Warning: Looking at this Post for too Long May Cause Eyestrain

Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I were at the Gamestop near her apartment and I finally got a chance to try out the 3DS.  Partly out of curiosity and partly to see what all the fuss is about, I picked up the demo system and played about 5 minutes of Super Street Fighter IV, making sure to try out the Buddy Holly-glasses-free 3D function.  After finishing a match I put the system down, my brain feeling like it had been through a washing machine.  I’ve never had motion sickness before and even years of theme park rides have yet to shake my constitution, but five minutes of staring at that 3D screen was enough for me.  I left the store woozy and cursing the grim future that had stared back at me with visual effects of questionable necessity.

It occurs to me that 3-D technology has become a chic way for television manufacturers to convince Americans to throw away their expensive flat screen HDTVs for new ones that require glasses and for the film industry to charge twice the regular ticket price for a movie, many of which are marketed “in 3-D” without offering much improvement over their “standard D” counterparts.  However, while the 3DS is still shiny and new, it has certainly not been the first time the games industry has dabbled in 3-D technology.  In fact, it’s not even the first 3-D technology that Nintendo has offered.  Those of you who grew up with video games in the early nineties will already know another one of Nintendo’s dalliances with 3-D.  For the benefit of younger game enthusiasts, let me enlighten you with a brief history on the infamous red menace of the post Cold War era: I am of course referring to the Virtual Boy.

Released in 1995, the Virtual Boy was the product of two trends that emerged during the early nineties.  The first was Nintendo’s dominance of the video game market and the second was the emergence of the VR fad.

By the early nineties, Nintendo was the unquestioned champion of the video game industry, having emerged as a console developer in the United States in the wake of the so-called “Great Video Game Crash” of the mid 1980s (a topic I hope to explore in a later post).  In 1985, Nintendo debuted the American adaptation of the Japan-only Famicom, dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), to a New York City test audience followed by a nationwide release the following year.  Following the release of the NES several of the American game companies, such as the eviscerated former industry hegemon Atari, attempted to regroup to challenge the interlopers from the Far East; however, there was no question that Nintendo had placed a stranglehold on the American games market.  Another Japanese company, Sega, also entered the console war as Nintendo’s most direct competitor, but Nintendo continued to dominate the industry through the early nineties, its position only shaken by the entry of Sony in 1994 and later Microsoft in 2000.

Even greater than their hold on the American console market was Nintendo’s domination of the portable market with the release of the Game Boy in 1987.  With it’s strong hold on the home and portable markets there was room for Nintendo to experiment with more avant garde gaming experiences.

Like 3-D now, there was a push from various markets for an almost mystical concept called “virtual reality.”  The idea of tossing people right into the interactive action was one with a lot of appeal, even if the implementation never quite caught up to the lofty ambitions.  In practice, it usually involved wearing awkward headgear with small television screens that projected a virtual environment in front of the viewer’s eyes, sometimes coupled with some kind of controller to provide a limited interaction in a 3-D world (the Virtual Boy’s appearance is an example of this VR tech.).   It proved a cumbersome and prohibitively expensive passtime and never really took on.  Nevertheless the concept of plugging into a simulated environment has had a significant amount of staying power, even if the VR craze never really caught on in practice (The Matrix trilogy and Avatar are two recent examples that immediately come to mind).  Even in to the 2000s you’d occasionally encounter large VR simulations at carnivals, amusement parks and even the odd interactive museum exhibit.

So with an experimental system utilizing such a concept, it seemed like Nintendo was setting itself for a fall, and the Virtual Boy was discontinued in mid 1996, mere months after its initial release.

Why did the Virtual Boy fail?  There are numerous reasons.  For one, situated on a wire tripod it was an awkward system to play.  This is especially problematic since Nintendo marketed the Virtual Boy as a portable system like the similarly named (and much more portable) Game Boy (For a humorous take on the Virtual Boy in action be sure to check out James Rolfe’s video review). To make matters worse, the system supposedly caused eyestrain and it was discouraged to play it for extended periods of time.  It also could not sustain much third-party support.  Of the 13 games released in North America, only 3 (Virtual League Baseball, Jack Bros., and Waterworld) were made by third party developers.

I have a few thoughts of my own regarding its failure.  For one thing, anyone who has seen the Virtual Boy can see that it is not a social game by any means.  From the earliest arcade titles to the home consoles video gaming has had a social element to it.  Even with handheld systems it’s possible to connect two systems with a link cable or at the least to  look over someone’s shoulder and see how they’re doing.  But with the Virtual Boy, it’s just you and red laser lights on a dark field a few inches away from your eyes.

Also, there’s something I noticed the first and only time I ever played a Virtual Boy.   I must have been around ten years old, trolling around a Toys ‘R Us near the Bridgewater Commons when I laid eyes upon a Virtual Boy set up for players to demo.   I stepped up to the tripoded red goggles and tried my luck at Warioland, guiding the red-lined former antagonist from Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins through some equally red environments.

I don’t recall the Virtual Boy causing irreparable damage to my young, impressionable corneas.  However,  the thing that really stuck with me about the Virtual Boy was the fact that I felt uncomfortable that I couldn’t see the controller while I played.

In retrospect, it’s actually kind of funny.  You don’t really think about something so mundane as that until you can’t do it.  I’ve been playing video games for practically my entire life and I can’t think of the times I’ve stopped to look down at the controller to see what I was doing.  It’s just second nature and I take for granted that my fingers can handle the interface without supervision while my eyes are glued to the screen.  But in spite of all that, the thing that has stuck in my brain all of these years is that one time when I couldn’t look at what I was doing because my eyes were blocked by two pounds of red plastic and black rubber.  It’s only speculation on my part, but I wonder if that had something to do with the Virtual Boy’s rapid demise.  Sure the 3DS causes headaches, but at least I can see what I’m doing.

So, bringing us back to the present day, I suppose the question that’s left to ask is what can Nintendo learn from the failures of the Virtual Boy?  How can they make the 3DS succeed where their last attempt at a fully 3D system failed?  I’m not entirely sure they can sell 3D now any better than they did in 1995/6.  Going back to the episode I started this now lengthy post with, it’s hard to sell a system when it makes certain portion of your potential audience want to run for the airsick bag.  It is true you can turn the 3D option off, but in abandoning the cornerstone of their marketing, Nintendo needs to convince players that the 3DS is a significant improvement over the Nintendo DS.  Only with a strong game library can Nintendo unseat the DS.

Therein lies the rub.  Part of the reason the DS is a great system is that it has a great selection of titles.  And not just first party software.  The DS boasts great third party support, many of which use the touchpad interface very well.   If the good titles (both first- and third-party) emerge, then success and money will follow.

Otherwise, Nintendo may have to make room next to the Virtual Boy in the dustbin of console history.

Thanks for reading


About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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