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Why it feels inevitable that Nintendo will pursue VR (or AR)

Nintendo hasn't announced any plans to pursue virtual reality in any upcoming game system, but Nintendo's roots are already deep in all the pieces that could make it work.

Evan-Amos, via Wikimedia Commons

It was somewhere around 1995. I was stopping by the SmithHaven Mall with my dad, making my pilgrimage to Electronics Boutique. Sitting on the counter was a Virtual Boy. It stood on a tripod, but looked like a mini VR helmet. I knew about virtual reality from pterodactyl-filled mall arcade games, and in magazines like Omni, or the many movies and books ranging from "Virtual Light" to "The Lawnmower Man" that already flooded the pop-culture landscape in the mid-90s. Virtual Boy drew me right in. Could Nintendo's little tripod be amazing? I stuck my face in, saw 3D Mario Tennis, and decided to wait. The 3D effects weren't impressive. My Game Boy Advance games looked better.

But I wanted one. And now, as VR has swooped around again to become a buzzword 20 years later, I'd like to see Nintendo try again.

Nintendo and VR may sound like a desperation move at first, as if Nintendo were trying to catch up on recent slippage by grabbing onto the hot trend of the moment. At this year's E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles, everyone was dabbling in virtual worlds: Oculus, Nvidia, PlayStation, Microsoft via HoloLens...and even, to some extent, Nintendo. Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aime was seen at the Oculus demo rooms, but steered away from aspirations of VR when questioned by Polygon. "Based on what I've seen, it's not fun and it's not social. It's just tech."

But Virtual Boy is just one piece of many that lie in Nintendo's past, pointing toward the very real possibility that somehow, in some way, Nintendo will explore these ideas again. Could Nintendo eventually be a contender in VR? I don't just think it's possible, I think it's inevitable.

Shigeru Miyamoto demoing Starfox on Wii U in 2014. GameSpot

Nintendo's second-screen games come close to VR

I tried Starfox Zero, one of the upcoming Wii U games this fall. Its controls are unusual: while the TV shows you your typical third-person space-fighting game, the GamePad's second screen can double as its own targeting system. I lifted up the GamePad and aimed, and turned, in different directions. Sometimes I spun around, while abandoning the TV screen. If the GamePad were on my face showing me 3D, it would be VR.

The Wii U GamePad has already pursued this type of semi-augmented second-screen gameplay: NintendoLand has several multiplayer party games where one player looks at the TV and the other uses the GamePad screen. Some alter the perspective to make it feel like you're looking through your own window at the action. That's basically a form of virtual reality.


Nintendo's already got VR controllers, and they're called Wiimotes

The Nintendo Wii explored transformative semi-virtual party experiences, too, back in 2006 with Wii Sports. There wasn't a helmet, but gathering four people to wave wands in the air felt like a magical quasi-real type of party trick. That Wii Remote, and its stick-like motion controls, is an ancestor to the Project Morpheus-employed PlayStation Move wands, or the HTC Vive control sticks. Nintendo already has VR controls practically solved, and did it eight years ago.

CBS Interactive

Nintendo likes 3D

The Virtual Boy, and the Nintendo 3DS , proudly pursued 3D gaming on the go before anyone else did. Many Nintendo 3DS games don't need 3D at all, but a few have toyed with 3D augmented reality. The built-in Face Raiders and AR card-based mini-games that have been around since 2012 already attempt things that Microsoft HoloLens demonstrates in a far, far more polished and technologically impressive form. You can turn and shoot at invisible attackers, or walk around objects that appear on your desk or table.

Virtual reality vs. augmented reality, or wait for something else?

These are really early days for VR and AR. The goggles and helmets I tried at E3 are better than before, but they're still intimidating to the average person. You have to strap them on your face. Multiplayer games in VR do exist, like Sony's RIGS or the two-person Oculus Touch demo I experienced, but you have to isolate yourself in order to become social. Nintendo is a play-in-your-living-room type of company: its idea of multiplayer is Mario Party, NintendoLand, Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart between friends on a sofa. That's why Wii Sports was a perfect fit. But those games are hard to come by. Microsoft's HoloLens, using augmented-reality technology to make 3D effects appear like they're in the same room as you, could be the type of tech that fits Nintendo better...but again, you'd need specific gear to put on your face.

Nintendo might be waiting it out so that "kids" and "VR" become a more logical fit (something that Google's already pursuing with Cardboard). Or, Nintendo could be after immersive experiences that side-step head-mounted VR entirely. But the pieces are already in place for Nintendo to start exploring this landscape faster than you think. I'd love to see it happen.