Nintendo's 3D past: A look back at Virtual Boy

The 3DS isn't Nintendo's first foray into 3D portable gaming, but hopefully it'll fare a lot better than the sad story of Virtual Boy.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
2 min read
Portable gaming meets tripod: the Virtual Boy.

Let's time travel, shall we? The year: 1995. "Braveheart" was a popular movie. Bill Clinton was still in his first term. The end of the millennium was still five years away. Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi readies the release of a product that becomes his albatross, a portable game system that many have never even seen in person. Its name: Virtual Boy.

An attempt to create a brand-new form of portable 3D gaming (sound familiar?), Virtual Boy achieved its 3D effects via an extremely large and heavy set of red plastic goggles that formed the game system. They were so bulky that they couldn't easily be worn, necessitating a tabletop tripod to prevent head fatigue. Wired to the Virtual Boy was a full controller, the design of which strangely resembled the PlayStation's.

To make matters worse, the game's screens were monochrome red and black, a set of LED screens with complicated mirrors that enabled the stereoscopic effects. During the Virtual Boy's release, the Game Boy was still a very popular system. Though no full-color Nintendo portable yet existed, there were color competitors from companies like Sega and Atari. Costing $180--about the same as today's DSi XL--it wasn't cheap for 1995, and some say Mr. Yokoi never intended for the Virtual Boy to be pushed to market so early.

A typical Virtual Boy game screen.

With a 32-bit processor, the Virtual Boy was theoretically powerful. Armed with a feeble and non-iconic collection of games that included Tetris, golf, and tennis, however, it was unclear how exactly the Virtual Boy would be better than a cheaper, smaller Game Boy. Six AA batteries didn't provide much battery life, and the system's cluttered wires and parts made it hard to carry.

Today, the Virtual Boy is a collector's item, a testament to gaming oddities gone by. Perhaps Nintendo's returned focus to 3D in its "3DS" is a tip of the cap to Mr. Yokoi, or another attempt to address the Virtual Boy's unfinished business. We assume, however, the end result will be far less cumbersome. Or, at least, we hope so. At least the Nintendo 3DS is promised to be backward-compatible with the Nintendo DS software, something the Virtual Boy was incapable of: Game Boy cartridges had no home in its strange goggled innards.

Virtual Boy, we salute you. But we're glad we didn't buy you. But, speaking of which, is there anyone out there who did?