Ahh, Virtual Reality. In the mid 90s, it's possibilities seemed boundless: Entirely new computer-generated worlds were waiting to be discovered, explored and sexually assaulted in. Yes, with comically large goggles strapped to our faces, Humanity would soon enter a new golden age of infinite possibilities, and Nintendo would lead us there with the Virtual Boy.
The Virtual Boy really is an oddity. It works something like a Viewmaster, in that each eye gets its own display screen, and each screen shows the game's action from a slightly different perspective, creating the illusion of three dimensions. The displays themselves are made up of a single vertical column of high-brightness red LEDs, the light from which is reflected off a mirror that oscillates horizontally about 50 times per second. The result of all this crazy video voodoo is a red monochrome 3D image with an effective resolution of 384x224 per eyeball. The system is battery-powered, but it's not something that can really be played on the go. The player places the Virtual Boy on a desk or table and mashes his face into the viewfinder. A neoprene mask blocks out ambient light, leaving the player able to see nothing but glorious reds and blacks.
The Virtual Boy's controller is ergonomic and comfortable to hold. It sports two D-pads, allowing the player to move about in a 3D space, though in most games, the right pad isn't used. A, B, Select and Start all make a return, as do two trigger buttons on the controller's underside. Curiously, the Virtual Boy houses its batteries in a removable compartment attached to the controller itself. The compartment houses six AA batteries which are good for only about 6-7 hours of play, and make the controller annoyingly heavy. An AC adapter is also available, but its power cable also plugs into the controller, forcing the player to sit near a wall outlet to use it.
Vectrex games. Of all the games in the Virtual Boy's library, only Red Alarm and Teleroboxer are played from a first-person point of view, generally considered a mainstay of VR technology.
The Virtual Boy's sound is also a big disappointment. Ironically, the first thing I noticed when I fired up my eBay-fresh Virtual Boy was how it sounded no better than the Game Boy, a system six years' its elder. I realize that CD-quality audio tracks probably couldn't be squeezed onto those old cartridges, but the SNES' audio quality puts Virtual Boy's to shame, and the Virtual Boy was touted as having a superior, 16-bit wavetable sound chip. If that's really the case, then the games I've played so far seriously under-utilize it.
Finally, I can happily report that, despite its copious warnings, I did not go blind playing Virtual Boy. I didn't even get a headache or sour stomach. After several marathon play sessions, the worst injury I sustained was a sore neck from craning to look into it. The red-on-black color scheme is distracting at first, but it doesn't take long to get past it, as anyone who's used a monochrome computer screen can attest. Overall, the Virtual Boy has plenty of shortcomings, but it's not the dramatic trainwreck history has made it out to be. It's endearing in its own quirky way, and it does have a few games worth playing. Let's check one out now.
The controls in the game are pretty basic. The left D-pad moves you around the court, while the A & B buttons cause you to hit groundstrokes or lobs, respectively. How you swing your racquet (forehand, backhand, smash, etc) depends on where your character's body is in relation to the ball. Pressing a direction on the D-pad mid-swing lets you roughly aim the ball, but you can't precisely pick where on the court to send it, and you can't apply topspin or backspin to the ball.
The graphics are pretty good, even if the color scheme makes it looks like you're playing tennis on the surface of a dying sun. Though the characters are all 2D sprites, they move around on a 3D court that looks convincing enough. The 3D effect helps you zero in on the ball easily despite the low camera angle, though the third-person perspective means the character's body sometimes blocks your view of the ball. The sprites are large and detailed, and they have a pleasant, hand-drawn aesthetic. They're all well animated too; lots of frames went into each of their movements, ensuring they don't just look like static drawings sliding around a tennis court. When they're facing toward you, their expressions change to reflect how they did at that last serve. If they've just scored a particularly difficult point, they'll usually react in some way: Mario flashes a peace symbol, Peach curtseys, Toad spazzes out, and so on. The backgrounds are sparse and don't draw attention away from the game. Occasionally, though, a gaggle of boos will float by or a few fireworks will explode in the distance, just to add a little visual flair.
Again, the audio is a disappointment. The characters themselves are completely mute, and the sound effects are typical Game Boy-ish bleeps and bloops. The music is unobtrusive, though the same four background songs played on a loop become tiresome to hear during long tournaments. At least the stereo sound is put to good use; sound effects pan and fade to match the action on screen.
I wonder... Had Nintendo chosen to pack in a game that appealed to a wider audience, would the Virtual Boy been a hit? Excepting perhaps Pong, tennis games haven't had nearly the same cultural impact that games Tetris or Super Mario Bros have. Had a game with more depth or originality been bundled with the Virtual Boy instead, would the future of video gaming really have become goggles on sticks?