Not only was it the first blemish on Nintendo’s unspoiled track record in the video game hardware business, but the Virtual Boy was also the handheld that helped end the illustrious career of its inventor, Gunpei Yokoi. And yet, its innovations in stereoscopic 3D pioneered technology that would reappear 16 years later in the guise of Nintendo 3DS. Whatever the Virtual Boy’s failings, the concept of a 3D game system was not among them.
In some ways, the Virtual Boy came to Nintendo. US firm Reflection Technologies approached the Japanese technology giant seeking a buyer for its new screen technology which used twin mirror- scanning LED displays to deliver separate images to each of the player’s eyes. By arranging each image to match the disparity humans see in real life, the sensation of depth was achieved. In 1992 Nintendo acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to the technology and Yokoi’s Research & Development 1 team began working on a system to employ it.
Codenamed the VR-32, the Virtual Boy went through a number of different design stages, one of which even saw the unit mounted on the users’ head like a VR unit. However, as soon as the decision was made to shun head tracking, the team settled upon a table-mounted design. The delicate internal mirrors meant that any jolt could render the device entirely inoperable, and so what at first glance appeared to be a battery-powered portable successor to the Game Boy, was in fact a stationary, tripod-supported machine.
While the system housed a 32-bit processor, the need to power two screens meant that the additional clout wasn’t immediately apparent. On the system’s launch in July 1995, there were none of the crowds that had greeted the Super Famicom’s arrival. The lack of any top-tier Nintendo-brand software certainly contributed to the lack of consumer interest, but as reports of players suffering headaches during play sessions began to circulate (the red LEDs were chosen for their power-saving properties, but caused considerable eye-strain), the console’s fortunes faded.
Only 22 titles were released for the Virtual Boy over its short lifespan, with only 800,000 systems sold in Japan and the US (the European launch was cancelled). Yokoi, who had expressed dismay at Nintendo’s eagerness to ship the console before it was ready, was blamed for its failure. He left Nintendo under a cloud, the Virtual Boy’s lack of success overshadowing, at least in the short-term, his vital work in taking Nintendo into the video game business.