This bizarre "portable" system proved to be a dismal failure for Nintendo. Developed at a time when "virtual reality" was considered the next logical step in video game evolution, the Virtual Boy conveyed a true three-dimensional world and surround sound in a small, self-contained unit.
Resembling a set of red goggles on a metal stand with a wired controller, the Virtual Boy was just too weird for its own good. Its graphics were high-resolution and sharp, but rendered in monochromatic red-on-black. The system was actually capable of some extraordinary gameplay, but that was largely overshadowed by its controversial LED (Light Emitting Display) technology. Not intended for use by children under the age of seven, warnings on the box and in the manual cautioned about the possibility of permanent vision damage! Frequent breaks were advised to avoid eyestrain and other health issues. The system manual was a veritable minefield of warnings, containing no less than 19 big red boxes! Understandably, this freaked out the parents of Nintendo's youngest fans.
Released just as the hot new 32-bit systems like the Playstation and Saturn were emerging, the Virtual Boy became lost in the shuffle and all but disappeared within a year's time. That said, anyone who's actually played the system can vouch for the surprisingly immersive experience it produces. Although the system's library of games is tiny (15 titles in North America), most took full advantage of the system's unique capabilities, conveying an amazing sense of depth.
The Virtual Boy controller is remarkably well-designed, with a symmetrical button configuration, dual control pads, and comfortable handles. The unit also generates impressive "surround sound" audio without the need for earphones. Unfortunately it's a system that needs to be experienced first-hand to be truly appreciated. Unable to be properly marketed on TV or in print, most people didn't know what they were missing.
Like many gamers in the mid-90's, I was too consumed with my new Playstation to pay any attention to the Virtual Boy. Yet after acquiring a Virtual Boy years later, I now consider it an excellent addition to my collection. It's a total oddity but everyone I show it to is stunned by the visual effects and quality of its games.
Console design: D. Based on appearance alone, the Virtual Boy is an abberation. It's an awkward contraption that needs to be meticulously adjusted and placed on a table of a specific height in order to feel reasonably comfortable. The eyepiece is made from a soft black material that molds to the face and does a good job of blocking out light.
Even when it's properly set up you'll want to limit the duration of your play sessions for health reasons. Frankly I think the warnings are more of a precautionary measure; I've never heard of anyone actually being injured from using this system. That said, my eyes feel like they're "working harder" when I'm playing Virtual Boy.
The fact that the system was marketed as "portable" is a complete joke. You obviously can't play it "on the go", and the manual even warns against playing it in a car. One friend told me he used to play it in the back seat of his parents car while lying flat on his back.
Console durability: D. The system is fairly well-constructed, but you need to take care not to drop it due to its internal glass mirrors. Also, the internal circuit board can degrade over time, and I had to send mine out for repair.
Graphics: B+. At a time when other systems were boasting about the ability to render thousands of colors, Virtual Boy's monochromatic display proved a major liability. But this flaw was somewhat mitigated by the system's high-resolution, high-contrast display. The graphics look remarkably sharp, and once you get involved in a game you'll completely forget about the lack of color. And the 3D graphics are more than just a novelty, playing a substantial role in most games.
Audio: A. For a system not lauded for its audio capabilities, I was shocked by the high quality audio generated by this system. It mimics surround sound very well, contributing to the immersive quality of its games.
Controllers: A. It's a shame that so few gamers have had the pleasure to use this controller, because it's arguably one of the best ever created. Its symmetrical design is perfectly intuitive, incorporating dual directional pads, two buttons on each face, and two shoulder buttons. The fat handles are very comfortable to grasp.
Media: A. Virtual Boy cartridges are small, thin, gray cards. They are small enough to transport in your pocket, but not so small that you'll lose them easily.
Packaging: C. Virtual Boy cartridges were sold in small boxes similar in size to Gameboy Advance titles. Likewise there's nothing notable about the small manuals.
Pack-In Game: A. Mario Tennis was a phenomenal choice, conveying an uncanny sense of depth in addition to super fun gameplay.
Launch Titles: B+. Galactic Pinball, Red Alarm, and Teleroboxer were quality titles well-suited to the capabilities of this unique system.
Library: B+. For a system that was pretty much dead on arrival, the Virtual Boy library contains some surprisingly strong titles. Most are easy-to-play, arcade-style games best consumed in small doses. Mario Clash, Galactic Pinball, and Wario World combine time-tested gameplay with nifty 3D effects. Virtual League Baseball, Mario Tennis, and Teleroboxer deliver rock-solid sports action, albeit single-player only. Despite its limited selection, the Virtual Boy probably has a higher proportion of quality games than any other console.
Collectability: C. This is an ideal system for collectors, offering a unique game experience unlike anything you've played before. It's quite possible to collect all of its 15 games. Since my initial review however the system has become somewhat rare and can be somewhat expensive to acquire.
Innovations: 3D LED graphics, dual-pad controller, surround sound
Pros and Cons:
+ A very unique and immersive game experience
+ Outstanding controller
+ Possible to collect all of the games
- Not suitable for children under the age of seven
- Only good for short play sessions
- One player only