Unraveling the Enigma of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later
Twenty years ago, on August 21, 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in North America. The stilt-legged tabletop gaming console, which offered a unique red stereoscopic 3D display, attempted to ride a wave of popular interest in virtual reality. It was a risky, innovative gamble for Nintendo that didn’t pay off, leaving many to wonder why it existed in the first place.
According to some reports, the Virtual Boy sold roughly 770,000 units worldwide during its brief life span—and only 140,000 units in its native Japan. That might qualify as a success for a boutique toymaker, but by the 1990s, Nintendo had grown accustomed to megahits. The firm’s last console before the Virtual Boy, the Super Famicom, had sold at least 20 million units worldwide by 1995. The NES sold 61.9 Million units. The Game Boy, 40 million. And there, in the middle of this streak was the Virtual Boy with its statistically insignificant numbers. Those are the kinds of sales numbers Nintendo could rack up accidentally by coughing into a manufacturing plant.
Between Nintendo’s disinheritance of the platform and the death of its primary creator in a traffic accident in 1997, the Virtual Boy invites speculation, rumor, and myth like no other console. Why were red and black the only colors it could display? Did it cause headaches? Did it damage people’s vision? Where were the good games? Why didn’t it strap onto your head?