In the UK, where the Virtual Boy was never officially released, second hand, unboxed examples of the system can be found for around £100, while immaculate, boxed examples like this one frequently fetch much more on ebay.
Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of the Game and Watch, and Game Boy, and released on July 21st ’95 in Japan, and August 14th in North America, the Nintendo Virtual Boy was the first home console to feature true 3D graphics, in a manner similar to old viewmaster toys. Two screens display red and black monochrome images to create a 3D effect. These were generated by high resolution mirror scanning LED technology, licensed by Nintendo from a Massachusetts company called Reflection Technology Inc.
These displays work by having a vertical array of 224 red LEDs which are scanned across the viewers field of vision using a flat oscillating mirror system. While much cheaper than using a full 384 224 resolution LED screen, and having a faster refresh rate than LCD, this system has proved very fragile, and can be easily damaged by rough treatment. The controller is quite similar in appearance to the dual shock pad used with the Sony Playstation, though instead of the two analogue sticks, there are two digital D pads. Though initially quite tricky to get to grips with, the controller does prove to be very effective.
An oddity of the Virtual Boy controller, and indeed of the whole system, is that the pad contains the battery pack that powers the whole console. This makes it quite heavy, but reduces the number of trailing wires that could otherwise get in the way. The Virtual Boy only survived for one year before being withdrawn from sale, and was never officially released outside of Japan and North America (which makes them extremely collectable in the UK), and the reasons for its failure are many.
Most commonly quoted reasons are that it was under-developed, under-supported, over-priced, a stopgap model between the SNES and N64, didn’t allow spectators, had a flimsy stand which is prone to breakage, and gave gamers a headache… and indeed, having played the console quite a lot myself, I can tell you that many of these criticisms are true. Having said that, despite all of its shortcomings, and regardless of how the media slated the system on its release for having dismal graphics (Edge magazine described the display as “like sellotaping two red Game Boys to your face”), I can honestly say that it would be a mistake to dismiss the Virtual Boy as no good, without actually trying one for yourself.
Yes, you will get a headache, and probably a stiff neck too, but the visual experience of playing one of the better games, particularly a 3D vector based game like Red Alarm, is unlike any other home gaming experience you will ever have, and can be quite spectacular. Nevertheless, the Virtual Boy did fail, and despite the system having been rushed to market by Nintendo, before it could be developed to its full potential, the company blamed its creator, Gunpei, and he was driven from the company.