The Virtual Boy wasn’t Nintendo’s idea, at least not originally.
In 1990, Massachusetts based Reflection Technologie developed a stereoscopic 3D display and began looking for a partner to turn it into a marketable product. Barbie-maker Mattel was the first to decline, followed soon thereafter by Sega, whose executives – abortive VR project still fresh in mind – worried that the monochromatic, lowresolution display would cause headaches and motion sickness. Reflection then approached Nintendo.
Gumpei Yokoi was intrigued. Having found enormous success with his Game & Watch and Game Boy designs, Yokoi was looking for the next big innovation that would cement Nintendo's position at the top of an increasingly competitive marketplace. He figured Virtual Reality was just the ticket, and – undeterred by the technology’s obvious limitations – began working on a prototype of the Virtual Boy in 1991.
Development was long and difficult. Regarded as something of a bastard child by Nintendo’s higher ups, the Virtual Boy project did not receive as much funding and manpower as the company’s other projects, with resident auteur Shigeru Miyamoto consumed with what would eventually become the N64.
To keep the unit affordable, Yokoi opted to keep Reflection’s monochromatic red display, but ditched the head-tracking out of concern it would cause (even more) motion sickness. Instead, goggles were mounted on a heavy bipod designed to be placed on a flat surface. A controller not unlike the N64 pad was plugged into the goggles and powered the entire unit with six AAAs housed in a detachable battery pack.
By 1995 the Virtual Boy had begun to take shape, but was not – in Yokoi's opinion – anywhere close to a complete product, ready for market. Nintendo management disagreed, releasing the Virtual Boy in Japan on July 21 for 15,000 yen. A month later it was released in the US for $180 USD. Bossman Hiroshi Yamauchi confidently predicted it would shift 3 million units in its first year.
Not even close. Word quickly spread that early adopters were complaining of nausea and headaches. Nintendo was compelled to admit that the device could cause permanent eye damage in children under seven. Every fifteen minutes the unit would remind you to take a break to avoid hurting yourself. The launch line-up was abysmal, with only four thoroughly uninspiring games available: Mario’s Tennis, Red Alarm, Teleroboxer, and Galactic Pinball. These would be joined by ten more titles over the course of the Virtual Boy’s lifetime, only one of which – Virtual Boy Wario Land – approaches playability.
And so in December 1995, a mere six months after its debut, the Virtual
Boy was quietly discontinued, selling a total of only 770,000 units worldwide. Gumpei Yokoi – who didn’t want to release it in the first place – was forced to leave Nintendo under a cloud of shame. He was killed in a traffic accident two years later.