Loose Lips: The Quotable History Of Nintendo's Virtual Boy

Amidst comparisons to the company's slow-going 3DS, Gamasutra takes a trip down memory lane through the brief history of Nintendo's Virtual Boy experiment -- via contemporary comments.
There have been a lot of comparisons made, both in the media and among gamers, between Nintendo's slow-going 3DS and its 1995 experiment, the Virtual Boy. Both are "portable" units that rely on a 3D gimmick to attract buyers. Both are technically underpowered by the standards of their day, due to the extra cost of the 3D display. Both had a disappointing launch that caused investors to shed stock like they were molting, and both saw significant price drops early in their system's lives. The 3DS is selling well below Nintendo's projections, it's true, but the Virtual Boy's failure to excite consumers was far more dramatic than what we're seeing with the 3DS. The 3DS generated quite a bit of hype during its debut, and Nintendo committed to supporting it with AAA software. The Virtual Boy had neither of these factors to help it along: media and retailer reaction was negative from day one, and the company only shipped a handful of meaningful products. Still, there are some eerie similarities between the lifecycles of the two systems, and history -- especially video game history -- should be studied and learned from. Join us as we take a trip down memory lane through the brief history of Nintendo's Virtual Boy experiment, through Gamasutra re-earthed archival quotes from reporters, columnists, retailers and Nintendo itself.

"It has always been Nintendo's strategy to introduce new hardware systems only when technological breakthroughs allow us to offer innovative entertainment at a price that appeals to a worldwide audience. Virtual Boy delivers this and more. It will transport game players into a 'virtual utopia' with sights and sounds unlike anything they've ever experienced -- all at the price of a current home video game system."

-- Former Nintendo Company Limited president Hiroshi Yamauchi in a November 14, 1994 press release announcing the Virtual Boy, which was unveiled that week at the company's sixth annual Shoshinkai Software Exhibition (later called Space World) in Tokyo. At the time, the company said it would sell 3 million units and 14 million game cartridges in Japan in the system’s first year -- quite an attach rate!

"I think it's a novelty. I'm not sure if it's going to make it or not ... I'm a little baffled as to why it's only in red."

-- High Voltage Software founder Kerry Ganofsky, speaking to an Associated Press reporter at the unveiling. High Voltage would not go on to develop a game for the Virtual Boy. Its first title, White Men Can't Jump, would ship for Atari's Jaguar the following year.

"It's a little like a theater ... [what a player] sees is a very rich black background, like looking into the night sky. The characters are brought to life in a very rich red color. It's almost laser quality." "We've been talking over the last year and a half about how, if this whole video-game industry is going to grow, we have to work harder on delivering new breakthrough products. This is a unique approach that we think is going to deliver a breakthrough experience -- a very different experience."

-- Nintendo of America's ever-enthusiastic former senior vice president of marketing, Peter Main, describing the Virtual Boy experience to reporters at Newsday and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, respectively.

"This business arrangement and the opportunity to participate with Nintendo at events such as CES places our display technology in front of millions of consumers."

-- Reflection Technology president Al Becker in a January, 1995 press release. Reflection developed the Virtual Boy's display, and in exchange for exclusive video game rights, Nintendo invested in a minority stake in the company. At that month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Reflection would use Nintendo's booth to show off the tech in America for the first time, as well as...a portable fax machine, which was likely the first and last time Nintendo had any financial involvement in the fax machine market.

"The market might not be willing to support a new single-color game machine, even with three-dimensional graphics. The 3-D goggles will create another hurdle. Unlike the portable Game Boy, which is easy to play anywhere, Virtual Boy is played sitting at a table with 3-D goggles perched on a stand. But the ultimate hurdle is price. With a suggested retail of $200, Virtual Boy costs more than twice as much as Game Gear and four times as much as Game Boy."

-- The Seattle Times analyzes the Virtual Boy's chances in its Winter CES report.

"The Virtual Boy offers a full 3-D effect and full depth perception. But if you use full-color, there'd be a loss of resolution and an increased cost factor."

-- Peter McDougall, former vice president and general manager of Nintendo of Canada, explains the lack of color to The Toronto Star. The lack of color was a common complaint among those writing impressions of the system.

"Under the terms of the agreement, Rare will develop a series of new 16-bit and 64-bit home video games, as well as games for Nintendo's Game Boy and Virtual Boy video game systems."

-- Nintendo announces its multi-million dollar investment in Rare. The studio might have been planning a Virtual Boy title at some point, but none were ever announced (though unsubstantiated rumors persisted of 3D versions of both Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye being in development at the studio).

"More than 100 developers and third-party publishers currently are creating games for Virtual Boy, including Acclaim, Bullet-Proof Software, Hudson Soft, Ocean of America, Rare Ltd., Software Creations and T&E."

--Nintendo slightly exaggerates the amount of software support its system is receiving in a May 10, 1995 press release that announces the Virtual Boy's August 14 release date. The system will debut at $179.95 and ship with five games, all of them first-party. Of the seven listed publishing partners, only four released a game.

"Nintendo of America Inc. today announced it has teamed up with Blockbuster Video and NBC-TV to deliver a two-tiered, rental and sweepstakes promotion guaranteed to get Nintendo's new Virtual Boy video game system into the hands -- and faces -- of more than half a million consumers nationwide."

-- Recognizing the difficulty of marketing the benefits of 3D gaming, Nintendo announces in May a $25 million marketing blitz that includes some 6,000 demo kiosks nationwide and a partnership with Blockbuster Video for consumers to rent a Virtual Boy and two games for $10 (participants also got a $10 coupon toward buying their own).

"The new Nintendo Virtual Boy hits the streets Monday, but it is perhaps the least-anticipated game system release in more than a decade. People just aren't very excited about Virtual Boy, mostly because nobody seems to know what it is."

-- Video game historian Steven Kent in a Seattle Times report. Kent would go on to author 2001's The Ultimate History of Video Games, required reading for anyone in this industry.

"There's no need for this product right now. I'll stock a couple of units in case any of my customers wants one. But I'm not going to actively try to sell Virtual Boy, because I don't believe it's worth the money."

-- Entrepreneur Neil Levin, owner of New York mail-order game company The Game Experience, explains his stance to Newsday on the eve of the system's U.S. launch. Reports of the system bombing in Japan had begun trickling in at this point: according to at least one article, many in the region had nicknamed the unit the "Virtual Dog."

"Nintendo may prove the critics wrong and sell millions of units, but my informal testing on a couple of adolescent boys was unenthusiastic, to say the least."

-- Portland's "The Oregonian" reviews the system unfavorably, as did most mainstream media columnists. It was common practice at the time to unleash children on a new video game console to properly test it out, a practice that would become less common as years went on and games became more of an all-ages pastime.

"Go Slow In Buying 'Virtual Boy' Because Game May Provoke A Literal Boredom" "This Boy's All Flash; Take Nintendo's Latest For A Trial Spin Before Buying" "Virtual Boy, A New 3-D System, Falls Flat" "Virtual Boy is a Virtual Snore"

-- Just a handful of newspaper headlines following the Virtual Boy's August debut. Most reviews encouraged readers to partake in the Blockbuster promotion before throwing down any cash.

"Virtual Boy has created a new dimension in gaming, and now with a new price, the world's only true 3-D home video game system is even more affordable. We understand consumers are concerned about how much the 'next generation' systems cost. The recent changes in the yen/U.S. dollar have now allowed us to pack even greater value into this great new technology product."

-- Peter Main spins a sudden Virtual Boy price drop in an October press release. Exactly two months after its debut, Nintendo of America dropped the suggested retail price from $179.95 to $159.95, as the system headed into a holiday rush against Sega's Saturn, Sony's PlayStation, and the 3DO. Meanwhile, many retailers report excess stock at their stores. In Japan, Nintendo stops shipping units as the orders dry up.

"Nintendo Co. said Monday sales of Virtual Boy, its first 32-bit game machine, came to 600,000 units as of the end of September, a far cry from an initial target of one million units."

-- The Jiji Press Ticker Service reports on Nintendo's financial results for the first half of its fiscal year. Sales dropped 19 percent year-on-year, while operating profits were down 43 percent. The company's initial projections called for 500,000 Virtual Boy units sold in both the United States and Japan in the system's first year. America came close with 470,000, but the 140,000 units sold in Japan was something of a disaster. The company projects only an additional 500,000 units sold worldwide in the next six months for a total of 1.1 million, down from its previous projection of 3 million, but even that would prove to be way off the mark.

"Industry analysts said the two companies' decision is reasonable because they cannot expect substantial demand for their products in light of sluggish sales of the Virtual Boy machine, which was put on sale last July. A spokesman for Nintendo says the company will maintain its policy of promoting game machines on a long-term basis for Virtual Boy."

-- Japan Economic Newswire reports on January 2, 1996 that two third-party publishers, Takara and Taito, have abandoned the Virtual Boy after the Holiday season failed to ignite any interest in the system in Japan. Taito had published a version of Space Invaders in Japan in early December, which is now a pricey collector's item. Takara's plans for the system seem to have been lost to history. Reports in Europe say that the move likely means Nintendo will not market the system outside of the U.S. and Japan, which is ultimately true.

"Getting the price down to under $100 should get us to a wider audience and into the true mass market."

-- George Harrison, Peter Main's protegee, speaks to industry paper Home Furnishing Network about a new price drop in May, 1996. In just nine months Nintendo dropped the price from $179.95 to $99.95.

"Launching in August, Dragon Hopper is the latest 3-D action/adventure game. Also debuting in August, Bound High immerses players in multiple levels of challenging 3-D game play."

-- Nintendo commits to expanding its Virtual Boy catalog as it heads into E3 1996 (the second ever E3). Despite a release window just three months away, neither game would ever materialize.

"We finally have the games that could push Virtual Boy along. It's been disappointing. We haven't been able to come up with that killer application."

-- Former Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln is hopeful in a May interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal.

"His resignation is very regrettable as he has played an important role in our company's history of developing game machines."

-- Nintendo issues a statement after 55-year-old designer Gunpei Yokoi resigns from the company. Rumors at the time said that the late Yokoi's resignation was the direct result of the Virtual Boy's failure, but we'll never know if that was entirely true.

"Resist the temptation to buy heavily discounted games or systems like Sega's CD or 32X peripherals, Nintendo's Virtual Boy or Atari's Jaguar. They're cheap for a reason: Either they've been discontinued or their game libraries are tiny."

-- Los Angeles Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss on December 8, 1996, in what would be the last major Holiday gift guide to even bother mentioning the Virtual Boy. Just a few months later, excess stock of the unit was spotted with a $25 price tag in some places. Nintendo failed to meet even its revised sales projections: it's estimated that the company only shipped somewhere in the neighborhood of 770,000 units worldwide in the system's lifetime, meaning it sold only around 170,000 in its second and final year on the market.

"He took it quite personally when it was not successful."

-- Howard Lincoln speaks to the New York Times about Gunpei Yokoi's career at Nintendo after a fatal car accident took his life in October of 1997.

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