What is MyMedia Games Network Retrospective?
MyMedia Games Network Retrospective is a regular feature that will take a look at various video game systems, technological advancements and accessories from the past. This may be a trip down memory lane for some people or a history lesson for others. Over time many companies have contributed to the video game industry in their own way, whether it’s a revolutionary step forward for others to follow, or a prime example of what not to do. With that said, let’s take a peek into the past.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
Virtual Reality was all the rage in the mid nineties with many big names in the industry having an add-on for a previous system or a stand alone VR system of some sort in development. There was what seemed to be an unofficial behind the scenes race between the companies, trying to conjure up something to cash in on this current craze. Nintendo was the first to step up to the plate with a cost effective virtual reality system (I’m using the term ‘virtual reality’ loosely here) with the Virtual Boy which was also known as the VR-32 during development.
The Virtual Boy was the brain child of Gunpei Yokoi a long time employee of Nintendo Japan. Gunpei was responsible for the Game and Watch series, the ultra successful Game Boy, and many other software titles such as the Metroid series. After the dismal failure of the Virtual Boy Gunpei was treated as an outcast at Nintendo until he ended up handed in his own resignation in 1996 even though he had a long list of achievements under his belt since he first began working for Nintendo in 1965. In late 1997 Gunpei’s life unfortunately came to an end in a tragic car accident and he never got to see his last project, the Wonder Swan, hit store shelfs.
In 1994 the hype about Nintendo’s newest concept began to circulate with various design sketches appearing in gaming magazines. Consumers were bursting with excitement to see what Gunpei Yokoi and the Nintendo R&D1 team have been working on using display technology created by Reflection Technologies. Later on that year Nintendo announced the Virtual Boy to the public at the Shoshinkai Exhibition. The new system was greeted with mixed reactions. Nintendo fans weren’t jumping up and down with excitement although they did still expressed their interest but non Nintendo fans were definitely not impressed with the Virtual Boy’s monochromatic red and black display. Many pointed out this system was simply a stop gap that Nintendo created to slot in between the Super Nintendo and up and coming Nintendo 64.
In July 1995 the Virtual Boy was officially released in Japan and a month later it made its way to the United States. The public reaction didn’t change much since the first time it was announced a year earlier; there was a laundry list of complaints about the system. Firstly the system was marketed as a portable because of its internal power supply but due to its size and weight along with the fragility of the internal components portability of the unit seemed impractical. There was a limited software library, none of which really show cased the Virtual Boy’s true 3D capabilities. Sure there was games with 3D special effects added but nothing made consumers jaws drop. The system came with a frighting health warning that states prolonged uses of the system may cause eyestrain, eye problems, headaches, seizures, nausea, and vomiting especially for those under seven years of age, though a switchable option is available that automatically pauses the game periodically in order to remind the user to take a break. Many complaints were made about the bad ergonomic stand design that didn’t allow vertical adjustments. This forced users to either find a surface that places the Virtual Boy at the ideal height or suffer from discomfort, and on top of that if you were short sighted it was virtually impossible to wear glasses because of the goggle design of the system. No multiplayer option was available at launch; the system did feature a plug for a multiplayer link cable that was due to come but the system was scrapped before this accessory could be released. There weren’t many positive points favouring the Virtual Boy add to that a $180USD price tag it becomes apparent why the system failed so quickly.
Criticisms and complaints aside, Nintendo were trying to make a cost effective 3D gaming system with what technology was available at the time. Limiting the colours to four shades of red and the colour black eliminated blurriness at high speeds plus if addition colours were added to the system the price would have increased substantially along with the actual size of the unit and power consumption.
Videogame manufactures usually embrace the fact that what they have created has earned a spot on someone’s top 10 lists but unfortunately for the Virtual Boy it was claiming spots on the wrong lists. PCworld put the Virtual Boy at number 5 on its Ugliest Products in Tech History list and Game trailers gave their number eight spot to the Virtual Boy in their top 10 worst consoles list.
How does it work
The Virtual Boy displays its image in a different manner to a traditional video game system. Instead of a single image on a monitor or TV the Virtual Boy displays two different images to separate LED screens for each eye. By doing this a parallax effect is caused which is our brain naturally, interoperating the two separate images as a single image there for causing a greater illusion of depth.
Even though the Virtual Boy has a Resolution of 384×224 it doesn’t actually have a 384 x 224 array of light emitting diodes (LED) instead each eye views a single row of 224 high-performance LEDs that scans at a extremely rapid pace across the user’s eye via flat oscillating mirrors creating a full field of dots.
The Virtual Boy controller was a unique design for it time and was based around controlling 3D games. The controller resembles an ‘M’ shape with long grips on each side with one side being an exact replica of the other. The controller compromises of two directional pads, A, B, Start, Select, L and R buttons. The start and select buttons are identical as the A and B buttons. In most controller designs the L and R buttons are situated on the shoulders of the controller but in the Virtual Boy’s case they are located on the opposite sides of each directional pad acting more like trigger buttons. The Virtual Boy controller also houses the systems power supply which requires six AA batteries to operate. The option to use an AC power supply was available but required an AC Adapter Tap accessory before a power adapter could be plugged in. Any Super Nintendo/Nintendo Entertainment System power adaptor could be used or Famicom adaptor depending on the systems origin. One complaint that arose about the power pack location was its tendency to accidentally slip out when the controller was in use causing the system to shut down mid game. Depending on the game design the double directional pad set up could be swapped around to suit left or right handed people but some games like Teleroboxer assigned different actions for each directional pad.
Anyone who followed the Virtual Boy development may have noticed that there was a slight change in the controller as the pre release demo Virtual Boy had a different colour scheme compared to official release version. (Pictured above)
Virtual Boy Software
Since the Virtual Boy had a very short life span of around eight months only a total number of 22 titles were released internationally with just 14 of them making their way to the United States. Like most portable systems there was no region lock out on the games so the titles that American consumers missed out could be imported from Japan. The entire Virtual Boy gaming library was so small it could be held in the palm of your hand. A large number of games were cancelled once developers realized the system was a failure with companies bailing out early to avoid further financial losses. The majority of released games were not that bad but there was nothing that really fell under the “groundbreaking software” category, nothing screamed out Virtual Reality or showed off what the Virtual Boy was capable of. This is one of those rare occasions where the entire gaming library from a system can be displayed in this Retrospective article, please enjoy the game play videos and images but bare in mind that the provided videos don’t truly display the Virtual Boy’s 3D effects. In order to experience that you’ll need to view them through the actual unit.
Virtual Boy Specs
- Processor: 32-bit RISC CPU (NEC V810 Part# uPD70732) -- 18MIPS1Kbyte instruction cacheVdd = 2.2 - 5.5V DC1Mbyte DRAM512Kbyte P-SRAM- The CPU controls the LED pattern (in the array), switching them on and off at the appropriate instant, which is timed to the oscillations of the mirror
- Speed: 20 MHZ Clock speed
- Display: RTI dual mirror-scan, high resolution LED displays by Reflection Technology Inc, the SLA screen size measures only 1 inch, it produces an image that seems to be as large as a 12-inch monitor. There are two LED displays inside the Virtual Boy, for the left and right side. Each LED display has over 200 individual silicon lights that turn off and on to create the game images.
- Resolution: 384 x 224 pixels for each eye, 4 colour with 32 levels of Intensity, 50.2Hz h-scan
- Software: 8- or 16-Megabit ROM Game Paks (standard configurations), 24 Megabit were possible
- Sound: 16bit Digital Stereo Sound, self-contained speaker system (accentuated with the ability to play PCM samples)
- Controller: Double-grip with two directional control buttons, plus 6 normal buttons
- Cartridges: 256k x 16 -1024k x 16 rom (512k - 2048k), 0 - 8KByte Battery Backed Ram, cartridge ROM uses Toshiba 'TC538200AFT' and 'TC5316200AFT' ROM chips in 16 bit mode (and demo cartridges use a Toshiba TC5316200CFT ROM)
- Power: Six AA batteries or rechargeable batteries (9V) lasts 7 hours, or AC adapter (10V)
- Multiplayer Player: Playlink cable (connects two virtual boys) was never released
- Dimensions: 14"Height (with stand) x 10"Width (head unit) x 7"Depth (with eyepiece) or size Width217xDepth254xHeight110 (mm) (the leg section excluded) Weight: 5 lbs (all: unit, stand, controller, AC adapter) & Basic machine weight 760g
- Units sold 770,000
Previous Retrospective articles
Click on the images to view previous retro articles
Written by: Matthew Armitage