Nintendo's Greatest Failure Had Gamers Seeing Red

Nintendo's Greatest Failure Had Gamers Seeing Red

20 years ago, Nintendo gambled on the unconventional Virtual Boy, bringing an end to a remarkable winning streak.

They can't all be winners, and eventually even the hottest winning streak has to come to an end. 20 years ago today, Nintendo played its first bad hand since the 1983 debut of the Famicom home console.

In 1995, Japanese console giant Nintendo still stood on top of the world. It had been quite a slugfest with Sega for a while, there in the 16-bit years, but eventually Super NES prevailed. And in the handheld space, no one even came close to Game Boy's popularity. So it would stand to reason that Nintendo's next portable system, designed by Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, would be the next big thing, right? Well....

Unfortunately, Virtual Boy was not a case of the right system at the right time. It wasn't even a case of the right system at the wrong time. It was just plain wrong — a combination of miscalculating what players wanted and how they wanted to play, marketing that had no clue what to do with such an unconventional game device, an outlandish price, and technology that wasn't quite ready for prime time. It landed on the market with a dull, resounding thud, falling millions of units short of Nintendo's projections and dying quietly within a year.

Plenty can be said — and has been! — about Virtual Boy's failure. But on the plus side, it also demonstrated Nintendo's reslience. It was a huge blow for the company, but they survived. And not just by launching better hardware; the Nintendo 64 arrived the following year, but it was only a hit in the U.S. and fizzled in Japan and Europe. No, Nintendo thrived in the latter half of the '90s on the strength of a simple RPG on the platform that Virtual Boy was supposed to replace: Pokémon. Not everything the company comes up with works out like it's meant to, as we've seen with the Wii U, but Nintendo has a remarkable ability to survive its mistakes by betting big on unlikely winners....

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