Friday, June 21, 2013

Nintendo Virtual Boy and Mario's Tennis

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.

Virtual Boy was the brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi, legendary designer of The Game & Watch series and the original Game Boy, as well as the father of the Metroid and Kid Icarus series. In the mid 90s, most of Nintendo's R&D efforts were tied up in development of the Nintendo 64, but its portable R&D group was relatively idle, since the Game Boy was still selling like crazy. Yokoi came about the idea of developing a 3D virtual reality game system after witnessing a demonstration of a new type of LED-based imaging system created by a company called Reflection Technologies. Yokoi had lofty goals for his new system, like a 3D full-color head-mounted display with full motion tracking capabilities. Cost and technological limitations quickly brought the project down to Earth, and Yokoi ultimately settled on a tabletop system with no head-tracking features and only a red monochrome display for his prototype, which he dubbed the VR-32. Nintendo, eager to put any kind of new hardware on store shelves, rushed the VR-32 prototype to completion, against Yokoi's wishes, and demonstrated it for the first time at the Shoshinkai Trade Show in 1994. It met with a tepid response from the attendees, who balked at its clunky design, monochrome picture and, worst of all, copious health hazards! Much like the 3DS 15 years later, the Virtual Boy came slathered with warnings that its 3D technology could cause headaches, nausea, and even permanent eyesight damage for players under 7 year of age. Nevertheless, Nintendo released the console in Japan in July of 1995 and in the US one month later for an initial retail price of $180. Customer response was just as tepid, and Virtual Boys languished on store shelves for months. Nintendo began dramatically slashing the price to as low as $99, but it seems they couldn't even give the Virtual Boy away. Discouraged by abysmally low sales and with the release of the Nintendo 64 imminent, Nintendo quietly killed the Virtual Boy in may of 1996, less than a year after it debuted. It was so short-lived that it never reached Europe and only 22 games in total were released. Yokoi left Nintendo shortly thereafter, his reputation in tatters despite his insistence that the console needed more time to develop. Nintendo, for its part, now officially had its first epic flop.

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.

Viewing a Virtual Boy is a pretty surreal experience. The image fills up only the center of your field of view; everything in the periphery is pitch black and devoid of any visual queues. This effect couples with the 3D images to create an experience I can best describe as being in a darkened theater, watching a play unfold that's lit entirely by red gels. It can be very striking. However, watching in an audience is still a far cry from delivering an immersive VR experience, and it's here that the Virtual Boy falters. Besides the color limitations, the Virtual Boy has no 3D acceleration, and its 32-bit RISC CPU, though state of the art for its time, isn't up to the task of pushing polygons around by itself. As a result, most Virtual Boy games are 2D sprite-based, with only a few 3D gimmicks thrown in. The handful that do use 3D polygons render them as hollow wireframes, reminiscent of 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.

Mario's Tennis

Mario's Tennis was the Virtual Boy's pack-in title, and the very first game in the Mario Tennis series. You play as one of six Mushroom Kingdom's denizens, and Donkey Kong Jr. for some reason, in a singles or doubles match of tennis. Unlike the games that followed, Mario's Tennis really is just that. No special moves are allowed here, although each character has a set of unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Mario is once again the jack-of-all-trades, while Yoshi is fastest, but plays with a small racquet. Toad and the koopa troopa can both lunge for the ball and, in my experience, were the hardest to score against. In doubles matches, the computer-controlled teammate is competent enough, though sometime it'll ignore balls hit directly at it. It never gets in the way of your own shot, though, which is a plus. The opponents put up a real fight, particularly in the higher difficulties, and they employ a little bit of strategy in their game. They generally aim for the side of the court you're not occupying, and they will lob the ball over your head if you're too close to the net, or hit it short if you're playing too deep. Unfortunately, a two-player mode is conspicuously absent, since Nintendo never released the cable that allowed two Virtual Boys to communicate.

 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?

Probably not.