Virtual reality – or, as the cool kids these days like to call it, VR – famously died a long, slow death many years ago only to resurrected in recent years thanks to devices such as the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. It’s perhaps a little too early to brand it a full-scale comeback; the support of the mainstream player will be essential and the high cost of entry could make it a niche proposition, at least in the short term. Ironically, if there’s one company that has the power to turn the casual player on to VR once more, it’s the one which has historically been the most dismissive of the tech.
However, that could be changing, as Nintendo seemed to confirm last week that it is “looking into” virtual reality; President Tatsumi Kimishima even went as far as to call it an “interesting technology” in a recent earnings call.
Of course, it’s wrong to suggest that Nintendo has only just woken up to the potential of VR – in fact, it could be argued that the company was one of the first to enter this particular space, although the results were far from successful. Nintendo tried to bring an affordable virtual reality headset to consumers in 1995 and named it the Virtual Boy, yet it stands as the firm’s most epic commercial failure.
Early television commercials optimistically branded it “the first stereo immersive 32-bit game system ever” that was apparently “so advanced it can’t be viewed on conventional TV or LCD screens.” To entice gamers the curious-looking contraption launched with Mario’s Tennis, giving Nintendo fans the chance to see Mario return serves in red LED imagery that players would eventually complain wasn’t anywhere realistic enough.
Strangely for a Nintendo console, it arrived to little fanfare. The spectacle was so embarrassing for the company that creator Gunpei Yokoi – arguably one of Nintendo’s most important employees and the brains behind the Game & Watch and Game Boy – was treated like an outcast by president Hiroshi Yamauchi, eventually leaving under a cloud to begin work on the Bandai WonderSwan, a rival handheld which would attempt to challenge Nintendo’s dominance of the portable arena.
Once users began to suffer headaches using the Virtual Boy, development problems and poor third party support were the least of Nintendo’s concerns. The console was a rare stain on the company’s copybook, and within the space of a year was being heavily discounted by retailers. It’s therefore unsurprising that the Kyoto veteran has been so cagey about the technology ever since – it got its fingers burnt badly.
In truth, the world simply wasn’t ready for virtual reality back in the ’90s. I know younger me wasn’t. I recall one evening after school, watching the first episode of the UK video game TV show Bad Influence with its opening report on the world of virtual reality.
“It’s called virtual reality and it’s one of the newest ways for computers to present complicated information” the presenter excitedly explained. “It felt pretty real to me” he added, observing crude visuals that to my young and untrained eyes didn’t even come close to resembling reality. “You’re no longer on the outside looking in” the presenter insisted, encumbered with a clunky headset, earphones and a “data glove” that curiously resembled the Nintendo Power Glove.
This didn’t feel like the future. I should have been foaming at the mouth, pupils dilated in dewy-eyed fascination. Instead I was restlessly clawing at the remote, asking “where are the real games at?” The world wasn’t ready for fully immersive virtual reality experiences back then, and the public’s interest in virtual reality waned not long after. Has that really changed now?
While many of us get excited about the Facebook-backed Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, not everybody has shared the same enthusiasm where gaming is concerned – not least one of the medium’s most influential voices.
Nintendo’s legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto previously declared during a TIME interview that virtual reality may not be “the best way for people to play” in the home, suggesting instead that the tech “might be better suited to some sort of attraction style of entertainment”, such as a “video game arcade” rather than “something that one person plays alone.”
“Alone” being a key word here. As Oculus Rift has shown us with its lofty price point, the cost of good VR technology isn’t cheap – and that’s just for one headset alone. Nintendo’s continued reluctance to compete on specs and instead focus on joyous, family-friendly, all-encompassing experiences suggests it’s not a road it really wants to go down unless forced. As the Wii showed, the company can really nail the local “social” gaming experience, and VR – while offering the chance to connect to players all over the globe – isn’t really the kind of thing you can play with a room full of friends.
We don’t yet know enough about Nintendo’s next console, or whether the NX will adopt VR technology. All we know at this stage is that it is a possibility – albeit a slim one. Good VR technology comes at a price, and cutting corners on such tech in order to make it accessible to a wider audience could be suicide. Early adopters don’t often have time to wait until tech ‘gets good’ as they flit between the next big thing and the last. If anything, Nintendo has hopefully already learned its lessons from watered-down VR – that’s exactly what the Virtual Boy was.
But what if this time things could be different? Could Nintendo deliver VR to us on a grand, accessible scale, in the same way it introduced motion gaming to our parents and grandparents with the Nintendo Wii, or touch control with the insanely successful DS?
Nintendo has the right to be cautious about VR, but the potential for groundbreaking gameplay is obvious. Technological advancements mean it’s now possible to develop worlds far richer in colour, scope and depth than the rudimentary red LED-dotted landscapes of yesteryear, and that should excite pretty much every games designer on the face of the planet – including the venerable Miyamoto himself. But forget the details for now – suspend rational thought and imagine the possibilities.
Imagine yourself traversing a fluffy cloud and mushroom-filled world through the eyes of the world’s most beloved red-capped plumber, scraping the star-dotted heavens in a new Mario Galaxy VR game, or literally hotfooting it in the fiery cauldrons of one of Bowser’s tricky dungeons as flaming coals shoot unnervingly past you, just close enough to singe the fabric of your overalls.
Imagine a dashboard view of your kart as you powerslide your joyous way past Waluigi in Mario Kart, as loose asphalt jumps up into his pointy, wretched, scheming features as he curses you while you literally look back in unbridled pre-celebratory joy to bask in the view of those trailing in your purple-shelled slipstream. And Rainbow Road will never be the same as cascading rows of kaleidoscopic technicolour illuminate your race path all the way to the checkered flag.
And what of clip-clopping your way on horseback through the flora and fauna of Hyrule’s open plains, or obtaining an otherworldly view of the bustling Kakariko Village through the eyes of Zelda protagonist Link? Even party games – the type of games Miyamoto loves to imagine a family gathering around – could gain a new lease of life if handled correctly. Imagine watching your friends flapping about playing WarioWare: Smooth Moves VR style as you pass a headset to each other like a hot potato attempting to complete a teamwork task before the time limit expends; the player’s view could be displayed on the TV screen, ensuring that even those who await their turn can still see what’s occurring and chuckle accordingly.
In the face of development costs, changing consumer tastes, pressure to develop the next best thing and stern competition from new VR entrants in a fledgling market, there’s a lot at stake should Nintendo take their latest head first plunge into virtual reality – and perhaps now is simply not the right time. Even so, I can’t help but find myself dreaming about what’s possible, and in my opinion, the company’s next move in the console war could be the most important in its illustrious history – assuming it finds a way to include VR in its own unique vision of what gaming could and should be like.
Photo credit: Bago Games