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System Review: Virtual Boy (1995)
Author: bahooney   Date: 1970/8/21   Rating: 8/10


If you're a hardcore fan of Nintendo, there's no doubt that you know who the illustrious Gunpei Yokoi was. The masses associate Nintendo with Shigeru Miyamoto synonymously because of the sheer number of games that Miyamoto has been at the helm of. However, it is arguable that without Gunpei Yokoi's creations, most of what we play today wouldn't be the same. For example, while developing a new Game & Watch game, he created the "control-cross," known today as the "D-Pad." He was the first person to invent such a fundamental industry standard that you can find one on almost every controller post-Game & Watch.

After more than a decade of leaving a lasting impression at Nintendo with more ass-kickery than one man should be able to pull off, Nintendo put him behind a project interested in bringing virtual reality to consumers. He tried ideas and developed for more than two years, only to have Nintendo rush the product out unfinished to focus on the upcoming Nintendo 64 (Despite the massive following behind the Virtual Boy, I say "unfinished" because Yokoi has been quoted saying he wasn't happy with the end result).

As the tragic end to this tale, the Virtual Boy sank faster than any other endeavor of Nintendo's before or since. Nintendo promptly lost faith in Gunpei Yokoi despite the fact that he didn't even want it on the market yet. Yokoi eventually handed in his resignation to Nintendo, and died in a car accident two years after the release of the Virtual Boy. Fortunately, he left behind a permanent positive mark on the industry, his influence still carrying over to developers today.

Nintendo hasn't given up completely on 3D gaming just yet, what with the 3DS already in eager gamer's hands. I've heard some really great things about the 3DS from various sources, so the logical reaction to the pre-release buzz would be to spend 95 dollars on a Virtual Boy, a boxed, Japanese copy of Mario's Tennis, and a boxed copy of Wario Land.

Upon purchasing the unit, I promptly sent out a mass text to my friends. Not one person was envious, jealous, or intrigued. It's not like my purchase was well educated; the last time I played a Virtual Boy was when I was five-years-old in Sears. I decided to become better acquainted with my little buddy before his arrival, and delved into the background of this so-called "virtual reality" after I bought it.

I read up some reviews of the games and the system itself. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the reviews I read were mostly negative. Of course, if you've ever brought the Virtual Boy up in conversation, there's no doubt you've heard the infamous line of, "Dayme, dat Virtual Boy?! It gives you headaches after 10 minutes of playin'!" What I noticed, though, is that all of my friends who said that had never played a Virtual Boy. In fact, the reviews I read online that were negative were prefaced by, "I heard," not, "Dude, I have actually physically played the Virtual Boy, and it burned my retinas to the core. Thank God I learned braille, because the damage that the Virtual Boy has done to me is irrevocable. " This is because people feel biologically confident to boast information they obtained about something with which they have absolutely no experience or knowledge. Thankfully, I just spent a week with my Virtual Boy, and I'm most pleased.

When I ripped open the box it came in, I was already taken aback by how downright sexy the system was. Back when I saw it as a kid, I thought it was one of the coolest looking gaming devices, and it still takes the cake in my book. The red-black color scheme gives it a unique, classy look, and it certainly takes center stage on my shelf of gaming goodies.

The headset sits on two legs, and it can be adjusted to better fit the angle you're sitting. I tried the Virtual Boy out in a number of positions, and though the system was touted by Nintendo as "portable", I don't see the practicality in taking the Virtual Boy with you... anywhere. For argument's sake, I legitimately took my Virtual Boy into the bathroom with me. While pooping, I had the Virtual Boy set up with it's legs on my thighs, and my arms wrapped around the "feet" of the stand to better brace it. Even with the headset adjusted for maximum comfort, I still had to hunch over awkwardly like a dog humping a blanket. I was kind of upset because no matter where I sat, all I could come up with were varieties of the blanket-humping kind. It wasn't uncomfortable enough for me to care, but it's a minor qualm I have, as being comfortable while playing is a huge buying-factor for me; that's why the Wii is my least-favorite system. I also tried it out laying down, and that was pretty awesome, but it kept mashing down on my nose or sliding off. Following this, I made angry pirate noises.

Aesthetically, the controller looks awkward and goofy, boasting the use of two D-Pads (I don't understand, but thanks, Gunpei!), and the unconventional placement of the battery pack/AC adapter on it's back. However, the Virtual Boy's controller is almost as comfortable as the GameCube controller; it's easy to grip and your fingers fall naturally to the button placement. The one issue I could think of deals with the L and R buttons, because they're circular little nubs that don't feel natural or comfy, personally. The shoulder buttons of it's predecessor, the SNES controller, were the pinnacle of comfort, but this doesn't impact game play too much. While playing Wario Land, I actually kept forgetting they were there, thus kept forgetting I could run or swim a little faster. Again, not a huge issue, but I sighed a few times.

Of course, this wouldn't be a proper system review without assessing what the Virtual Boy has to offer graphically, as that's it's main selling point. To properly emulate what a kid would have experienced in the summer of 1995, ripping into his brand new gateway to virtual reality, I started off with Mario's Tennis. Mario's Tennis came bundled with the American release of the Virtual Boy, which was a great move on Nintendo's part. Unlike it's superior 64-bit brother Mario Tennis, this is essentially tennis with Mario in it. That's it. There aren't any gimmicks or special powers that would set it apart from other tennis simulators, in fact it plays similarly to Tennis for the NES. The 3D effect is pretty cool, and there's a great sense of depth in relation to the characters on the court, and of course the depth of where the ball is in relation to the camera. I often found myself looking off into the background and missing the ball, because the depth was just such a cool feature I had never seen before. I still haven't played a 3DS, so this was a first for me. I played through a tournament with Peach and a few matches with every character, and nothing really blew me away. It's tennis.

...But then there's Wario Land. If there's one thing I learned from every review I read, it's that Wario Land is the must-have game for the Virtual Boy. No, that doesn't even scratch the surface of the overwhelming enthusiasm that everyone had to say about Wario Land. I'm prone to skepticism, and thinking something's overrated if everyone's shouting praise, but in all honesty Wario Land delivers. Hardcore. There's nothing else like it, and I'm still blown away every time I play it. The Virtual Boy's selling point is it's 3D, and the depth in Wario Land is insane. After you start up a file, the opening cinematic has Wario napping, and behind him you can see tons of different layers into the woods, with a streaming waterfall the farthest back. It was incredible that I got such a sense of realism out of a pixelated, red-and-black image, and I've erased the same file repeatedly just to show my friends. The game play is tight, and it's a genuinely fun, challenging platformer. If you have a Virtual Boy, or are on the fence about getting one, you need this game.

I didn't exactly feel any eye strain and I didn't get a headache in the 45 minute session I had, but I did feel some dull nausea. I felt nauseous basically every time I leaned back from my Virtual Boy into the real world, and for a good half-hour afterward, so that was a bummer.

It's a shame that the Virtual Boy didn't print money for Nintendo, and didn't succeed past a handful of games released stateside, because it's a really great system. Comfort issues aside, it delivers an experience that I've never had the pleasure of knowing until now, leaving me verbally proclaiming, "Woah, cool!" to my girlfriend when she couldn't see a thing. I think I'm actually going to try to collect the entire Virtual Boy's library of games because virtual reality is awesome and I'm stupid with money.

Though the Virtual Boy's final product wasn't the intended vision of Gunpei Yokoi, my hat is off to the man. It's a wonderful little machine. Bravo, Gunpei.