Virtual Boy at 25 – Reflection, Lament, and Gratitude
As a young child, my desire for video games did not always align with my parents’ desire to spend money on video games. Consequently, my early gaming experiences consisted primarily of stand up Atari-based video games at restaurants. Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt for NES were a luxury I indulged in when visiting my out-of-state cousins (whose parents were obviously cooler and more successful than mine).
Eventually my parents realized video games were a relatively cheap baby-sitter and purchased themselves freedom. The Super Nintendo appeared under the Christmas tree one mid-1990s December morning, and my life was complete. I would run home from the bus stop every day after school and immediately become one with the system. My parents had to surgically detach the control from my hand and physically remove me from the living room to eat dinner.
Sort of like this, but less blurry and without a price tag…*
Tragedy struck in the fall of 1998. Our home was robbed, and I was forced to say farewell to the Super Nintendo and my vast catalog of games far too soon. By this time, Nintendo 64 was all the rage, and the Super NES wasn’t easily replaced. The N64 we bought with the insurance money was a lovely experience, but my classically trained heart still yearned for the games of yesteryear.
I caught wind of Virtual Boy’s existence on a dusty clearance shelf at the back of the local K-Mart. My naïve pre-teen self did absolutely zero research before accepting this mysterious machine as an avenue to relive the Super Nintendo experience. I had never touched one nor played one, but based on the package’s graphics, I knew this was the answer.
My eyes are already burning!
My parents had no justification or inclination to invest in this golden gaming opportunity on my behalf. Always thinking of others, I petitioned my mom to buy it as a gift for my dad. How that logic worked is beyond me, but it did, and the system was in the family.
We opened the box together and spent what felt like hours assembling the precarious wire frame stand. Once the goggles were attached to the base, we spent another significant period of time adjusting the stand to get the goggles positioned to a height and depth that wouldn’t cause scoliosis. Pressing through the uncertainty of not knowing when we were actually going to play was certainly a character building exercise.
The finished product.*
Finally, it was go time. We inserted Wario Land into the machine and turned it on. Contrary to the Hollywood portrayal of virtual reality (and my imagination of what might take place inside those goggles), Virtual Boy did not transport me to a new existence. It was more akin to playing Game Boy with a high-contrast red-and-black screen. But rather than playing from a comfortable distance, you’re holding it an inch away from your pupil.
Side note: There was a widespread irrational fear that any flashy kids’ entertainment could cause a seizure in the late 1990s. This fear was primarily associated with rising popularity of Powerpuff Girls (and Pokemon – Ed.), but overprotective parents projected this onto most multimedia experiences. Virtual Boy was no exception.
Wario doesn’t give a DAMN about your health problems.*
Seizures, headaches, eye strain, I didn’t care. I swept the potential health risks under the rug and ignored any pain, hopeful that the Virtual Boy experience would transform my life.
After a few months of occasional gaming sessions, the reality of the situation began to set in. Wario Land was not and would never be the same game as Super Mario World. Each Virtual Boy indulgence left me with a mild headache and moderate disappointment. We bought a few more games out of panicked desperation, knowing it was our last chance to get games at all and control the outcome of this experience.
I faintly recall themes from rest of our modest Virtual Boy library, but specific names and details are foggy. A golf game – a game I would never choose to play on any other system, or in real life – comes to mind. Another with rockets or fighter planes sounds familiar. These games were too confusing, too obscure, or too slow to hold the attention of a brain defined by instant gratification.
Golf and Vertical Force, respectively.*
We packed up the system and put in storage where it sat forgotten, year after year, move after move. Several years after my dad passed away, I knew it was time to clean house. There was no practical utility in keeping the Virtual Boy. A part of my soul was torn all the way to Goodwill. Admitting to my inner child that his dreams surrounding Virtual Boy would never come to fruition was a punch to the gut.
There is a silver lining to this seemingly depressing tale. Retrospectively, the Virtual Boy experience taught me – and, I imagine, many other disappointed children – some important life lessons. For that alone, its existence should not be discredited.
By engaging with Nintendo’s biggest failure, I understood that expectations and hope are not always fulfilled by what’s inside the flashy box. Virtual Boy taught me on an experiential level that actual reality is not always in alignment with the picture we paint inside our mind. The ability to be self-aware, humble, and content beyond circumstances were difficult, beneficial lessons to learn.
Retrospectively, giving up the Virtual Boy, along with a subsection of my identity, after close to twenty years was the most meaningful part of the whole experience. While the years spent with my beloved Super Nintendo were certainly more exciting, my time spent with Virtual Boy was far more influential. The ability to enjoy life in light of my understanding from the Virtual Boy experience, without expectation, present and unencumbered, has been priceless. For this freedom, Nintendo, I am grateful.
*pictures/screenshots courtesy of Calico Gaming, Makeuseof, Nintendo Insider, Fastcompany, and Vizzed.