Virtual Boy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When most gamers hear about the Virtual Boy, they immediately deride it, saying what an awful piece of hardware it is and how it was the worst design Nintendo ever made (even worse than going with cartridges on the N64). However, none of these people have actually picked up and played a Virtual Boy (or at least one that actually works). As a result, the opinions of the general gaming populace are based on hearsay rather than first-hand experience. Taking a second look at the Virtual Boy seems particularly relevant in this day and age when we have a resurgence in 3D video in film and computers (what is this, the 1970s with Jaws 3D?).

I’ve got a VB and I like it a lot. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect piece of hardware, but it does mean that the VB gets a much worse rap than it actually deserves. The VB’s failures can be summed up as ergonomics issues and user interface issues. Its successes come from use of 3D displays to create new gameplay.

First off, many people will cite the statement that the Virtual Boy will cause you to go blind. While it is true that the VB will cause eye strain if used for extended periods (depending on the individual, usually after 30 minutes of constant use or less), the VB will only cause eye damage to children 7 years and younger who have developing eyes. Eye strain becomes easier if the hardware is malfunctioning (out of focus, misaligned mirrors, etc).

Much of the eyestrain is caused from focusing on red monochrome images in a darkened space. The eye isn’t used to this, so while it looks cool, you can’t stare at it for extended periods without rest. Had the unit been designed to allow more light in, this would probably be less of an issue. But it is the biggest problem with the system.

The second is ergonomics. Simply put, to stare into the VB isn’t so much a strain on your eyes as it is on your neck. The VB tripod is so small it was clearly designed for young people and short people – NOT 6′ tall adults. The tripod’s height is also not adjustable (it’s poorly made plastic). As a result, if you don’t have a tall stack of books, an adjustable table or chair, then you’ll get a neck cramp. (How I’ve been using it is propping the tripod on my chest and leaning back. This isn’t as much a strain, but it’s far better than anything else. Trouble is, you can’t laugh or the system will go out of balance! Couple this with the fact that the system is top-heavy and doesn’t immediately indicate how it should be mounted… This is strike two, and it’s one that could have been easily fixed with a better tripod or a head mount.

The third major issue is the UI for adjusting the system. Even though Nintendo tells you to adjust it every single time you power it on, it gives no directions in the BIOS as to how one should actually go about doing this. After the warnings screen, there are four blocks with ‘VB’ on them in each corner of the screen. In the center is a big square with ‘Virtual Boy’ written on it. To adjust the screen, you have to turn a knob and use the slider on the top of the system, and it’s not easy to tell that the four squares are in focus as it should be. This is something that could have been fixed with instructions within the system itself.

A minor issue is the design of the dust covers for the cartridges. While the system supposedly has self-cleaning cartridges (a definite plus), the dust covers are exactly the same width as the cartridge slot, meaning it is easy to stick a cartridge in with the dust cover attached. If this happens, the cover will get stuck in the system and you’ll need a screwdriver to prod it out. Interesting enough, there is a slot on top of the system for holding the dust covers…

I will also say that the volume knob is unreasonably loud. It goes from soft to something that must be over 80 decibels (enough to damage your ears). The game controller cable also seems a bit shorter than it needs to be.

Finally, we have the problem of hardware failure with the LED ribbon cables, as mentioned in the previous post.

Those issues aside, why is the Virtual Boy actually worth playing and talking about? The big thing the Virtual Boy does is it projects two separate images, one at each eye. This allows it to produce an actual 3D image, kind of like what you’d see in a Magic Eye or stereoscope (or 3D glasses). As a result, screenshots DO NOT do the actual image justice – it would be like looking at a 3D image without the 3D glasses. Conversely, it’s the difference between a regular television and a television with head tracking.

So the images are simply really cool to look at, in a retro-future kind of way. They actually pop out of the screen and move around rather than just 2D images on a flat plane. The novelty makes the games a bit more fun to play, and I assume this will be the case when head tracking TVs are released.

Some of the games take advantage of this, treating the 3D images not as a gimmick but as part of play. In Virtual Boy Wario Land and Mario Clash, this involves walking into the background of the screen as well as enemies and obstacles moving between the background, sprite layer, and foreground.

Again, these screens simply do not do the system justice.

It’s interesting to note that the backgrounds in Wario Land were used in Super Paper Mario – despite the fact that none of the developers ever worked on Wario Land, they must have been familiar with it:

Virtual Boy Wario Land

Virtual Boy Wario Land

(Oddly enough, nobody has screens of the background levels in Super Paper Mario!). It’s nice to see that the Virtual Boy is still put to some good use at Nintendo.

The gameplay isn’t exactly something that’s impossible on regular hardware – the real advantage comes from the 3D displays, which look really cool. The hardware is certainly superior to the GameBoy and Gameboy Color, but below that of the Gameboy Advance.

Given the technology used to make the Virtual Boy, it is probably possible to design something better using today’s technology that doesn’t have the eye issues and ergonomics that plague the original. The system is certainly worth picking up and shouldn’t be immediately dismissed as completely without redemption as it usually is. Nintendo’s red-headed stepchild in some ways simply feels like it was too far ahead of its time and a little too quickly shipped to market… If you don’t want to track down the original hardware, there are some emulators out there. Make sure you get some 3D glasses to go with it, though the experience still won’t be the same as the real thing…

There is a lot more great information on the system on Virtual-Boy.org.

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3 Responses to “Virtual Boy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. jafish Says:

    I used to have one of these and stupidly got rid of it. Do most gamers really deride it? Although it used to be a laughing stock, especially when it was initially released due to the very high cost relative to other “portable” hardware, I think it’s now a novelty, curiosity, and a collectors item (in addition to producing beautiful images, as you point out). Thanks for the interesting writeup.

  2. Game Retail Store » GameSetLinks: The DDR USB Scramble Says:

    […] Virtual Boy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly « Desert Hat 'When most gamers hear about the Virtual Boy, they immediately deride it, saying what an awful piece of hardware it is and how it was the worst design Nintendo ever made (even worse than going with cartridges on the N64). However, none of these people have actually picked up and played a Virtual Boy (or at least one that actually works).' […]

  3. yojimbouk Says:

    You know that you can create pseudo-3D animated GIFs by taking the left-eye and right-eye images and flicking between them very quickly? I’d love to see what the Virtual Boy screenshots actually look like.

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