3.8 tech score The Virtual Boy was a console with a lot of potential, but that proved to be wasted. In my opinion the Virtual Boy really needed to be in arcades rather than being marketed as a home console, which would of also helped Nintendo avoid cost cutting, which was one of the key reasons the hardware within the Virtual boy was so sub-par. In the end Nintendo cutting the development of the Virtual boy short was to allow them more time to work on the N64, so can we really complain?
In light of the Nintendo Switch being announced it’s about that time to jump on the ‘all Nintendo consoles are gimmicks’ bandwagon again and talk about possibly the biggest failure in terms of a games console ever (although the OUYA is likely quite close), the Nintendo Virtual Boy.The Virtual Boy was an all-in-one virtual reality set up, announced November of 1994, officially released in the west in August of the following year, and discontinued and pulled from the market as of the 2nd of March 1996 (December the 2nd 1995 in Japan). So what exactly went wrong with the first big name Virtual Reality system?
In terms of hardware the Virtual boy seems to be horribly under-powered when compared with modern technology and the current generation of HMD (Head Mounted Display), or even realistically compared to Sony’s PlayStation, which had been released almost a year prior. However even with modern technology this trade-off between VR and high-end graphics (4K, TSAA et cetera) exists, so this should necessarily come as a surprise. The Virtual boy came equip with a 2-bit monochrome display (Outputting in black as well as three different shades of red), with a 384×224 resolution and a 20Hz refresh rate.
The controller was strangely one of Nintendo’s more conventional pads in terms of aesthetic, slightly resembling the letter M in its form factor. However, the Virtual boy pad is still to this day quite unique in that it had two D-pads, both of which were used for directional input. This was because Nintendo wanted to be able to create true VR, meaning giving you the ability to traverse the world you are put into rather than being glued into spot, and although this actually worked extremely well with games like SD Gundam Dimensional Wars and Red Alarm, developers (including Nintendo themselves in some cases) simply didn’t use this feature to its full potential, just like most of the Virtual Boy’s ‘features’.
Another one of these ‘features’ was the extension port located at the bottom of the headset. The extension port was initially intended to allow for internet connectivity, and eventually full online multiplayer (a whole 4 years prior to the release of the Sega Dreamcast). And this is one of the Key issues with the Virtual Boy. There was never any support for this feature. In fact, Nintendo never even released the cable that would allow for this feature to work. This is presumably due to the abysmal sales of the system, however it poses a bit of a catch 22 moment, in that they didn’t bother adding the function because of the lack of sales, but if they had released it the console would of likely sold more units.
Realistically the failure for the system was very much so on the head of Nintendo, with them rushing the system to focus efforts on the development of the Nintendo 64 and choosing to use basic LED panels rather than LCD as a cost-saving measure, and I would probably go as far to say it’s on the head of Nintendo that the current VR systems took so long to arrive, as the Virtual boy understandably put a sour taste in people’s mouths in terms of Virtual reality.
As so many people are choosing to draw comparison between the Virtual boys and the Switch’s attempted innovation or “gimmicks”, to wrap up I will do the same. Overall, of course the two systems are chalk and cheese, with extremely different functions and selling points, however there is one point I would draw a comparison on, and it’s something that I feel Nintendo have got wrong quite often in modern times, and that is their Marketing. The Virtual boy was marketed as a home console that you would buy and use sat down at a desk (with the promise of a harness for standing game-play to be released in the future) and in my opinion this was an extremely poor choice. With the type of console it is (seated, better fixed into place) I feel it would have worked much better in an arcade setting, and I feel overall this could have save the system to a degree. Not only is the gimmicky nature of the system more suited to attract people to try it in an arcade rather than spend full price on the console (~$200) but also the fact an arcade would have been more suited to use the online features, as few homes had personal broadband at the time of release. Selling it to arcades would have also meant they could sell it in a B2B (Business to Business) situation and charge significantly more than a product based at consumers, which would have allowed Nintendo to include the LCD panel, which not only would of improved the quality of the Virtual boys display (which was one of its biggest short comings) I feel this could of made the Virtual boy a big success in the arcade scene.
The Switch in this sense is rather similar in that Nintendo are mainly focusing on the wrong things. Showing off the time it takes to switch between tablet mode and docked mode, and focusing heavily on the Joy-cons motion controls, making it seem to some like a Wii 2. I feel this is the wrong way to go about it, although the features are impressive. What Nintendo have in the Switch (discounting any streaming device or NVidia shield) is the most powerful handheld ever made, and it is completely unbeknown to me why they have not chosen to market it as such. Not only for the fact that this is the main selling point of the console for many people, but also because Nintendo handhelds sell well, with the original 3DS selling over 60 million units and the DS Lite selling almost 100 million Units worldwide. Now compare this with the Wii U which sold under 15 million units. I am a big fan of Nintendo, and am in fact one of the People who did buy the Wii U and thought it was an adequate enough console for the price and for the exclusives it lets you access, however not everyone is as forgiving as me, and Nintendo’s marketing should really of been alert to this and took measures to indirectly say “this is not the Wii U, it’s a portable more powerful than the PS3”.
Another issue that is apparent in both systems is the cost cutting. Where the Virtual boy skimped on hardware the Switch is skimping on Software. Priced at £300 it’s a more than reasonably priced console, however this RRP is for the console only, as Nintendo are choosing not to package the console with any games, as to keep the costs down ‘for the players’. In other circumstances this wouldn’t be a huge issue, however with 1,2 switch being announced alongside the console, this game needed to be software built into the Console or a disc packaged alongside it, and could have acted as the introduction to the console similarly to Wii sports, however at an RRP of £35 I feel they have more than likely lost themselves more money producing a game that no one will buy than they would have simply giving the game away with console. So as a final word to wrap things up I would just say “Nintendo. Stop cutting corners. And hire a new marketing team”.