Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What kind of gamesoft hell is this?! I have some holy water, a crucifix, o-fuda cards and a stockpile of garlic bread but I don't think that'll be enough to save me from the Virtual B- Oh, what's that? There isn't one in our office itself? Oh, ye Gods, we're spared. For reasons that will be explained in the opening spiel below, not only is the Virtual Boy not exactly as terrible as its reputation would have you believe, but you don't really need one to play its games. In fact, they're better emulated, which is why we've done so. In the interests of keeping things accurate, though, our screenshots are presented in the normal red tint, specifically the view from the left screen of the unit. However, we have prepared screenshots both in this format and a more aesthetically-pleasing greyscale. You'll see the link in just a second. Additionally, a lot of research here would have been impossible without two very useful resources: The Cutting Room Floor for their build of VBjin that supports greyscale, as found on their Taking Screenshots page and Planet Virtual Boy for their exhaustive documentation of the beast- info like release dates, cancelled localisations, etc. came from them. Thank you, you devoted people.
Click here to switch to the Greyscale version of this page.
The Virtual Boy (July 1995 - March 1996) saw just 22 games in its short life- 14 in America, 19 in Japan.
Only Insmouse no Yakata and Virtual Lab are of particular interest to Gaming Hell, so we may as well do both at once.
But hey, let's talk about the red beast for a second first.
Here's the thing, I don't actually have a Virtual Boy. Played one before (and felt grossly ill a few minutes later, also it smells funny and I don't have a good sense of smell so something's gotta absolutely stink for it to register for me) but within these walls, there is no Virtual Boy. In fact, any kind of stereoscopic 3D makes me very ill, very quickly, setting off some kind of weirdly-localised motion sickness that prevents me from playing VR games, the Nintendo 3DS at max 3D setting, and, er, Hotline Miami. Does that preclude this site from talking about Virtual Boy? Maybe... But that's hardly stopped Gaming Hell before. More critically, though, emulation is a good-enough solution for most, though not all, of the system's library (Red Alarm in particular seems like a game that is impossible to play without the proper 3D effect), as demonstrated by the wonderful Retro Pals streaming the entire library of the thing in three parts up on YouTube. Specifically, changing the video to greyscale not only makes the general aesthetic more palatable and easier on the eye, it also makes it far easier to see the amount of detail in a lot of the spritework without everything turning into a blurry red mess, and, well, as explained near the end of that stream, Virtual Boys are doomed to die due to the cheap manufacturing process that causes the lenses to detach, and while there are temporary fixes, it will eventually give up and keel over. That can be said for all our precious carts and CDs, even if you put them in slabs (don't do this), but Virtual Boys are definitely on very little borrowed time. The Virtual Boys... Are not long for this world.
... I wasn't expecting to get quite this nihilistic when talking about the Virtual Boy, but here we are.
Anyway, the Virtual Boy has some genuinely good games like Virtual Boy Wario Land, some bad games like Virtual Fishing and 3-D Tetris, some oddities like Mario Clash and Nester's Funky Bowling, and some unreleased games like Bound High and Niko-Chan Battle (
not that Nico it's Faceball 2000!) that smoke many of the actual released games out of the water. What is interesting though is that, beyond a few outliers like the aforementioned Wario Land and the strategy RPG SD Gundam Dimension War, most Virtual Boy games feel very slight, more arcade-like in nature than the games hitting the Game Boy around the same time, specifically designed for brief and quick play. Games like Jack Bros., Mario Clash and Panic Bomber help to exemplify this, but it's also evident in the two games we're looking at today. Insmouse no Yakata may look like a dungeon crawler, but it's actually a race against a very strict time limit where you can only save your progress via passwords, and Virtual Lab is... Uh... It is a video game, most certainly, and a light one that's very simple, with little in the way of advanced mechanics. So, to that end, let's give the Virtual Boy its first and last moment of glory on Gaming Hell!
Here's our first Virtual Boy Game of Interest, then, Insmouse no Yakata, released only in Japan in October 1995.
Oh boy, did we have a time deciding what to call this! Most translations of the title go for Insmouse no Yakata (Mansion of Insmouse), the box itself has, in English, the name of the mansion as Insmouse, and even the cancelled Acclaim localisation of the title was going to be Mansion of Insmouse... Except, well, it's not supposed to be Insmouse. It should really be Mansion of Innsmouth as the game is 'based on' the H.P. Lovecraft story In the Shadow of Innsmouth. I say 'based on' in air quotes bigger than the Earth itself because it borrows the names Innsmouth and Dagon from the story, it has the Necronomicon as a plot device, and that's it. Other online sources (looking at you, Wikipedia!) claim it's based on a Japanese TV adaptation of the story made by TBS, Innsmouth wo Oou Kage, but looking at the manual and box art, there's no mention of TBS or any other companies besides I'MAX and Betop, so we're going to assume that's a load of bunkum. Never trust what you read on the internet!
We'll just take the game at face value, then, that it's a game very, very loosely inspired by Lovecraft works. The game itself has barely any text, so we have the translated manual on Planet Virtual Boy to thank for the plot. As a luckless private investigator (I like to imagine it's Edward Windsor after the Zombie Raid incident), you were paid a large sum of money to retrieve a book from the titular mansion. All too late, you find the book is in fact the Necronomicon, and after opening it and subsequently losing consciousness, you awake to find the mansion has transformed due to being trapped in a gap between dimensions, a thirteen-level hellmaze of branching paths now crawling with horrifying monsters who want you dead. With only a handgun to your name, you must find a way out of the mansion with your life intact!
Insmouse no Yakata is a weird hybrid of a game, and oddly the closest to a first-person shooter released for the Virtual Boy. Rather than the free movement of Doom or MIDI Maze, this is closer to the flick-screen movement of a dungeon crawler like Dungeon Master, with the addition of a targeting reticle controlled with the right D-Pad. Yes, be sure to have a look at the strange beast that is the Virtual Boy's controller, because it's got dual
analogue sticks D-Pads to help with 3D movement. While lacking the complexity of contemporary first-person shooters that were showing up on PCs, Insmouse is more like an arcade-style interpretation of the concept, with just the one gun (a six-shooter revolver as shown in one of the endings), basic maze layouts that simply task you with finding the exit door after you've grabbed the key to unlock it (and you can also find white and black orbs that reveal item locations on the map and show the full map respectively) while surviving attacks from the horrid monsters... And the greatest foe of all, a timer. A pretty brutal timer at that, with only a minute for the earlier stages, and up to 3 minutes later on.
As for the actual combat, it's simplistic but gets the job done- when you encounter an enemy, simply shoot them before they get the chance to attack, and reload when your six-shooter's empty before they take a bite out of you. The enemies all act the same, just with different amounts of health (some of the final enemies take up to eight shots to kill) but while you can't walk past them, you can back away from them and take a different route. Monsters usually can't follow you through doors unless they smash the walls down (which is rare) and your ammunition is very scarce, so backing away is actually a tactic you'll have to employ if you want to survive, as the maximum six hearts can go quickly, and you'll want to save your ammo for enemies you absolutely can't get past otherwise. The main issue with combat is it is possible- rare, but possible- to get trapped between two enemies in a corridor, and if you've got no ammo, you can do nothing but wait to die. Even if you do have ammo, you get stalled when injured, so you'll probably be stunlocked to death. No-one said the interdimensional gap world was fair.
That said, for what it is, it's pretty OK! The stages are short and to-the-point, and the fact you're timed so harshly makes it surprisingly tense, especially since there's multiple routes and endings at stake- clearing stages before the final 30-second countdown puts you on a higher path, otherwise you'll be sent on a lower path and on your way to a worse ending (including the worst which is literally text that reads 'THIS IS NOT TRUE ENDING'). You're also encouraged to replay the game a few times because the true ending only occurs if you beat the entire game without continuing and stick to the high route. One frustrating element about this is the item placement- the maps and exit door location always remain the same, but the items like the key are placed randomly. You can practice to learn the map layouts, then, but you can find yourself unfairly screwed over by item placement.
That's... Pretty much it, though. Told you these Virtual Boy games were small affairs! It's something that works in Insmouse no Yakata's favour, though- the arcade-style design here makes it rather unique, and it does its best with what it has to make a fairly tense experience, perhaps something that would benefit the most from being played on actual hardware given the first-person perspective and the horror theming (helped by the fantastic pixel-art on display). Just not really enough meat on its bones to get super-excited about it, considering the shortness of the whole affair and, more critically, it never really expands its mechanics beyond the very, very basics. It has its charm and executes what ideas it has fairly well, so if you're curious about the Virtual Boy at all, this is definitely worth a little look.
For being the only horror game on the Virtual Boy besides Jack Bros., Insmouse no Yakata is awarded...
In a sentence, Insmouse no Yakata is...
Short and sweet (and scary).
The other Virtual Boy Game of Interest is Virtual Lab, released only in Japan in December 1995.
In fact, this was one of the last three Virtual Boy games to make it to Japan, all in December 1995.
So, uh, I think Virtual Lab might be the closest Gaming Hell has ever come to covering a legitimately cursed game. Excessively rare, going for well over £1000 on eBay? Check. By a no-name developer (Nacoty) who seemingly made little beyond this and some Game Boy puzzler called Chiki Chiki Tengoku? Check. Box art so bad that you can spot something new wrong with it every time you look at it? Absolutely check. And that isn't even talking about the game itself, which without the context of the box or manual would make you think it's a puzzle game about connecting intestines to make your anime daughter live again. Probably not what it's about. The intestine-like pieces in the game do seem to be creatures with big ol' eyes in the manual, but their apparent cuteness does not, repeat, does not come across very well in-game, especially since the entire thing is rendered in blood-red.
Ahem. To actually talk about the game now, Virtual Lab bears vague similarities to Gorby no Pipeline Daisakusen, a dropping block puzzle game by Compile for the MSX, Famicom where you have to help Mikhail Gorbachev create pipework (no, really) by connecting pipe pieces such as straight lines, corners and intersections between the two sides of the well a required number of times. So, essentially, Pipe Mania (also known as Pipe Dream, by The Assembly Line) but reinterpreted as a drop puzzle game. (I'd also mention Dr. Sparkz Lab by Atari Games and Cachat / Tube-It as inspirations, but the former never made it to market and the latter is so obscure Taito apparently forgot it existed until it showed up in Taito Legends).
Jokingly referred to as Cronenberg's Pipeline in the Retro Pals chat, Virtual Lab differentiates itself from Gorby no Pipeline Daisakusen and those other games by letting you connect pipes to the bottom of the well too, and not requiring a line between the walls. As long as the pipes are closed off by walls, the bottom or themselves (done with unique 'ender' pieces- pipes that lead into the sides of other pipes are not closed, this will become important), they'll be removed from the playfield. Additionally, remove more than 10 pieces at a time and a fairy will appear to remove the entire bottom row for you. Across 99 looping rounds of pits already filled with (randomly-chosen) pieces, you need to clear the board completely, as your anime daughter cheers you on, to move to the next board and be told to 'TAKE A REST!' because this is a Virtual Boy game after all. That's pretty much it!
Now, as I said in the intro, a lot of Virtual Boy games feel simpler and more arcade-like than contemporary Game Boy games, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes shorter is better! In the case of Virtual Lab, however, this is way, way too barebones, to the point where the game is often said to be just plain unfinished, and the developers just released what they had when they realised the Virtual Boy was getting its support cut. There's no solid proof to that claim, but if you just looked at the game, you could believe it. It's slow regardless of the speed setting you pick, awkward to play with what feels like unresponsive controls, thin on mechanics even by Virtual Boy standards, and more crucially, it's a poorly-designed puzzle game. The big problem is that if you get parts that have to be put in a place where you can't close off all its intersections, there is no way to get rid of it beyond summoning a fairy with a 10+ combo. In a game like Tetris, Puyo Puyo or Cleopatra Fortune, you have a fairly large pit and different ways to deal with nuisance blocks or errors, so digging your way to fixing a mistake is both doable and a fun challenge. Virtual Lab's pit, though, is claustrophobic and far, far too small. It's a paltry 7 by 7 blocks and that's just not enough to work with in this kind of situation, and it's especially frustrating to have to try to get a 10-piece combo just to start sorting a mess out. It's less like overcoming a challenge as in other puzzle games, more an annoyance and one that, sometimes, you just can't do anything about. The absolutely glacial pace of the game just exacerbates this.
Not every puzzle game needs to be super-complicated, of course, but the simplicity of Virtual Lab helps to highlight the deficiencies in its design, resulting in a very slow, boring and at times frustrating puzzler. That's the main thing, really- Virtual Lab isn't even interestingly bad, which is probably evident from the fact that we just haven't had that much to say about it. If it wasn't one of the most expensive games on a unique and unsuccessful console known mostly for its colour palette- say, had it been released for the Game Boy instead, which wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility, given how basic it is- then it'd be completely unworthy of note, just another puzzler to fill up the ranks. If anything, it'd be better on any other console- all the other examples of this particular concept use colour to indicate when you're on your way to make a legitimate connection and where you need to work, which isn't really feasible on the Virtual Boy. As it's stuck on the Virtual Boy though, Virtual Lab will have to make do with being just almost completely unworthy of note.
For having intestines, oh God so many intestines, Virtual Lab is awarded...
In a sentence, Virtual Lab is...
And now, it's that time, folks!
If, perhaps, you feel not playing a proper Virtual Boy does not do the poor creature justice, then you're in luck!
The excellent Bad Game Hall of Fame has covered the Virtual Boy, offering a concise history as well as a look at some more well-known games for it.
Csss even gave us the GIFs adorning the bottom of this page, so thanks to them!
Go and read them instead! It's much better than the stuff spilling out of our hatch this month.
Also, there's this Fast Company article by Benj Edwards that goes into great detail about the origins of the red beast.
And that's your lot. We will never cover the Virtual Boy ever again. Make the most of it.
No, not even Jack Bros., I mean it's not that it's a bad game, just not our wheelhouse, you know?