The rise and fall of Nintendo’s red console

Ars Technica

Nearly 30 years after the launch of the Virtual Boy, not much is publicly known about how, exactly, Nintendo came to be interested in developing what would ultimately become its ill-fated console.
Or was the Virtual Boy primarily the result of Nintendo going “off script” and seizing a unique, and possibly risky, opportunity that presented itself?
As it turns out, the Virtual Boy was not an anomaly in Nintendo’s history with video game platforms.
Dabbling in virtual reality?
It was the first best-selling general audience book on VR, beating Howard Rheingold’s watershed Virtual Reality by a few months.
Second, in the mid-1990s at least, Japanese VR research had an engineering emphasis rather than computer science like in the United States.
Prior to the release of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo designers and engineers expressed at least some interest in virtual reality.
According to Makino, Nintendo experimented with virtual reality prior to creating the Virtual Boy, but it found the experience unsatisfactory.


Not much is known about how exactly Nintendo became interested in developing what would ultimately become its ill-fated console, nearly thirty years after the Virtual Boy’s release. The answer is probably a little bit of both. Was Nintendo primarily the result of Nintendo going “off script” and seizing a unique, and possibly risky, opportunity that presented itself, or was it committed to VR as the future for video games and searching for technological solutions that made business sense?

It turns out that Nintendo’s history with video game platforms does not include the Virtual Boy as an anomaly. Rather, it was the outcome of a calculated plan that adhered to Nintendo’s methods and was influenced by the design philosophies of its principal creator, Gunpei Yokoi.

Playing around with virtual reality?

Virtual reality was gaining popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Japan was arguably at the forefront of this interest among the general public. The book Jinkō genjitsukan no sekai (The world of the feeling of artificial reality) by Hattori Katsura was released in May 1991. It outsold Howard Rheingold’s groundbreaking Virtual Reality by a few months to become the first best-selling book on VR for a general audience. According to the report, Japan was the country that “first repackaged VR as a consumer technology” and had the highest number of VR systems globally by 1991.

On the other hand, Japan did not present or accept virtual reality in the same manner as the US did. In Japan, virtual reality research emerged from a telecommunications context, whereas in the United States, it was primarily developed and motivated by military interests. Secondly, Japanese VR research, at least until the mid-1990s, focused more on engineering than computer science, unlike American research. Consequently, the availability of additional VR devices and experiences—such as those displayed in public demonstrations—shaped the Japanese public’s perception of virtual reality. When combined, these experiences and gadgets—which were labeled as “strange experiments” and “cool gadgets” in the US—may offer different perspectives on virtual reality’s potential as a medium.

Virtual reality was something that Nintendo engineers and designers were at least somewhat interested in before the Virtual Boy was released. For instance, Shigeru Miyamoto stated, “To start at the beginning, at the time [just before the creation of the Virtual Boy], I was interested in virtual reality and was one of the staff that went on and on about how we should do something with 3D goggles,” during an interview with Satoru Iwata regarding the development of the Nintendo autostereoscopic handheld Nintendo 3DS. I would discuss with Yokoi-san the possibility of using [3D] goggles, but I didn’t exactly twist his arm. “.

But nobody outside of Nintendo is aware of whether this curiosity resulted in internal research or the creation of early virtual reality systems. There are reports of research being conducted, mainly from secondhand sources. For instance, Benj Edwards interviewed Takefumi Makino, Gunpei Yokoi’s friend and biographer, during a period of time close to Yokoi’s 1997 passing while conducting research for a FastCompany article about the Virtual Boy. Makino claims that before developing the Virtual Boy, Nintendo experimented with virtual reality but was dissatisfied with the experience.

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