20 Years Of Virtual Boy (And Red Alarm)

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So the Virtual Boy turns 20 years old in Japan this week and a bunch of websites are doing stories on the history of the machine. I thought I might as well post my own brief experience with the platform. Despite its failure the Virtual Boy did seem really cool for a period of about a week, and to me is one of the most unique grasps at 3D graphics in a time when we were on the cusp of 3D graphics in video games.

To me, there’s something about the period between maybe 1993 when 3D grpahics were still being defined, and when Super Mario 64 came out and solidified them in my mind, that 3D had an oddly futuristic feeling to it that hasn’t precisely been replicated since. It was that time when the words “3D” and “virtual reality” brought up visions of The Lawnmower Man and Tron or something. It was when everything in 3D meant collections of wires or blocks assembled to look like characters, and only a small handful of games could render them which made each one a novelty. I felt like that era ended when new sheen of the PlayStation and N64 wore off and 3D became common. Even today I still really enjoy the look of games from the era of the SEGA Model 1 arcade board like the original Virtua Fighter or Wing War. I think that flat-shaded style looks more “pure” than most N64 games. Maybe they represent a sort of retro futurism to me. It’s why I’m able to go back and play games like Ultima Underworld for the first time and really enjoy their aesthetics.

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was an attempt to take all that and put it right into your eyes. I got to play it when my dad rented one from Blockbuster for a few days. He was the first to try it out and since the nature of the Virtual Boy didn’t let my brother and I actually see what was going on, we just stared at his head attached to that machine for 30 minutes as mysterious space blaster noises emanated from it. I think that increased the sense of mystery and appeal surrounding the Virtual Boy, however little. After my dad emerged with a ring imprinted around his eyes I got to play some Teleroboxer game I didn’t care too much for, and what I consider to be the single most relevant Virtual Boy game — Red Alarm.

I’m gonna confess that half the reason I’m even writing this blog is to bring attention to Red Alarm. It’s one of those little-known games that will always have a place with me. I liked it back then, and I’m sure I’d still like at least a part of it today. What surprises me is how little people talk about it when looking back on the Virtual Boy despite how representative it was of the platform’s vision.

Firstly, the early 3D feeling the original Star Fox nailed was cool in 1993 and is still cool today. Red Alarm was pretty much an attempt at Star Fox on the Virtual Boy. The actual game probably wasn’t as great as Star Fox but as far as I’m concerned it nailed the feeling. Just look at it.

Putting on a headset in 1995 and looking at wireframe graphics as you control a space ship and blast aliens pretty much entirely encapsulates that era of 3D rendering for which I have a peculiar sense of nostalgia. Even looking at that YouTube video today I like the look of the game. The title screen is slick, and the HUD fits in really well. Like Star Fox it tried to give off a sort of immersive feel which was augmented by the stereoscopic 3D. Oh, and I still listen to the soundtrack today: a classic example of good chiptune music if you ask me.

Maybe with some indie developers getting into retro 3D graphics these days we’ll see one try something kinda like Red Alarm for the Oculus Rift or something, or at least a space game with 3D graphics hearkening to the same era.

BULLETS:

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