A Virtual Boy Story
(Originally published in 2017)
Console launches are very special events, and Nintendo console launches for many are particularly so. With the launch of the Nintendo Switch on the horizon, I’ve decided to tell my stories of Nintendo console launches past, and why those systems are special to me.
A Virtual Boy Story…
Way back in 1995, the console wars were heating up. Everybody was talking about 32-bit this and 32-bit that. Nintendo's biggest rival, Sega, had released their CD-based Saturn on the market and newcomer Sony had released their soon-to-be industry-alteringly successful PlayStation. Meanwhile, Nintendo was trying to stave off this competition with fancy new games on their aging SNES hardware, and while they managed to give us some great titles in the process, their 64-bit "Project Reality" was still a ways off.
The big N had another trick up their sleeves though. While many thought Nintendo was going to jump right over the 32-bit generation in favor of their new cartridge-based 64-bit behemoth, they actually did manage to throw their hat into 32-bit ring. They just did it in the most bizarre way possible. Enter the Virtual Boy.
That packaging certainly does scream "90's"
Branded as a sort of pseudo-relative of the Game Boy family, the Virtual Boy was this quasi-virtual reality thing that only played games in red. Having drank the Nintendo Kool-aid by the gallon back then, when I started seeing articles in various gaming magazines about this thing I was very excited. Yeah, it was weird, and yeah, it could only display things in one color, but the Game Boy wasn't in color for a long time, and with crazy futuristic 3D visuals, maybe it wouldn't matter! Then the ad campaigns hit, and they were... weird.
I'm sorry, it needs my eyes? Also, where\'s the gameplay?
I thought the commercial was cool at the time, but in hindsight, I should have had a lot more questions. But I was young, and it was new Nintendo hardware. And seriously, look at that thing! I don't care who you are, there's no denying that the Virtual Boy is a cool-looking object. Forget practicality, forget the fact that it only displays in red, if you walked in a room and saw a Virtual Boy sitting on a table and you had no idea what it was, you would be intrigued. The designers at Nintendo did a fantastic job of making this bizarre machine look cool.
Now, as a 14-year old kid, I was all manner of awkward. I was bullied in school, and had some self-esteem issues tagging along for the ride. A big part of my identity was that I was the Nintendo guy. If there was something Nintendo-related, I knew about it, and I probably had it. My parents had already promised me that I could get a Virtual Boy, but it wasn't going to be until a few days after the system launched. My next-door neighbor, on the other hand, told me he was getting it day 1, and I took that news kind of hard.
See, I had this long-standing jealousy of him. The two of us were friends, but he was far more popular than I was. He was better-looking, got better grades, was more athletic, the whole nine yards. He also tended to get things I wanted before I did, and I was childishly jealous of him. So when I discovered he was getting the next Nintendo system before me, I was pretty upset. Of course, as an adult looking back I know how absurd this actually was, but at the time, I was the Nintendo guy, not him. I should be the first in line to get the Virtual Boy, not him. If he got it first, that would make him better at Nintendo than me, and I would lose that part of my identity that I was clinging to.
I look back at the way I felt at that time with more than a little embarrassment. But the reason I'm sharing this less-than-flattering part of myself is to point out just how fantastic my Mom is. She saw that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I told her about how my neighbor was getting the Virtual Boy before me and how that was going to make me feel, and instead of trying to tell me that what I was going through was ridiculous (it really, really was) she promised me that we would go to Toys R Us the moment they opened on launch day and get my Virtual Boy before anybody else. She could have taken that opportunity to teach me a lesson about not always getting things we want the way we want them, but we were taught that lesson a lot in our lives, and seeing how important this was to me, she decided that this wasn't the time for that particular lesson.
I was so happy walking into that Toys R Us that morning, partly because I was getting the new Nintendo system, but also because I couldn't even express how much I appreciated this amazingly kind gesture from my Mom.
A page from the Virtual Boy pamphlet I grabbed at Toys R Us
Back to the Virtual Boy itself, wow, what a system! I didn't have the opportunity to actually try one of these buggers out before I got mine, so I was admittedly all kinds of excited to shove my face into the thing, and when I did, I was honestly impressed. It really was in 3D! The only game I had was Mario's Tennis, which was the pack-in title, and the moment Mario lobbed that tennis ball at my eyes and it bounced off the "screen" I was sold. The 3D effect was exactly as cool as I had imagined it being, and more importantly, Mario's Tennis was just plain fun! This was before Mario sports games were really a thing, so it was pretty novel to be running around as the Mario characters dressed in tennis gear playing around and having fun. The red didn't bother me one bit, and I was as happy as a kid could be.
I must have read this issue 100 times
One aspect of the Virtual Boy that I wasn't expecting to have such an impact on me was the sound. This was billed as a 32-bit system, but there wasn't anything even remotely close to the sounds of a Saturn or PlayStation coming out of my Virtual boy. Instead, the VB's sound was sort of like a Game Boy on steroids. It was all chiptunes, but with remarkable fidelity and incredible stereo effects. I'm sure that for most people this was a major turn-off (probably one of many) but to my ears it was magic.
Each game I got managed to impress me with the 3D effects and sound in a remarkably unique way. I was still looking forward to the Nintendo 64 with near-unrivaled levels of hype, but the Virtual Boy was successfully scratching my itch for some more modern Nintendo products. Or at least it did while it lasted.
Games for Virtual Boy were few and far between. I didn't wind up getting many games before the whole thing crashed and was discontinued. I got Mario Clash the day it was released and played it to death. I got Virtual Boy Wario Land and 100%completed it because that game is a masterpiece. I got 3D Tetris because I love puzzle games and I marveled at its spectacular music. And well, that was it. I had 4 games. My neighbor, and I think my other friend Adam also got Virtual Boys and through them I was able to play Teleroboxer, Vertical Force, and Galactic Pinball, but before I knew it, the Nintendo 64 came out and the Virtual Boy's future all but disappeared.
My Virtual Boy collection. (Since taking this picture I've gotten reproduction boxes for the loose games).
This was where I got incredibly lucky. On a family trip to the mall one day (LOL, remember family trips to the mall?), I hit up the Electronics Boutique and came across a shelf with clearanced Virtual Boy games, and I bought every single one they had. Looking back, I wish I grabbed a few more copies of games like Jack Bros., and one of those boxed copies of Mario's Tennis would have been sweet, but I got almost the entire 14-game library then and there. The only game that was missing was Nester's Funky Bowling and the box for Teleroboxer. But yeah, I got Jack Bros. and Waterworld for a pittance, both complete in box. So that wound up being a pretty sound investment.
And you know what? There were no bad games in the bunch! Virtual League Baseball is a really fun retro-style baseball game in short doses. Panic Bomber is a really cool puzzler. Heck, even Golf is a decent golf game. Waterworld is sort of sub-par, but if that's the bottom of the barrel for Virtual Boy games, that's not so bad.
There were only 14 US releases, so there are a few imports and homebrews in this image, but they're all real and playable!
So why do I love my Virtual Boy? First, I just love the fact that this thing exists. I love that Nintendo had the fortitude to release such a bizarre and frankly flawed system on the market. There was no way this thing was going to succeed, but they gave it a shot anyway, and while it absolutely didn't pan out for them, the VB has managed to build itself quite the cult following, and that's because it really was cool. Not mass-market cool obviously, but for folks like me who are fascinated by video game history, it's an absolute treasure.
But more than that, I love my Virtual Boy because to me it stands as a physical representation of how much I love my Mom. Money was always tight in our house, and my parents managed to find a way to get me a SNES, Virtual Boy, and Nintendo 64 on launch day. I'll tell my N64 story soon, but the Virtual Boy, that kindness of taking me to a toy store early in the morning to buy this completely ridiculous thing just so I wouldn't have to go through the disappointment of watching my neighbor get the new Nintendo system before me was amazing. My parents frequently told me that I couldn't get what I wanted, but that day taught me that every now and then you just have to pull the trigger and treat yourself. Sometimes your kid's happiness is worth the fiscal irresponsibility. Even at the time I knew that this wasn't a financially sound move on her part, but she was doing it solely because she knew how important it was to me, and because of that I appreciate my Virtual Boy more than just about anything.
What's your Virtual Boy story?