Pardon me while I ruminate . . .
With the launch of Nintendo's Ultra 64 pushed all the way into next spring, the video game giant's only hardware offering this fall is the odd, but strangely likable Virtual Boy.
At $180, Virtual Boy with its immersing three-dimensional graphics offers a novel experience in gaming. The big question is whether that novelty is enough to attract and keep gamers over the long term. I'd like to think it will.
But after two weeks of some pretty heavy-duty playing, I still am not entirely sure what to make of Virtual Boy. All of its launch titles are excellent and more are coming. Its high-resolution LED display is top drawer. Its controller has a comfortable, intuitive feel. Its stereo sound is great.
Everything about Virtual Boy works, but to what end?
All four of the launch titles--Mario's Tennis, Teleroboxer, Red Alarm and Galactic Pinball--are pretty traditional video game fare, but none feels very traditional on Virtual Boy.
Maybe that's the highest compliment I can pay Nintendo: Game play on Virtual Boy is at once familiar and strange. We've seen these images before, but never like this.
In games such as Red Alarm and Mario's Tennis it's easy to feel absorbed by the environments--even though the entire Virtual Boy world is rendered in black and red. With a 32-bit processor, motion is fluid and amazingly clear.
The hardware itself is odd and somewhat cumbersome. Despite its claims of portability, it's impossible to play Virtual Boy casually on the couch with a few snacks. Believe me, I tried. Playing Virtual Boy requires full attention and the use of a table.
The main unit rests atop a stand and weighs less than two pounds. Players press their heads into what looks like a futuristic version of those old hand-cranked movieolas. After a few focusing adjustments, the fun begins.
With the display and speakers only inches from the face, action is big and loud. While this is the obvious allure of Virtual Boy, it can cause some problems. Nintendo advises against children under 6 playing Virtual Boy and recommends frequent breaks to avoid eye strain.
Then there's the question raised by an article in the Electronic Engineering Times that game headsets like the Virtual Boy might cause sickness, flashbacks or even permanent brain damage.
Drain bamage? As if!
One of the coolest things about Virtual Boy is its double-fisted controller. Because players can not see the controller as they play, all of the buttons and joy pads must be in logical places. They are. Within minutes, even my non-gamer friends were able to win a few games of Mario's Tennis.
Although a hoot, Mario's Tennis is nothing compared to the very cool Red Alarm, a flying game that truly shows off the strengths of Virtual Boy. Although entirely wire-frame, the environments of Red Alarm are engaging and have a depth impossible on more standard platforms.
The one thing that sucks about Red Alarm, however, is a dorky "Virtual Boy" message that flashes across the screen at irregular intervals.
The two other launch titles--which sell for about $40 apiece--are fun enough, but nothing to write home about. Galactic Pinball is your standard pinball table in space scenario with a few doodads tacked on to spice things up. And Teleroboxer is a first-person fighting game that I got tired of after only a few games.
Despite its name, though, Virtual Boy is not a virtual reality machine. Unlike some headsets that offer stereoscopic color displays and motion tracking, no one will ever confuse the game play of Virtual Boy for real life. What it is, however, is a gaming experience unlike any other available for under $300.
Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every other Thursday. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to email@example.com.