Giving The VirtualBoy A VGA Out

Nintendo’s VirtualBoy – the odd console-inside-a-pair-of-goggles  and arguable ancestor of Nintendo’s 3DS – was a marvelous piece of technology for its time. In a small tabletop unit, you were able to play true 3D video games at an impressive 384 x 224 pixel resolution. Of course the VirtualBoy was a complete failure, but that doesn’t mean hardware tinkerers are leaving this wonderful system to video game collectors. [furrtek] has been playing around with his VirtualBoy and managed to add VGA out.

As a 3D system with two displays, any sort of video out was rightfully ignored by the VirtualBoy system designers. Still, [furrtek] wanted some sort of video out on his system, so he began poking around with a small FPGA board to generate some VGA signals.

The two displays inside the VirtualBoy aren’t your normal LCD display – as seen in this iFixit teardown. they’re really two linear LED arrays that generate a single line of 244 pixels, with mirrors scanning the line in the in the Y axis. These LED arrays are controlled by the VirtualBoy CPU through a series of shift registers, and by carefully tapping the lines of each LED array, [furrtek] was able to copy all the image data into the RAM of an FPGA.

After stuffing an XESS XULA-200 FPGA board inside the case of his VirtualBoy, [furrtek] wired up a few resistors for a DAC and installed a VGA out port on the underside of his console. Everything worked the first time he powered it up, and he began playing his VirtualBoy on his big screen TV.

Because [furrtek] is only reading one of the VirtualBoy’s displays, all the 3D data – and the main feature of the VirtualBoy – is lost when it’s displayed on a TV. 3D TVs do exist, though, and we’d love to see an improved version of this that captures data from both of the VirtualBoy displays.

You can see [furrtek]’s video of his mod in action below.


19 thoughts on “Giving The VirtualBoy A VGA Out

    1. Wario Land is the standout among the system’s meager library. The fact that so few people have had a chance to play it is kinda sad.

      Teleroboxer, Vertical Force, Jack Bros, and Mario Clash are all decent, but not exactly system sellers. Red Alarm is interesting, but suffers from short draw distances and a lack of vector clipping(it can be very difficult to tell if you’re headed towards open space or a solid wall). 3D Tetris is, well, Tetris in 3D. I’ve never cared for it, though the presence of actual depth DOES make it easier than the versions I’ve played before(under the title Blockout).

      Sadly, the second wave of software never made it out, so they system is restricted basically to launch titles. No system’s launch titles show it off all that well.

      Unfortunately, the 2-bit monochrome display(leading to the “red Gameboy” slur that dogged it for its’ entire too-short life), well-known headache problems, big “don’t let kids under 7 play it, don’t let anyone play it more than a half hour without taking a break” warning, and putting Red Alarm in all the demo units for the first few months(wireframe graphics are cool, but weren’t exactly system-sellers in the late 90s) all combined to generate sluggish sales and a swift euthanization.

      I have a VB. I like it, though I’ll readily acknowledge it has a few major faults. System designer Gunpei Yokoi knew it, too. The system was forced out before he felt it was ready.

      1. I’m a huge fan of Red Alarm :P Also really really like Jack Bros, feels like it almost justifies the ridiculous price it goes for (or at least far more than Waterworld does).

        Also from the Japanese library, Space Squash is really good too. And I think Insmouse No Yakata is really cool. Still have to check out the Bound High repro I got at the start of the year actually…

    2. Oh man. Ages ago I remember being at Toys ‘R’ Us and looking for new gameboy games and we saw the VB in the glass case marked as “reduced! $50”. Who’s pass that up? I played that thing for ages, even wired in an AC adaptor into the battery pack myself. And yes, Wario Land was fantastic.

  1. Well done! It was an interesting article and the builder went all the way on this one :) Keep up the good work :) I had no idea about the complex led scan display system and now have some more reading to do :)

    1. These displays were common in the “google Glass” of the day that Thad Starner was using. It was sold as the “private eye” personal display back then and Nintendo licensed the tech from them. Most of Thad’s students used that display.

      1. Well, not entirely. There’s a vertical strip of LEDs, and a mirror that scans them back and forth across the viewing field. Same way the Entex Adventurevision worked back in the 80s, as Google reminds me from the fragments floating around my memory. Dunno where I’d be without the ability to half-remember stuff and have Google do the rest. I might even get me some of them glasses, maybe with a bit of Blu-Tak over the camera.

        Anyway yeah that wasn’t the main problem. There were two. First was the NEC V810 CPU at 20MHz really wasn’t up to rendering much in 3D. Ataris and Amigas had done better with less, but they didn’t suffer the second problem…

        The stupid, stupid, STUPID tile-mapped display! Same display almost every 8- and 16-bit console, and most 2D arcade machines, used. Same sort of thing as character-mapping. There were a few layers with priority for overlapping, and each layer could be given an offset between the left and right screens. The offsets allowed for the layers to appear further forward or back in 3D space.

        So the display was like a cheap theatre set. 3 or 4 layers of flat cardboard-like scenery. Nothing in-between layers, so no real 3D at all. With all the sacrifices made to get a 3D display in there, they didn’t think to put in the obvious necessity, a bitmap display! So the only game with real 3D, Red Alarm, used unclipped wireframe graphics with very few lines. Presumably because of the bother of translating vectors into tile maps.

        So nearly all the games looked like Gameboy games, but with layers of graphics popping out at you. A pop-up book is another good analogy. Even if it’d had the CPU power to run Doom, the display would never allow it. Shame cos Wolfenstein might’ve been possible on that CPU.

        I’ve NO IDEA why the usually clever people at Nintendo let this monstrosity pass. It could’ve been so GOOD! But to cripple it with stupid graphics mode is unfathomable. I know toward the end, Nintendo tried to kill it, with Gunpei Yokoi, a respected engineer from the early days, having to use a lot of personal influence to push it through.

        Anyway, to conclude, tile maps! Why? WHY!?!? It had SO MUCH POTENTIAL!

        Oh yeah, only 4 shades of red, altogether, that’s the other work of genius… 4!

        1. Looking up further, it even had the ability to stretch and skew sprites! The Atari Lynx used the same ability to generate 3D-ish graphics, and for the Sega Saturn that was most of what ended up as the improvised polygon engine! But because of the stupid layered tile-map, it was no use at all! Gaaah! There must be a level of hell somewhere where marketing executives and hardware engineers argue over the VB forever.

          If anyone has any good info on why this apparent insanity happened, I’d be seriously interested to know.

    1. Tried it, but unfortunately the 3D separation is way too pronounced, the depth works about right on very far sprites but the nearer ones just appear as doubles. As it’s a rendering problem, I’m afraid we can’t do much about it without reprogramming the game…

    2. There’s already at least one VB emulator available for the PC. Coloured glasses are one mode it supports for 3D, as well as over-under, left-right, and whatever the common formats are for the few 3D glasses / headsets available for the PC.

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