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The Virtual Boy’s Odyssey

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Say what you will about the Virtual Boy, but this is a superb game system. It had the games, a unique concept, solid controller, under appreciated audio capabilities, and could produce an amazing array of graphics for only being two colors. Looking back, it wasn’t necessarily Nintendo, the slow game output, or high price that killed off this unique piece of gaming history. It was the media.

If there was ever a scenario that shows how truly terrible the gaming media can be, it was the Virtual Boy. In a January 1995 editorial in EGM, editor Ed Semrad shredded the system before its launch in any country after a brief trade show play test. It didn’t launch until November of that year.

Semrad’s notes are occasionally odd.

“Nintendo is going to keep costs down by giving us two red LCD’s on a black background. One would have thought they learned from their no-color Game Boy.”

If anything, it shows that color wasn’t apparently important to most people. Granted, times had changed, the Lynx, Game Gear, and Turbo Express all had sharp color screens for the time. Still, the no-color Game Boy outsold them all. What was Nintendo supposed to learn?

When speaking of the early game selection, Semrad had few positives to note.

“The games were unfinished and less than half done so they could improve. Still, not a great selection of carts to show off the 3-D potential of the system.”

Well of course not if they’re half done. That’s amazingly unfinished to make any accurate judgments on.

His final complaints were the claims of the console being portable, and while completely true that this system never should have had the world “portable” anywhere near it in the traditional sense, it could technically be taken with you. Nintendo also had plans for various contraptions to avoid using the tripod at all times.

This is all just an editorial though, right? Look further in the issue and check out the Quartermann rumor column.

“Virtual Bomb, eer, Virtual Boy, that new techno-cheap two colored unit that doubles as a headset left Quartermann looking for his Intellivision.”

Not only is this debate already included in the opening editorial; there’s nothing here that’s a rumor. He goes on to say “the word on the street in Tokyo is that the Virtual Boy will blow up real good when it comes to the market.” That’s not a rumor either; it’s heresy.

The magazine continues later in a feature article on the reveal of the unit at Nintendo’s Shoshinkai Show. Even here, they decide to deliver a few cheap shots.

“Technically, it is a portable… but few people will want to use it as such.”

The preview of three titles continues to destroy the system.

“Couldn’t you (Nintendo) have done better?”

“We’ve seen similar games on the NES.”

EGM2 oddly praised the system in July of 2005.

“Be prepared for an awesome 3-D experience when the Virtual Boy is released.”

Even today, Virtual Boy jokes are strewn about, certainly prior to the DS release when it was announced to have two screens. The system has faded into lore as some abominable creation so horrible your retinas will never be the same.

Granted, that can be true. There’s no question the Virtual Boy had issues, yet it also had potential no one seemed to look for. Invented by Gunpei Yokoi, the same man who invented the Game Boy, leading to unimaginable amounts of money for the company, he was later disgraced by the systems failure.

Yet, how was it his fault? The media never gave it a fair chance. The bias was absurd, and while it’s ridiculous to think a single magazine can have that effect, keep in mind this was before rampant Internet fanboyism or even the Internet explosion. While Nintendo Power would attempt to heal the wounds and convince people many of the games were highly enjoyable, EGM never even gave the console’s best games a review, Wario Land, specifically.

Oddly enough, the games they did review scored somewhat highly in comparison even with Semrad at the helm. Vertical Force, a generic though thoroughly playable shooter, is a particular case. However, the damage was done long before this.

It’s a real shame the Virtual Boy is still reeling from the thrashing it received. Most would toss the console in with true disasters like the Game.com (likely having never even held the two systems, let alone played them), and the Virtual Boy had the needed software to compete against, well, nothing since it’s such a unique piece.

So, if you lived through the era and were one of the gamers turned off by what you read, it’s time to finally take that plunge. Pick up Wario Land, the simplistic yet enjoyable Nester’s Funky Bowling, oddly addictive Galactic Pinball, and of course the pack-in title, Mario Tennis. You’ll thank yourself for giving it a chance, even if your optometrist will disown you.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.