July 21 marks the 25th anniversary of Nintendo's Virtual Boy. Notice I didn't say "Today, we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Virtual Boy." To my knowledge, nobody celebrates Nintendo's failed "portable" system, and something tells me Nintendo likes it that way.
There's one exception. Not long ago, former USgamer Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Parish birthed Virtual Boy Works, an educational series that looks upon the Virtual Boy with more positivity than it's usually granted. You currently can't throw a baseball through YouTube without hitting ten videos about "WHY THE VIRTUAL BOY SUCKS!!!!" or twenty videos asking if the Virtual Boy is "NINTENDO'S BIGGEST BLUNDER???". Parish re-evaluates the Virtual Boy hardware and each of its games with a fresh pair of eyes—which doubtlessly became fatigued after peering at the Virtual Boy's red-and-black visuals.
Videos like Virtual Boy Works are also important because they contain fascinating bits of history you might miss if you stick to the videos that exclaim "Ewwwww" for nine minutes out of their eleven-minute runtime. (The remaining two minutes are a pitch for NordVPN.) Here's one: The maligned system is the portal through which the Shin Megami Tensei series (SMT) finally came West.
In 1995, a top-down twin stick shooting game named Jack Bros. quietly landed on the Virtual Boy. The Virtual Boy was a failure out of the gate, so few people picked up the strange-looking game. The folks who did grab it probably had no idea Jack Bros. is a spinoff of one of Japan's most popular RPG series. Twenty-five years later, Shin Megami Tensei has finally found great success in the West, albeit mostly through the Persona series.
But even minor fans can easily spot the strong threads of SMT DNA running through Jack Bros. Its protagonists Jack Frost, Jack Lantern, and Jack Skelton are immediately recognizable as characters in nearly every SMT game. Jack Frost is in fact the foul-mouthed mascot for Atlus. He's easily identifiable by his jagged blue hat, his wide, sinister grin, and his tendency to pepper every sentence with the nonsense phrase "Hee-ho!" For example, "Kill all humans, hee-ho-hee!"
The object of Jack Bros. is to get the brothers home after Halloween revelry causes them to miss their ride back to the demon dimension. The top-down shooting mechanic might be new hat for SMT fans (not to suggest the franchise avoids experimenting with genres outside RPGs), but they should be able to pick out familiar faces as they travel. Pixie guides the brothers on their journey, while monsters like Slime and the catwoman Nekomata try to trip them up.
If you've played a single SMT or Persona game, you know these demons. If you've played Persona 5, you've probably sent them to the guillotine. Take heart: that's probably more merciful than being doomed to wander as an enemy sprite in Virtual Boy's stark crimson-and-obsidian Hell.
It took some time for another SMT game to follow Jack Bros. into North America, but it eventually happened in 1996 with Revelations: Persona for the PlayStation. Parish's breakdown of Jack Bros. highlights the main reason why SMT probably took so long to crawl westward: the '80s "Satanic Panic" that sent the United States's Christian populace into a frenzy about the evils of Dungeons & Dragons. Most SMT games were on the Famicom and Super Famicom, and Nintendo of America's firm pledge against delivering controversial content via its video games meant translations of SMT were a firm "Nuh uh." Religious parents would undoubtedly double take at SMT's depictions of half-naked demons, phalluses on chariots, and myriad crucifixion analogies.
That's why Jack Bros. was the perfect Western infiltrator for SMT—or it would have been the perfect infiltrator if the Virtual Boy hadn't tripped and broken all its teeth at the starting line. Choice of platform aside, there's nothing offensive about Jack Bros. Its graphics are composed of cute, pudgy sprites; even the sultry Nekomata demon just looks like a plump little kitty. The paltry story references "Fairies" rather than demons. Even Jack Frost, who is infamous for acting like a humongous dickhead when the mood suits him, is passive and pleasant through the adventure. Jack Bros. secured a K-A "Kids to Adults" rating from the newly-minted ESRB, an assurance that it lacks objectionable content. (The "K-A" rating has since been retired in favor of "E" for "Everyone.")
I've not played Jack Bros. myself. I've never even stuck my face inside the Virtual Boy's headpiece, as no one can assure me it won't steal my soul as soon as I do so. By other people's accounts, however, Jack Bros. is one of the more decent games on the Virtual Boy. It's good to know the West's first SMT game is passable—even if it went unacknowledged and unrecognized for so many years.
And yet, hiding in plain sight while waiting for powerful forces to gather seems like an appropriate trick for the likes of Jack Frost. Jack Bros.'s arrival made a small rip between East and West, and a few more SMT games tentatively trickled out of the rift. Now, Persona and SMT are alive and well in the West, and Shin Megami Tensei 5 is scheduled to hit the Switch next year. A remaster of 2003's Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne is tagging along, too.
Demons are swarming the Switch, Nintendo no longer cares who crucifies who, and Jack Frost is forever grinning. He remembers how he muscled into our pop culture by hitching a ride in a harmless-looking twin stick shooter. Nobody paid him any mind, but it was better that way. Jack Frost's work is done.