How Did The Nintendo Virtual Boy Work?

What do you know about the Nintendo Virtual Boy? Everybody knows that it was the console giant’s mid-90s foray into 3D graphics and VR, and that it was a commercial flop. Sickness and headache-inducing graphics are probably first to mind, and that’s it. But since most of us will never have handled one in real life, all we have on this legendary console is this Received Opinion. What was it Really like? [Rodrigo Copetti] has put up a detailed technical examination, and it reveals a machine well ahead of its time in more than just the market it was trying to create.

The first surprise is that this machine eschews the expected LCD screens that were the norm on handheld consoles of the day, instead using a persistence-of-vision display with a single vertical bar of LEDs facing a vibrating mirror through a lens system. He goes into significant detail on how this system worked, and in doing so gives us a new respect for the console.

The meat of this article lies though in a detailed look at the console’s architecture. The NEC V810 CPU was significantly more powerful than those in other portable consoles of the day, and we get a peek of how it and the custom silicon handled the graphics. The GPU had dual framebuffers for each display to ensure each frame could be delivered smoothly while the next one was being created.

Everything that can be said about the Virtual Boy in the marketplace has been done to death, leading to the received opinion we mentioned at the start of the article. This write-up provides new information on one of Nintendo’s rarer machines and casts it in an entirely new light.

There have been understandably few Virtual Boy projects that have made it to these pages. One that has, was a VGA interface for the console.

Via Hacker News.

42 thoughts on “How Did The Nintendo Virtual Boy Work?

  1. i got to play one of these which was set up as a demo at a retail store. i was actually rather impressed. but the thing completely flopped before i could beg mom to get me one.

    if they weren’t incredibly rare (and rarer still to find one that works) i think it would be worth it to upgrade the display to rgb leds. thats a hack i want to see.

    1. While RGB would be a cool hack, the game is still monochrome. Maybe white (grey) leds would be Nice. I guess red was used as they are Easter on the eyes? Also white LEDs where probably not yet a thing …

      1. a much simpler mod I’d like to see is replacing the right eye LEDs with GREEN! the games would still play without need for alteration, and the contrast would make it easier to distinguish between layers.

    2. I bought a Virtual Boy and played it quite a bit. Since there was no way to strap it to your head (not that you would want to, at probably 4 pounds…) I would usually lay on my bed and put it on my face. The 3D effects were visually stunning (for over 25 years ago now) and I remember thinking “Wow… when they finally figure out how to do this in COLOR, it will be AMAZING!”. It was fun, but due to how quick public interest seemed to “flame out”, there just weren’t enough good games to support the system. I carefully packed it away, with my games, and it sat for nearly 20 years. A few years ago, I came across the box, unpacked everything and plugged it in… be damned, it STILL WORKED! After maybe 15 minutes of playing with it, I packed it back up (making the contents more clearly noted on the box this time) and put it back in the closet. Maybe in another 5 or 10 years I’ll give it to my kid (possibly grandkids by then) – or just sell it. I’ve had my fun with it… hopefully someone else can have some with it, too. =)

        1. No, unfortunately. I have every Nintendo console and Handheld from the NES through the Gamecube / Gameboy Advance erea… but no boxes. I wish I had them, but lack of foresight (and lack of storage space in my 20’s) prevented that.

        2. I just read this article and I do have one that still works in its original box with all contents. One of my kids is begging me to take it out from the garage to play with the “mythical creature”, the virtual boy. Why “mythical creature”? Everyone hears or knows about, but no one has seen one in person. Rather skeptical about taking the step to let the kid use it…

      1. One thing that can be said for Nintendo consoles is that they are incredibly durable. My brother has an NES that was half melted from a house fire it was salvaged from and it still ran. I’ve heard of Gameboys being run over by cars and still working. They’ll probably survive a nuclear war so the mutant cockroaches have something to play once we’ve all killed ourselves off ;)

    3. I rented one from Blockbuster (RIP) for my birthday when I was a kiddo. I actually was very impressed! I never got dizzy and played a Starfox like game with it. I was a big fan. I only had it for like a day, but that was when I first started dreaming of next gen VR (that wouldn’t satisfy again until Vive).

  2. When I was a kid none of my friends had a VB. The only experience I had was a demo unit at blockbuster playing the tennis game. I remember a bit of wow factor but that’s it, and nothing like the wow of using modern VR headsets with modern graphics.

      1. Oh, no. Tri-color LEDs had been around forever at that point. A Red LED with a Green LED wired in reverse, and with AC, could produce yellow. I remember my Dad, who spent his life as “just a tech”, but in a just world would have been an EE from a major school, saying in the early 90’s: “whoever develops a workable blue LED will rule the world, because that’s all it would take to produce the entire spectrum.”

    1. I have one I think it failed because it was not portable. You had to play it while it was connected to it’s base. Which meant you had to lay down proper up on your elbows. It was not comfortable, it gave some people seizures, it was red and black vector graphics in an an age where full color was the norm. The battery pack would come disconnected at inopportune times loses all progress. It was the first massed produced VR console on the market I refused to sell mine even when I was offered 500 USD I think I’m insane.

      1. It was not VR it was just a stereoscopic display like the TomyTronic 3D toy released 12 years earlier. The first mass produced VR headset for consoles was the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster released in 1993, which supported the Nintendo Super NES and the Sega Genesis.

  3. I had one as well (as an adult. Local WallMart had a massive price dump on new old stock from some warehouse. This was long after it left the market. I think i got it for like $20. They only had two games for it though.)

    Games i had were meh.

    And batteries lasted about as long as it took to get eye sore and sick (about 15 minutes).

    Batteries in the controller made it heavy to hold. I ended up wiring a dc plug to the battery case.

    Always wanted to open it up but by then Nintendo was using their special screws andi never coud find a driver. Eventually it went to the trash. Sad. It would be worth something now.

  4. I remember when I first saw the VB on a demo display at our local hypermarket showing a game called Red Alert – a true 3D wireframe spaceship game – I was blown away. I couldn’t wait to go back to the store just so I could play it again, because I was unlikely to ever have one at home due to its price. It wasn’t long before it was discontinued, and its price kept dropping until I was able to pick one up on clearance for $30 or so. Included with the system was Mario Tennis, which was sprite-based like most of the [few] games that were released for it. My dad did eventually pick up a copy of Red Alert for me. That game teleported me to another virtual world unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced at the time.

    Since it chewed through 6 AA batteries which were too pricey for my parent’s liking, and the adapter accessory was rare by that point, I found a 9V wall wart, cut off the barrel jack, stripped the wires, and wrapped them around the power contacts between the battery holder and the battery holder slot on the controller (kind of weird how Nintendo did that).

    I recall being able to see the oscillation of the mirrors, especially during power up/down. Many years later, I destructively tore it down (unsurprising) because I didn’t have the special Nintendo bits. There was no good reason to do that since, by that time, there were plenty of teardowns online. Guess I just had to see for myself.

    Most people I knew complained about the display being red and black. Sure, it’s true that it was only red and black, but what always struck me as ironic is that they were still happily playing on their original Game Boy with its terrible LCD (ok, the GameGear was released around that time, but the Nintendo Color wouldn’t come out for roughly another 4 years). Its main problems, imo, is that it really wasn’t a portable system in the handheld sense, and it was very expensive – both things that were inherent in its design and could not be fixed.

    I really liked the system, and still consider it the coolest and most unique gaming console, but then again, I’m kind of weird. That said, it should come as no surprise that I was also a Kickstarter backer of the original Oculus Rift.

    1. I loved the virtual boy, but you’d it marketed it’s self as a full virtual reality system. When in fact it was a vector graphics 3d system. I loved it for what it was, but it lied about what it was.

      1. It has never been marketed as a full virtual reality system but as a 3D Display Game System both on the box and in the ads. It’s only recently that “tech journalists” did say so with the revival of VR in recent years because it made for catchy narratives.

  5. I loved my virtual boy! I would play it for hours. Never once gave me a headache or made me sick. Tetherboxing, probably spelling it wrong, was my fav game on it. I really wish they had good be emulators for it. I owned every game sold for that beautiful system. If Nintendo made a vboy classic, I would buy it in a heartbeat.

    Or maybe just make a vboy vr case you drop the switch into? Like make it 100% the same build but allow the switch to drop in it and let it come with all the old games in one package.

  6. I tried one once in one of the standup store displays. Must have been the Red Alert game because it was flying a spaceship. I found it to be slow with sluggish control response and one LED was dead so there was a blank line across the display.

  7. Considering that a colour pocket TV cost roughly $300 to $400 in the mid 1990’s and something like the Virtual Boy would have basically been two slapped together with the console electronics in a case, it’s pretty clear why the went with a mechanically more complex, but vastly cheaper row of red LEDs with a scanning mirror. A price of something like $800 to $1000 ($1500 to $2000 inflation adjusted for 2021) to would have been required to make a reasonable return on each unit, instead of the $179.95 ($325.85 inflation adjusted for 2021) it was actually released for.
    That’s also the main reasonreason VR headsets were essentially unbotanium for mere mortals, until the price of the components required had dropped enough that the retail price of rthe Occulus Rift was $599 ($330 in 1995 dollars) in 2016.

  8. I’ve got a virtual boy. Bought one on eBay a while back. Didn’t experience eye strain and the visuals for the time would have been impressive. However on major overlooked Point with the VB is the sound quality really impressive immersive speakers on the system.

  9. I bought one with my hard earned babysitting money back when I was a kid. Looooved it! But it flopped and so never really collected any games for it…. Held onto it for a few years then threw it out… I’ve if by biggest regrets. Really wish I’d kept it.

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