continued to influence the video game world to this day.

Detail of a the “screens” on a vintage 1995 Nintendo Virtual Boy video game console, taken on August 13, 2018. (Photo by James Sheppard/Retro Gamer Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

Gizmodo spoke to Zagal and Edwards about their new book, the fancies and follies of the Virtual Boy, and their favorite desert island games. The conversation below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Gizmodo: You discuss this some in the book, but what led you, respectively, to want to explore the Virtual Boy so intensively in the first place?

Zagal: For me, it was just that I was really inspired by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s Racing the Beam, their book about the Atari 2600. And when I heard about the Virtual Boy, I thought: Oh it’d be really easy to write a book about this platform, because there are so few games for it. And I was wrong about that. But that’s how I started down the path. And then the more I dug into the Virtual Boy, the more I realized there was more to it than just the fact that it wasn’t a commercial success.

Edwards: Yeah, I actually rented the Virtual Boy, when it was new, from Blockbuster. I was maybe 14 at the time, and they had this deal where you could rent it to see what it’s like. And I thought it was really interesting, but I didn’t get one until maybe the next year when they were on clearance for $30 at Toys “R” Us.

So, you know, I’ve always loved weird, quirky things. I’ve built a career out of writing about really interesting and odd tech history stuff. And the Virtual Boy just takes the cake there, it really fits in that category.

Gizmodo: For many people who have heard about the Virtual Boy, myself included before reading your book, it’s seen as a ludicrous, or at least misguided, fad of a failure. But you say otherwise. So why shouldn’t it be viewed as just a gimmick?

Zagal: When we talk about videogame history, there’s always this tendency, this desire, to come up with like a simple story, a sort of a cause-and-effect chain of things. You know, with the different generations of consoles back then, people will say something like, “Oh obviously, the PlayStation was going to win,” and so on.

But I think that oversimplification hides a lot of the nuance and the reality, the messiness of what was going on then. And one of the things that we’re bringing back into the present [with this book] is the reminder that the future of video games was a huge, gigantic question at that moment in time. Lots of people had different ideas and different visions. And it wasn’t necessarily the case of, “Yes, graphics will get better.” There were a lot of forks in that road.

We talk about how the video game industry is always innovating, and there are always new technologies and so on. And that means there’s a lot of uncertainty; you have to try out things that could turn out to be the next big thing. And I think the Virtual Boy was an example of that.

Edwards: It’s interesting that you say that the future of video games wasn’t determined at that time. And that’s completely true in the case of what Gunpei Yokoi [the Virtual Boy’s lead designer at Nintendo] was doing when he started the Virtual Boy project. He looked at the Super Nintendo and he’s like, “These are all the same. It’s a game on a screen and how can you go from here?” He was trying to look beyond just a game in a box on a screen, a flat thing. And so that was him trying to explore the potential of a new direction in video games.

But as far as gimmicks go, there is a lot of gimmickry in the Virtual Boy. But like I wrote in 2015, I think that the system typifies Nintendo’s historical willingness to take innovative risks. They took risks with other things like the Wii and the Nintendo DS, which are pretty dang weird, but they happened to be successful. And now we celebrate them because they were so successful. But the Virtual Boy was just part of that same DNA.

Gizmodo: Given your research, do you think there’s anything that Nintendo could have done beforehand to have saved it from the trash pile, or was it always doomed to crash and burn?

Edwards: Nintendo was deadly serious about trying to make the most out of this. I think they got caught up in being worried about their other big console, which was struggling to get out the door [the Nintendo 64, which would first be released in Japan in the summer of 1996].

I also go back to, and we cite this in the book, something that Shigeru Miyamoto said a while ago [a 2011 interview], which was basically that if they had marketed this thing as a toy, instead of a console, everyone would have been happy. It would have been seen as a huge success, the best-selling stereoscopic toy ever, even at that price point. And so a lot of it just comes down to that matter of perspective, of perception, which I think is one of the big themes in the book.

Edwards: It’s a great console, with great games. But there are a lot of misunderstandings about it, partly because it was only sold to 770,000 people. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about it. There’s the stereotype of it giving everyone a headache, which I never got. So we do want to rectify some of that and build some new respect for the system.

I also agree that had they marketed it as a toy, it would have been seen differently. You know, maybe if they didn’t position it in the lineage of the Game Boy with the name, or with the marketing as if it was a VR headset, which it’s not.

A vintage 1995 Nintendo Virtual Boy controller, taken on August 13, 2018. (Photo by James Sheppard/Retro Gamer Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

Gizmodo: What do you hope readers most take away from your deep dive into the Virtual Boy?

Zagal: I’m gonna put my academic hat on here a little bit because I’ve been a video games researcher for many years now. And so I have a deep intellectual and academic interest in games. I think a lot of times when we talk to people who are fans of games—and I’m a fan, I’m a gamer as well—a lot of times that appreciation comes through either passion, or it comes through nostalgia. It’s the memories you had as a kid. And I think that’s super important and valuable. I see it in a lot of my students here at the University of Utah, where I teach and do research. But what I hope this book does is also open up a new avenue for appreciation for the Virtual Boy.

There’s this long path of culture and things that we’ve done to entertain ourselves over the years that the Virtual Boy is a part of. And we should be proud of its place in that history.

Edwards: What Jose has managed to do in this book is place the Virtual Boy into the context of the wider world of media artifacts. And it’s fun to think of things with a new angle like that because we always get so myopic about how we label and box things in.

I hope people can come away with a new respect for something that should be celebrated for being innovative instead of derided for being unsuccessful.

Gizmodo: Since we’re all gamers here, what would be your stranded on a island game? [For the record, this reporter’s choice would be 2016’s XCOM 2.]

Edwards: I’m really still into Elden Ring a lot. I haven’t finished it, but it seems so deep that I could probably play it forever. explore different nooks and crannies. Either that or Skyrim. I still have been playing that a little bit every year for five years or six years straight. I haven’t really finished that either. But I don’t want it to end, because it’s just like there’s a world you live in.

Zagal: I have students asking me questions like this all the time. And I always have a cop-out answer. You know, I’m a gamer so I’m going to try to find a loophole. So if I have internet, I have online access, then I like to play a game where I can actually interact with other people. So I would pick any big MMO. Maybe it’s WOW, or maybe it’s Destiny, since that’s my chicken soup game. It’s the game I often go back to when I just want to kind of chill, relax.

But if I’m really stranded on a desert island with no electricity and no internet, then I probably just go with a bunch of dice, a deck of cards, paper, and pencils. And I just go for some old-fashioned tabletop role-playing.

Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy will be published on May 14.

Image: Getty Images

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