Monday, February 20, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #51

Virtual Boy Collection

There's something to be said about the gullibility of a teenaged brand loyalist.

But I ain't gonna say it. Instead, I'm going to tell you about my history with Nintendo's ill-fated Virtual Boy--the curiously designed stereoscopic 3D device that was sold to us as a "virtual reality simulator."

Now, I don't think that there's any need for me to provide a detailed retrospective on the Virtual Boy's history. You all know how that horror story unfolded. And it's not like you could forget about how badly the platform failed. I mean, you're reminded about it all the time: You see its story regurgitated on a weekly basis in those "video game's biggest blunders" videos. Its name is cynically invoked whenever game journalists form round tables to discuss the prospects for a newly announced Nintendo system. And tech blogs constantly reference it as a major misstep in the evolution of VR technology. As has become the norm, the mere mention of its brand is met with mocking and derision.

In short: The Virtual Boy was modern Nintendo's first high-profile commercial failure, its disastrously short run working to all at once tarnish the company's name, sully its reputation, and precipitate the loss of one of its greatest assets (more on this later).

For me, the Virtual Boy's tale was one of a red-tinted, disembodied-Johnny-5-lookin' oddity that took up residence on my dining room table for a few months before it decided to abruptly split without giving me any notice. It arrived with great fanfare, it bragged of its potential, and then it was suddenly gone. And I didn't understand why. As I was provided no explanation, all I could do was concoct theories: Maybe the big games had been delayed. Perhaps Nintendo was short on development resources because its teams were currently preoccupied with some other 3D project. It couldn't have been that the system had failed or anything as serious. There was no point in even considering such a possibility. I mean, this was Nintendo we were talking about--the company that ruled the video-game market!

I wouldn't discover the true nature of the Virtual Boy's inexplicably brief run until a few years later, when I read about its quick and ugly death in an unbiased publication (because lord knows that Nintendo Power wasn't going to inform me of the gory details). For someone who believed Nintendo to be infallible, the news that one of its products had failed spectacularly was pretty tough to swallow. I couldn't fathom how a company that had done so well to court third parties to its 8- and 16-bit systems could allow for its product to go entirely unsupported.

But let's rewind the tape a bit. Let's go back to a time when I was largely ignorant about the VR scene.

Now, virtual reality wasn't a concept that ever really held great appeal to me. Simulating the effect of moving around in a three-dimensional space sounded wild, sure, but it was my perception that the means for experiencing VR were a concerning combination of cumbersome and claustrophobic--too much so to be fun. That was the impression I got from watching other people demo VR units: Whenever I'd walk through any of our local malls, I'd always pass by a booth that housed one of those rather-involved virtual reality machines whose use required that you stand within a rubberized enclosure, don a ridiculously large headset, and hold what looked to be a plastic staple gun; I'd observe that the kids who were testing it out were flailing about as if they were labeling food products while on fire.

I didn't know what game they were playing or what their actions were meant to simulate because I never got the chance to experience it for myself. And, really, I didn't care to. There were a variety of reasons for this: (1) The lines of people were too long. (2) I was a bit self-conscious about how I'd look when I was jumping around while wearing that oversized gear. And (3) I thought it looked just plain uncomfortable.

Of course, everyone, including my brother and his friends, would tell me how amazing VR was and that it was the future of how we'd interact with video games, and I had no reason not to believe them, yet I couldn't shake that feeling of indifference. All I could see were the technology's limitations. Also, I was worried about what its proliferation might mean for the types of games I enjoyed playing (2D platformers, side-scrolling action games, single-screen puzzles, etc.) "Will all of these genres find themselves casualty to the industry's 'inevitable' shift to three-dimensional virtual space?" I wondered.

That's why I was particularly moved when Nintendo Power Volume 68 arrived with comprehensive coverage of the recently announced Virtual Boy (called "VR32" in the previous issue's first-look feature). I already owned a Game Boy and an SNES; and the N64, which I was going to purchase regardless of the misplaced resentment I held for it (see my Super Mario 64 piece for details), was on its way, so I didn't see where there was room in my life for a fourth system. "How in the world can I be expected to keep up with the releases for four separate platforms?" I nervously contemplated.

Yet there was also little comfort to be found in the theorized alternate scenario where the Virtual Boy was meant to be a successor to the Game Boy (it did have "Boy" in its name, after all). I had absolutely no desire to see one of my all-time favorite systems replaced by some stationary 3D device whose values were entirely incompatible with portable gaming's!

Either way, thinking about how the Virtual Boy would impact me as a consumer induced only feelings of stress.

Don't get me wrong: The Virtual Boy's technology sounded incredible, and the graphics on display in those screenshots, though a bit jarring in their overwhelming redness, looked pretty damn impressive (obviously, I can see now, thanks to the questionable marketing practice of using prototype images to falsely represent what the hardware was realistically capable of rendering), but it was difficult for me to buy into the hype when my sense was that the company was being purposely vague about which space this device was meant to fill. Of course, I was going to buy one, anyway, because I had no choice if I desired to keep up with Nintendo's game output, but I'd be doing so with my eye on the future, since I wasn't terribly interested in any of the launch games that were being previewed in Nintendo Power Volume 75. "Where are Zelda and Metroid?" I wondered as I flipped through the pages. "If this is a major Nintendo system, then shouldn't they be there at release?"

Also, I recalled seeing images of a traditional Mario platformer in a previous issue, yet, strangely, it hadn't been mentioned since. Surely it was still in development and would be formally announced in an upcoming issue, I figured, and its subsequent release would no doubt mark the start of a second wave of more-substantial Virtual Boy releases! And if I could reason that all of the big franchises would inevitably be there, then I had to own the system.

So during the week of its release--late July, 1995--I put into action my foolproof plan for obtaining a Virtual Boy as quickly and cleanly possible: Mainly, I sent my poor father out to scour all of Brooklyn in search of one. Now, I wasn't expecting him to come home with a Virtual Boy on the very first day, seeing as how it was presumably a hot new product, but there he was in the hallway with that funky red and blue box in hand. And according to what the reps at Toys "R" Us told him, he was lucky to get one, since the system was actually in high demand. Hearing him say those words helped to alleviate some of my apprehension, and suddenly I felt more comfortable with my decision to drop two big bills on this unproven technology. After all--selling through all of its initial shipments had to mean that the Virtual Boy was going to be a success, so there was no longer any reason for me to fear for its future prospects!

My naivety knew no bounds.

Normally new systems would find their way into my room upstairs, but the Virtual Boy was a special case; as its use required a flat surface and a certain degree of elevation, I assembled it atop our dining room table, which is where it remained until its permanent boxing sometime during the spring months of 1996. Much of the time in between was spent waiting for confirmation of big-name titles and Nintendo's explanation for how and where the Virtual Boy fit into the picture. There was no reward for my patience: No such information ever arrived, and the future I'd envisioned never came to be.

All I could do was focus on the games I had. There were five of them in total, all purchased within a two-week span. Why don't you join me as I run through my small collection and provide some quick thoughts on how I felt about each game?

For Nintendo systems, Mario's Tennis was just about the last of its kind--a pack-in game meant to serve as a proof of concept (since then, only Wii Sports has functioned in that role). It was the game I played the most. And it did its job: I was quite impressed with how the Virtual Boy created a sense of depth; as I ran around the court with Mario and friends, I could swear that there was a tangibility to its space. I wasn't even bothered by the all-red display; no--I thought it imbued the system with an unmistakable personality. Though it had its share of aesthetic shortcomings, the Virtual Boy was able to convey a unique sense of atmosphere; it helped that the tonal quality of its sound and music seemed to be inherited from the familiar Game Boy, whose aesthetic qualities were so nostalgic to me (and the presence of such had me convinced that the Virtual Boy was indeed its successor).

In the case of Mario's Tennis, that distinctly "portable" ambiance was what shaped my memories of the game. If nothing else, I'll always remember how its the remindful tones of its soundtrack worked in tandem with its imagination-stoking backgrounds to produce a purely nostalgic video-game atmosphere. The most memorable combos belonged to Luigi's course, with its night-lit pipe-works, and Princess Toadstool's, whose chief visual was the castle we'd one day explore in full.

And you know somethin'? It was a damn good tennis game. I hadn't played many of them over the years, so my frame of reference was rather limited, but I felt confident in thinking that Mario's Tennis was among the deepest of their kind. I played it mainly in Doubles mode, since having more players made for more frantic action. Also, I always found tennis games more fun when you could assign posts (one player covers the baseline while the other patrols the net) and use all of a court's space.

I won't say that Mario's Tennis was good enough to convince me of the Virtual Boy's staying power, but it was a fine proof of concept, and it proved that the platform was certainly capable of smoothly rendering 3D games. It also helped me to confirm that I wasn't susceptible to any of virtual reality's potential side effects (not headaches, vomiting or brain death). Thank you, lucky stars. (Though, I would never become comfortable with the idea of pressing my face into that neoprene eyepiece and essentially staying glued to it, since remaining still for too long made me antsy.)

I'd say that Galactic Pinball was the best of the five games I owned. And I put a decent amount of time into it. It had some of the best table gimmicks I'd ever seen, and the accompanying sound design was superb. In fact, I was surprised that such an outstanding soundtrack would be reserved for a pinball game of all things. The music's cosmic, alien vibes were such that it would have fit well in a Metroid game, which makes sense when you consider that the composer was Kenji Yamamoto, who worked on Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime games (including, coincidentally, Metroid Prime Pinball).

My favorite table was Cosmic and for one reason in particular: it featured a Metroid-themed mini-game! That's right: If you could destroy all of the upper-right bumpers after activating "Bumper Clash," the action would then shift to mid-screen, where you'd take control of Samus' gunship and earn points by blasting away familiar series enemies (Wavers, Skrees, Metroids, etc.), horizontal-shooter-style, as they swooped down from above. Sadly, any single collision would end the mini-game and usually all too soon; my desire to replay it was all the incentive I'd need to feverishly work to reactivate "Bumper Clash" and again destroy those bumpers. There was also the added bonus of getting to hear that wonderfully snazzy version of Super Metroid's storyline intro that would play throughout.

Everything's better with Metroid, after all.

It's games like Mario Clash that make me sad when platforms fail. Though, Mario Clash's case is especially tragic because, to me, it represented the last hope for the return of single-screen arcade-style platformers, which looked to be headed for extinction after all current industry competitors had released their 16-bit systems.

Mario Clash is basically a spiritual successor to Mario Bros. (though limited to a single player for obvious reasons). The goal is to continue advancing up through Clash Tower by clearing its pipe-filled levels of Koopas, Sidesteppers, Snakes, Thornies, Big Boos, and all of the other pesky critters that infest it. Of the five games, I thought that Clash had the most fun with the element of depth, its levels requiring that you travel back and forth between the background and foreground and take out enemies by tossing shells across all planes and axes. Dare I say I liked it more than Mario Bros.?

While Mario Clash may not have been the most graphically striking of the bunch, it's the game whose visual style I'll remember best. Hearing or seeing its name mentioned never fails to instantly conjure mental images of gradient-textured pipes stretching in all directions. It's a shame that Nintendo didn't continue the series elsewhere and use Mario Clash as the foundation; a multiplayer sequel directly in the mold of Clash would surely have offered hours of fun, frantic arcade action, as did the series' progenitor. Instead the concept and the series died with the Virtual Boy.

Such is the fate of hidden gems that find themselves married to failed platforms.

Really, I don't remember who was responsible for the purchases of Teleroboxer and Red Alarm (if I had to guess, I'd say that my brother picked them up on the cheap at a local electronics store). The former looked more interesting to me because its graphics bore a strong resemblance to Punch-Out!!'s (making it yet another spiritual successor produced by Gunpei Yokoi and pals).

It played similarly to Punch-Out!!, yes, but I just couldn't get a sense for its more-involved punching and dodging mechanics. In fact, I don't think I ever landed a single blow. Like the games that inspired it, Teleroboxer featured a strong visual presentation, yet it lacked their noted accessibility: There were too many inputs, the fighting system was too complex, and the action required too much movement on the player's part. I played it for maybe fifteen minutes, tops, before giving up.

I devoted even less time to the wire-framey Red Alarm, which was simply inexplicable to me. I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be about, nor did I have any idea what it wanted me to do--this even after reading the manual. I wasn't a fan of space shooters (3D or otherwise) or spaceship simulators, so there was little chance that it would have resonated with me even if I had put in the effort to decipher its riddle.

And that was the extent of my experiences with the Virtual Boy. I didn't buy any additional games for the platform, nor did I ever consider doing so. Part of the problem was that Nintendo Power wasn't giving me anything to work with; in fact, it wasn't long before the magazine stopped covering the Virtual Boy entirely, which left me completely in the dark. Thus, I was left to wonder about whether or not games of any caliber were still coming to system. Nintendo offered nothing but radio silence; it was though the Virtual Boy had never been. I didn't care to theorize that it had failed or that the mighty Nintendo had spectacularly blundered (at the time, I wouldn't have believed it to be capable of such) because my attention had already started shifting elsewhere. 

It wouldn't be long before the N64 was revolutionizing the console space in a way that made me forget all about what's-its-name (you know--the disembodied Johnny 5 head ... thing). And I'm sure that's just the way Nintendo wanted it.

Still, for our friends at Nintendo, there's no escaping the Virtual Boy's dark legacy. The media will ensure that its calamitous tale is never forgotten--that its stain remains permanent--and detractors will forever use the device's failure as ammunition against the company. Whether or not its truly worthy of being regarded as such, the Virtual Boy will continue to be the industry's symbol for futility.

Yet, in my view, the biggest tragedy in all of this is not that Nintendo's image was damaged or that its financials took a hit but that Gunpei Yokoi was scapegoated for its failure and pushed out of the company. I see it as Yokoi being hung out to dry by a company that was equal parts disorganized and dysfunctional. I mean, where was the support? When I look up information for Nintendo-published Virtual Boy games, I find that only Yokoi and his team were working on them. Where were Miyamoto and the rest of Nintendo's development teams? Where was the communication? Where were the big-name games? It's a shame that Japanese culture functions as such that a man who contributed so much to both the company (Game & Watch, Game Boy, Metroid, the Super Mario Land games, and so many other successful products) and the industry at large could be treated in such a cold manner. And all I can think about, now, is how much better the video-game world would be had events not played out the way they did. 

What a waste.

I'm reminded that I've been meaning to look into his post-Nintendo creation, the WonderSwan, for some time now. I'd be thrilled if Nintendo were to help my cause by acknowledging its existence and working with Bandai Namco to bring some of its games to the Virtual Console service. More than anything, introducing the WonderSwan to its longtime customers would go a long way toward reminding them of Yokoi's genius.

For that matter, I hope that Nintendo finds the courage to face its demons and bring those Virtual Boy games out the shadows. Put them, also, on the Virtual Console, where they belong. You might argue that a system whose library measures in at a paltry 22 games isn't worth the effort to emulate, but I'd counter by saying that a company like Nintendo should spare no expense to preserve its history and keep its older products relevant. He who controls the past controls the future, after all. And besides--some of those games are really good! Particularly, I'd like to get the chance to play Wario Land, which is said to be the system's best game--its most fully realized creation. Should the opportunity present itself, I might even feel inclined to give Wario Land the "Unearthed Treasures" treatment!

It'd be too bad if the likes of Wario Land, Galactic Pinball and Mario Clash wound up lost to history because the company that produced them was too prideful to evoke images of a platform that failed two decades ago. So what if the journalists see their re-release as an opening to speak of bad omens and draw up flimsy parallels? Screw them, I say. Own your mistakes. Diminish their ability to spread fear and uncertainty in the name of generating clicks.

"So where do you stand on the Virtual Boy, Mr. Journo-Hater?" you ask.

Hey now--I don't hate anyone or anything. Certainly I have no ill feelings for the Virtual Boy. Though it failed in the marketplace, and I didn't get a whole lot of use out of it, I don't regret owning one. Oh, no--I would never take pride in missing out on a video-game system, no matter how much the public shuns or how plagued with shortcomings it is. I love the fact that so many disparate platforms exist; I feel enriched whenever I take the time to play their uniquely presented, distinctly designed games. It's for that reason that I fondly recall my experiences with Virtual Boy's games though there weren't a great many of them. I liked them so much, in fact, that I didn't want to miss the chance to write this piece and tell you about them.

That's just who I am: a guy who can't help but view the world through rose-colored glasses.

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