The best way Nintendo has stood out from its competition, other than being the only leading company solely dedicated to video games, is by pushing extremely unique ideas. A lot of these were put in focus last weekend when Satoru Iwata tragically passed away. Even though the Wii U is currently lagging behind the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the 3DS, DS, and Wii are heralded as strokes of genius. These were systems that completely busted the norm and Nintendo laughed off their detractors all the way to the bank. Sitting comfortably as the best-selling handheld ever, the two screened DS was an outstanding piece of hardware. The Wii, despite not boasting the same multimedia benefits of both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, motion controlled its way to the top of its generation. The 3DS is currently beating every other console in sales as well.
Of course, these are only examples of when innovation actually lead to success. There are a handful of times when Nintendo tried to be different and it didn’t exactly work. The Wii U right now is an example this. However, even with the Wii U’s sales woes, the Virtual Boy will eternally be remembered as Nintendo’s biggest failure. It was such a colossal bomb that the company still readily remembers it, now a full 20 years later. Amazingly, there was no “one” thing that prevented the Virtual Boy from reaching success. It was a combination of so many different factors that were unbecoming of a company that supposedly had a keen eye on what the public wanted. It was also a system with a great idea but was executed much too early and poorly.
The Virtual Boy was borne out of the historical mass industry jump to three dimensional environments. Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn had shown people that this is where the future lied (Sony definitely way more than Sega). Nintendo eventually reached there with the Nintendo 64, but evidently wanted to bring their portable systems with them. They attempted to make this possible with the Virtual Boy in 1995, a goggle-like console that used monocular cues to create a depth illusion for a 3D effect. Such technology was pretty pricey at the time so Nintendo reduced all colors to a completely monochrome black and red. With all this technology packaged into a console meant to sit directly on your eyes, and your hands occupied by a separate controller, Nintendo needed a way to keep the system up. Their solution to this a stand that made having a table absolutely necessary if you wanted to play.
I’m sure you can see where one major drawback was. Despite Nintendo pushing the console as portable, like the immensely successful Game Boy, it barely made that definition. True the system was mobile in that you could carry it around to other places, but needing a flat surface seriously hindered its usage. You couldn’t use it on public transit. Squeezing in some time while waiting for a scheduled engagement to start was out. Don’t even bother using it in a bathroom either instead of a book or a magazine. Those are all places, among many more, that a handheld system could be used with supreme happiness. Not the Virtual Boy though. Anyone faced with those situations would just use a Game Boy, and if you’re using a Game Boy there, why not use it everywhere else. Suddenly the expensive Virtual Boy stopped being a desirable option for consumers.
Those who bought it anyway likely regretted their purchases. Many players complained of dizziness, nausea, and headaches with their games, all of which stemmed directly from the Virtual Boy’s design. When the console was on a table, one had to arch their neck at a very uncomfortable angle just to look into it. Putting up with the pain didn’t yield much happiness either. The monochromed environment with its bright red lines was difficult to watch, and the way it tracked eyes seriously messed people up. It even had a built-in auto pause to prevent possible eye damage and strain. As if there needed to be a cherry on top of this garbage sundae, the list of available games was insanely small. Basically, with everything else available, there was no reason for anyone to buy this system.
Believe it or not, there actually was a silver lining to the Virtual Boy. Amid all of its garbage qualities was the nugget of a brilliant idea: a portable 3D gaming system. 1995 was much too soon for this novel idea, so Nintendo admirably moved on from the Virtual Boy to new editions of the Game Boy, like the very popular Game Boy Color in 1998. It fortunately didn’t lead to any financial collapse for Nintendo either, so they shelved the 3D idea for several years and waited for the right moment to bring it back out. 2011, 16 years after the Virtual Boy was dead, was that time. The 3DS came into existence boasting an incredibly similar schtick. It was a completely portable system that allowed you to view games in 3D without any glasses, along with the game winning two screens of its predecessor. 3D draining your battery or causing discomfort? A simple switch turns it off. The 3DS is currently an overwhelming success, proving that the Virtual Boy’s idea was a real money maker that just wasn’t executed properly.
Since it’s now been 20 years since Nintendo made their biggest mistake, I learned that I was at the tender age of five when all of this happened. The Virtual Boy’s discontinuation one year later soundly prevented me from ever experiencing this mess with my own two eyes. As far as I was concerned, Nintendo’s portable lineup jumped from the Game Boy to the Game Boy Color without any red hiccups in between. It wasn’t until many years later that I was even aware something like this even existed. Yet despite it being Nintendo’s biggest misstep, I’m glad it’s an indelible part of their history. Mistakes are meant to be learning experiences and you can’t grow without making them. There’s no doubt that everyone wanted the Virtual Boy to succeed, but in hindsight there was no way it was going to. It did prove that Nintendo was willing to be daring though, and without that desire for something different, we wouldn’t have some of the greatest systems in history.
Even though the Virtual Boy’s failing sting has long since passed, it will never be forgotten. It’s proof of what happens when you try to go too big without fully understanding you’re actually able to do. Nintendo was smart to quickly move on from it instead of dumping more money into the project, and they were clever enough to hide the idea away for an undetermined future time. Now it’s easily one of the most infamous systems ever and inspired the creation of a truly game-changing device many years later. Plus, if you’re lucky enough to still have one of these, it can fetch a pretty penny with enthusiasts. I’d say that’s a good way to spend the past two decades.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.