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Happy 20th Birthday Virtual Boy, You Hot Mess

Nintendo’s little red and black disaster just turned 20.

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One of the main talking points at this year’s E3 was virtual reality technology and how it’s going to shape the face of gaming forever. While VR gaming may be the future of gaming, it isn’t the first time it’s showed up. 20 years ago today, Nintendo unleashed the Oculus Rift’s grandfather, the Virtual Boy to the unexpected eyes of North American gamers.

The Virtual Boy was the newest thing from the Gameboy and Game & Watch creator Gunpei Yokoi, first revealed to the public at the Shoshinkai Show in Japan on Nov 15, 1994. During the event, Nintendo made the rather lofty promise that the Virtual Boy would “transport game players into a virtual utopia with sights and sounds, unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.”


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While Nintendo may have promised a virtual reality experience, that was a bit of a lie. According to the Gaming Historian video, it was actually built using “2 separate LED screens [which] would reflect into each individual eye”. Nintendo didn’t develop this technology themselves, it was actually created by a company called Reflection Technology.

The Virtual Boy went through multiple different prototypes, including the idea of making it a headband mounted system. According to Gunpei Yokoi’sinterview with Next Generation Magazine in 1994, part of the reason why they decided against the headband mounted system was because oddly enough, they were worried about people using it while wearing make-up. No, seriously, here’s the quote:

“We are worried about the possible danger of HMD technology, but we also considered the fact that if a woman wearing make-up was to use the head-mounted design, the next person might be hesitant in wearing it! So we changed the design so that you can just look into the viewing apparatus and still appreciate the 3D experience.”

The interview further revealed that Gunpei Yokoi also wanted to release a “shoulder-mounted adapter” on a later date which would’ve made the Virtual Boy way more comfortable and convenient to use outside. Unfortunately for Gunpei’s team, Nintendo were also working on the Nintendo 64 at the time time, so the company’s attention was divided. Around this time, Nintendo also decided that the Virtual Boy needed to be cheaper, so Yokoi had to use red LEDs, which at least gave the handhelds its ‘distinctive’ and eye destroying color palette.

Ahead of the Virtual Boy’s release, Nintendo held a massive, $25 million advertising campaign. While the Japanese ads showed a child being sucked into the world of the Virtual Boy, for some reason Nintendo of America decided that their ads needed to be more-edgy, if you want to count turning a Virtual Boy into a walking monstrosity that hunts for human eyes as edgy.

Along with these terrible ads, Nintendo also teamed up with Blockbuster so that during the month of Dec 1995, Blockbuster customers could rent a Virtual Boy for three days for only $9.99. As an advertising campaign, it was a great idea and steps above the kidified Terminator ads, one of which you can see above.

Unfortunately advertisements weren’t enough to convince people that this was a good piece of hardware.

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