With the 3DS less than a week from launch, it can be easy to forget that the handheld – while extremely impressive – isn’t Nintendo’s first attempt to make a 3D system. After its success with Game & Watch and the Game Boy, Nintendo launched its third portable system in the mid-‘90s, when virtual reality was seen as the future of gaming. Envisioned as a successor to the Game Boy, the Virtual Boy would deliver true 3D gaming at an affordable price. It would also be widely considered the single worst piece of hardware Nintendo ever produced, if not the worst game machine ever produced, period.
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As misguided as the Virtual Boy was, it was the product of a long list of well-intended compromises. Going full-color with two displays would have been prohibitively expensive in 1995 – and according to Virtual Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi (who also headed development on the Game Boy), test users were unable to see depth using a full-color headset. So to cut costs and make the 3D more visible, the Virtual Boy went from full-color to one-color. And because it stood out better than any other, Yokoi decided that color should be bright, eye-searing red.
Yokoi also thought a motion-tracking headset might cause motion sickness, so out went the accelerometers. In fact, he found that wearing the VB as a headset at all was heavy and uncomfortable, so he put it on a little two-legged stand instead. However, we may never know why he decided that – in an era when “virtual reality” already meant “3D polygons” – anyone would want a VR headset to view Game Boy-caliber graphics.
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The end result was a pile of good ideas that, when added together, equaled one very bad idea. The Virtual Boy had outdated graphics, felt awkward to use, sported a weird controller with dual d-pads and– after more than a few minutes of staring into its laser-like displays – could cause eyestrain and headaches. That’s probably why the VB is the only Nintendo system to offer users automatic breaks every 15 or 30 minutes.
By now, most of you probably know the Virtual Boy was a disastrous flop, and that Yokoi (who also gave us the d-pad and Metroid) was forced to resign from Nintendo shortly after its release. However, as undeniably, painfully godawful as the thing was, the 14 games that made it stateside weren’t entirely terrible – and in fact, a handful of them were actually great. So while Nintendo gets ready to give 3D a second try, let’s look at the best games to (sort of) get it right the first time.
Teleroboxer is far from the VB’s best game, but it is the one everyone wanted to play when the thing launched. It’s not hard to see why, either. Staring down a punch-happy robot in first-person as its 3D fists come swinging into your face seems like a much better use of the technology than, say, making a 2D Mario hop between different layers of onscreen depth.
Essentially a robot-centric take on Punch-Out!!, Teleroboxer pitted players against a succession of in-your-face opponents with increasingly weird abilities. IT also caught some criticism for its difficulty, which came partly from trying to figure out how to use the VB’s dual d-pads to block and aim punches effectively, but mostly from sudden, brutal spikes in opponent toughness and speed. Even so, this was still more about figuring out your opponents’ patterns than it was about actual brawling, meaning that victory, no matter how difficult, still came down to paying careful attention. Once you had that down, slamming a pair of floating gauntlets into metal faces could be remarkably satisfying.
As the only Virtual Boy action game starring Mario (whose only other red-and-black appearance was in the VB’s pack-in game, Mario’s Tennis), you’d think Mario Clash would have been a must-have at launch. Even then, however, this was a hard-sell concept on a hard-sell system. Essentially a remake of the original 1983 Mario Bros., Mario Clash featured a decidedly un-super Mario working to clear single-screen sewers of koopas, spinys, goombas and other small-fry monsters, mainly by hurling shells. Making matters worse, its 3D was seemingly limited to some perspective tricks with pipes and two layers of onscreen depth.
However, those who turned up their noses at this missed out. Whether 2D or 3D, this was still a Mario game. Developed by Yokoi’s R&D1 team (also responsible for the Mario Land games), Mario Clash seemed simple at first, as Mario jumped on turtles and simply threw their shells at spiked enemies, but it quickly got tougher. More puzzle game than action game, it actually made brilliant use of 3D, as most enemies could only be knocked out by shells thrown from a different plane of depth (and aiming shells from the foreground into the background, or vice versa, was a challenge). The level designs featured a huge amount of variety, and figuring each one out was enormously fun. As weird as this one was, we certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it make a comeback – maybe on the 3DS?