When the Nintendo Virtual Boy hit stores back in August 1995 I was intrigued, but also skeptical. Nintendo Power had been hyping the machine as the best gaming experience ever (until the Nintendo 64's arrival, of course), but the steep price for an unfamiliar gaming experience wasn't something I was prepared to buy into just yet. I rented a unit from the local Blockbuster Video along with three launch titles: Mario's Tennis, Galactic Pinball, and Red Alarm. I set the rented unit up on my homework desk in my bedroom and spent the next three days starring into the red and black world of the Virtual Boy.
The games were sort of fun. Mario's Tennis was the strongest of the lot and was the game I spent the most time playing during the rental period. Galactic Pinball was an enjoyable diversion, but pinball games and their "missions" never really appealed to me. Red Alarm felt a little like StarFox Lite, and it's challenge factor kept me engaged when I wasn't sleeping off a game-induced headache. My verdict at the time was that the Virtual Boy was a fun experience, but until some better games were released I would save my $180 and wait.
Of course, the better games never came. As the weeks went by I watched the price of the new Virtual Boy begin to fall, first hitting $150 before the end of October and finally plummeting to a mere $20 in January 1996. I had considered buying one then, but after taking a look at the final game library, I passed. After all, what good is a game machine without good games to play? The wall of WaldenSoftware was packed with deeply discounted games, some even in Japanese such as a baseball title and Panic Bomber.
The years went by and new game consoles came and went. In 2003 I started to get an itch to play the old Virtual Boy again, even if the games weren't all that great. I shopped around eBay for a week until I found an antiques dealer who was trying to sell off a used Virtual Boy and four games. For a mere $50 the package was mine, complete with controller, AC adapter, and stand. The games - Virtual Boy Wario Land, Mario Clash, Mario's Tennis, and Teleroboxer - even came with manuals and boxes. I set the unit up on my coffee table and dived back into the red and black.
Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but the Virtual Boy actually seemed like a more fun experience at that moment than it did all those years ago. Wario Land is definitely the best of the bunch and took up the most play time, but Mario's Tennis and Mario Clash had me ensnared as well. Over the next two months I continued checking eBay for other games and before too long I had amassed a nice collection of games for the failed device, everything from the common Virtual League Baseball (so common the eBay seller sent me two copies for $2, one open for play and another sealed as a "collectable") to the more rare Jack Bros. I played through each and every game that came my way, not so much just for fun but to also to see just how the developers took advantage of the stereoscopic effects. The little library became more a collection than a game system, and although I don't play it everyday as I did after buying it, I still like to take it out of the box and put Wario through his paces from time to time.
The Virtual Boy is an odd little animal. It's Nintendo's only major hardware sales failure since the company dived into the world of home video games, and as time goes by the gaming community is filling up with players who were not even born yet when the system was released, let alone players who played one at the time they were the new toys on the block. I remember when Nintendo opened up their own official online forums they included a section devoted to Virtual Boy discussion, a section that quickly filled up with posts from younger gamers demanding information on this "new" Nintendo system.
I come here not to bury the Virtual Boy, but to praise it. It's a piece of hardware that was ahead of its time and not completely thought out very well during the planning phase of development. While it did not light the world on fire, it's certainly fun to play and a fun conversation piece. After I bought mine anyone who came to my home was mystified by it, and even my non-gaming grandfather wanted to give it a try. If you don't own a Virtual Boy I'd suggest that you seek one out sometime, and if you do own one then I ask that you treat it with care. It's an endangered species, one that definitely deserves great care and enjoyment from time to time. After all, what better way to play a video game than to completely escape into the game's reality and block the rest of the world from your field of view? When it comes to quirky game systems of yesterday, make yours Virtual. I do.