Twenty years ago, on July 21, 1995, a peculiar video game console was released in Japan: the Virtual Boy. Sporting a stark red and black casing, two legs, and an M-shaped controller, it looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie — or a close cousin to the View-Master.
The Virtual Boy promised to “immerse players into their own private universe” with its novel 3D approach. In fact, it was developed with the idea in mind to cement Nintendo’s reputation as an innovating company. But while Nintendo has released many unique video game experiences, the Virtual Boy was one of the company’s rare failures.
Roughly only 770,000 of the 1.26 million units produced were sold before the system’s discontinuation, making the Virtual Boy Nintendo’s lowest-selling console to date. It was released in North America a year after its debut in Japan, selling for $180. Over the course of its seven-month lifetime in North America, 14 of the 22 games were localized and released. When the system failed to take off there were subsequent price drops, but nothing could save the floundering console.
While its price and marketing were partially to blame, the monochromatic display was the true sticking point of the Virtual Boy. The red color scheme and poor 3D illusion was known to induce nausea, dizziness, and headaches in players. In fact, a built-in pause option prompted players to take breaks to avoid eye damage. You can see both that pause option and the game’s infamous display in the Mario’s Tennis gameplay below.
Despite the Virtual Boy’s failure, its legacy has lived on these past 20 years. More than fifteen years later 3D gaming has finally come to fruition not in another failed console, but in the popular Nintendo 3DS. If anything, the Virtual Boy’s demise encouraged Nintendo to continue to innovate; to find that next big thing people would enjoy more. Everything from the N64 to the Wii U is a result of the trial and error that the Virtual Boy embodied.
Happy Birthday, Virtual Boy!