Let's get one thing straight right from the start: This is not a virtual reality system. Created by Nintendo's design guru Gumpei Yokoi, whose past glories include hardware such as the Game Boy, the Game And Watch series, and such sterling software as Super Metroid, the Virtual Boy is something of a mysterious product. Unusually, it was a Nintendo product that didn't achieve a universal level of desirability prior to its launch. Conversely, the Super Famicom (Super NES) had been spoken of in hushed, sacramental tones by all within the videogaming community months before its first public airing in 1990, and even now the Ultra 64 is generating similar levels of frenzied prelaunch speculation.
What certainly didn't help Nintendo's Virtual Boy plans was the rush of opinion offered at the Virtual Boy's unveiling at last year's Shoshinkai show in Chibi, Japan. Most observations were less than optimistic, and some downright damning. The key area of criticism was its range of launch software; "uninspired" came from some of the kinder reports.
While the Virtual Boy system's 3D capability was certainly perceived as being effective, there was little Nintendo could do to disguise the shallow nature of games such as TeleRoboxer, a Punch Out!! style affair featuring robotic fighters. Worse, there was no big-name Nintendo sales vehicle among the initial titles: Virtual Boy takes on the Zelda and Metroid themes were conspicuous by their absence at launch, and Mario Smash bears more resemblance to the original Mario arcade game then the side-scrolling plumber who has sold millions of hardware units.
Gumpei Yokoi believes that the system is best suited to action and puzzle games, though he says that "in the future, role-playing games and simulations will become popular." However, creating expansive and complex games such as RPGs could in itself be problematic. The Virtual Boy is designed to be used in shortish bursts. Indeed, the games have an optional auto-pause facility built into the hardware, which prevents users from overdosing, and simplistic titles such as Galactic Pinball consolidate the brief-dabble theory. But when you consider that Square Soft is a known licensee for the Virtual Boy, more involving, long-term games seem destined to appear as the system matures.
Third party support in general would appear to be something of an interesting point, however. Nintendo consciously avoided an "all aboard" policy during the system's infancy, with Yokoi stating that "if we allow any software publisher to develop games for our platform, there's a danger that poor-quality software will appear; we wanted to limit that danger and maintain as much control as possible."
What is of some concern is that Nintendo's machine has apparently been dismissed by some of the industry's most important players. Konami, Capcom, and Namco have so far remained uncommitted to the format, leaving the flame to be carried instead by the likes of smaller companies such as Hudson Soft, Atlus, and T&E Soft.
It is clear that Nintendo has picked up on virtual reality's burgeoning significance in electronic home entertainment. But rather than approach the challenge head on, producing a full-blown machine with a traditional, colored display and motion-tracking facility, it has opted for a novelty angle. The finished unit is certainly a striking piece of gaming hardware, designed with an air of Fisher Price flair and finished with the robusticity of a traditional Nintendo product. It stands sturdily on metal feet, and its joypad, which also holds the six AA batteries required to power the system, is comfortably designed, yet sufficiently complex to sit alongside both Sony's and Sega's designs.
The Virtual Boy's display is absolutely pin sharp, and succeeds in producing a gaming experience truly unlike anything that's gone before. At its most basic level, the 3D effect is achieved by assigning objects on screen to individual planes. The 3D varies throughout the range of launch software, but even Hudson Soft's Panic Bomber, a Tetris clone that would seem to be the least likely to demonstrate dazzling 3D, manages to produce some of the most terrific animation and effects seen on the system.
Despite housing a 32-bit CPU, the Virtual Boy really doesn't jump through any impressive hoops when examined on the basis of pure pixel shifting. Obviously the strain of producing two independent images simultaneously, each only slightly different, but coordinating to create a 3D effect when brought together naturally by the user's eyes, prevents any particularly advanced sprite manipulation or polygon pushing coming into play. The system's first and so far only polygonal title, Red Alarm, manages only a wireframe gaming environment -- a concept exhausted on more conventional systems years ago and now redundant elsewhere.
The bottom line is that Virtual Boy is a product with some serious flaws. It is difficult to play for more than a few minutes without experiencing back and/or eye strainand although the unit runs on batteries, it is anything but portable. The monochrome (red) nature of the display, while, sharp, is not exactly enticing to traditional gamers. Children may be excited by the simple 3D effects, but the unit carries strong warning against being used by those under six years of age -- permanent vision damage can occur.
Despite a strong promotional campaign, the unit has not done well in Japan. And convinced that US customers just "aren't getting it," Nintendo has arranged to have 20,000 units available for rent at Blockbuster (rumors that the units are Japanese returns are unconfirmed). Another problem is lack of games. There have been no new titles since the launch, reportedly due to a shortage of circuit boards. Is Nintendo playing the "artificial scarcity" game it honed with the NES? hopefully not. While the scarcity of titles in the '80s increased demand, with the Virtual Boy, consumers may respond with an apathetic attitude if the shortage persists.
The Virtual Boy is a quirky machine, but it must be kept in mind that it isn't intended to compete in a market currently saturated with both PlayStation and Saturn. Is this Nintendo's 32X? Time will tell. Nintendo's marketing genius is well known, and the Game Boy succeeded despite exceedingly lackluster technology. But it is worth noting that there is no Tetris, yet, for the Virtual Boy. What the system desperately needs, of course, is the product of Shigeru Miyamoto, but with his Ultra 64 commitments, it could well be some time before his groundbreaking work graces those red lenses.
Virtual Boy Ratings --
Processing Power **
Existing Software Library *
Third Party Support *
Marketing Muscle ***
Future Prognosis **
Courtesy of Next-Generation Online