Nintendo’s 1995 hardware release was the Virtual Boy, the number-one name most folks in the know would associate with the phrase “failed video game console.”
If you’re not tuned into the video games world (or any television, radio, print or online news source), you may not be aware that when you woke up this morning that you are now living in the 8th generation of home video game consoles.
Nintendo released its pre-emptive entry into the next generation sweepstakes last year with the Wii U and both Sony and Microsoft released the Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles in advance of the holiday season. If you didn’t preorder one of the new systems, odds are Santa was out of luck because they were sold out everywhere. Well, except through online auctions and classifieds, where you could have expected to spend as much as double the retail price as a premium for the season’s most sought-after electronic devices.
So, there’s supposedly better graphics, more immersive experiences, etcetera… but, as with any launch console, it’s hard to gauge what “next generation” is actually going to mean—especially with the new consoles designed for 10-year life spans in the marketplace. I chose the PS4 for my family, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of software develops for it in the years to come.
But console releases are not always the first step in a long, storied history of great games and financial success. There have been some real bombs—some delivered by some of the biggest names in the video games business. So here at the dawn of the next generation, let’s see how things can go horribly, horribly wrong for a new video games system with some of the failed consoles of the past.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
On the left, the Virtual Boy in action. On the right, the horrifying image the person playing might be looking at. I think that’s the Mario Tennis game that came packed with the system.
Nintendo’s 1995 hardware release was the Virtual Boy, the number-one name most folks in the know would associate with the phrase “failed video game console.” This contraption was a bona fide disaster for the company, at the time still riding high on the success of the 16-bit Super Nintendo and the Game Boy. Ironically, the console was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the man who created the Game Boy. Only 770,000 of the $180 units were sold worldwide, and these days you can expect to spend anywhere from $50-$250 for one, depending on condition and any included games.
Virtual Boy was the first 3D game console—a great idea, and one that Nintendo has recently leveraged to great success with the 3DS stereoscopic effect. The problem is that in 1995, the way a 3D effect was accomplished was to build a ridiculous pair of virtual reality goggles that had to be placed on a table with a tripod. The player has to look into them to see the game, which is completely monochromatic in a headache-inducing red and black.
Mario might have been fine on a black LCD screen, but red? Not so much. The Virtual Boy only saw a handful of games released in its mercifully short lifespan. None are fondly remembered today because virtually no one played them. There is, oddly, a reasonable market for the Virtual Boy—mostly Nintendophiles.
The Atari Jaguar
On the left, the “Jag” in all its glory. On the right, the worst video game I have ever played.
After Nintendo showed up on the scene with its outrageously successful string of console releases in the 1980s and 1990s, poor Atari was sort of left in the lurch with nothing effective to follow up its 2600, 5200 and 7800 consoles that performed well in previous generations. In 1993, the company came forward with the 64-bit Jaguar at a time when the 16-bit Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis hardware were the market leaders. It looked fierce, had some pretty decent games available for it at launch—including Tempest 2000 (which is one of my personal all-time favorite video games)—and seemed to be ready to bulldoze the competition with a higher-powered piece of hardware.
But it sold far worse than the Virtual Boy—fewer than 250,000 units were sold at retail for $250. Even though you could play Doom on it, the controllers were terrible and the major third-party developers never bothered to support the floundering console when developing for the SNES or Genesis user bases offered a much greater return on investment. And there were programming issues, including a couple of oversights and mistakes in the development kits that made it very difficult for programmers to work with. So over the next three or four years, Atari plowed on with it, releasing a couple of peripherals, including a CD-ROM drive and a smattering of mostly awful games, like the crude 3D Street Fighter knock-off, Fight for Life, that may very well be the worst video game I’ve ever played. Then the first Sony Playstation hit in 1995 and completely buried it.
At one point before it was discontinued, Atari had more units in warehouses than in the hands of customers. The consoles were eventually liquidated and, at one point, you could buy them brand new at Kaybee Toys for $25. I made that mistake myself. The funny thing is that it has appreciated somewhat, and it appears that $50 is about the going rate for a Jaguar with games hovering around $10 a piece.
The Apple Pippin
On the left, Bandai’s Atmark Pippin console with the “Applejack” controller. On the right, the Katz Media KMP-2000. Neither console was made by Apple, but the architecture and design was all based on Macintosh specs and modified for video game consoles applications.
Folks these days are constantly wondering when Apple is going to throw its hat into the video game console arena, especially since games for the iPhone and iPad have turned into one of the biggest markets in the industry. But few are aware that the company actually tried to get into the video games business back in 1995, during the same generation that begat the Virtual Boy and Jaguar. It called its open-source, Mac OS Classic-based platform the Apple Pippin (or Pipp!n, as they wanted you to spell it).
There was some forward thinking going on, even though the Pippin was a spectacular fumble. Apple didn’t actually want to produce consoles. They wanted to license the architecture to other manufacturers like Bandai, which made a Pippin console called Atmark for Japanese markets and the terribly named @WORLD console for the U.S. market, weighing in at a whopping $599. Katz Media was the only other licensee, and it made Pippin-based consoles for Canada and Europe. This was unheard of at a time when game consoles ran on completely proprietary architecture and it’s interesting because it’s an idea that was ahead of its time. Next year, Steam Machine will be doing almost the exact same thing with its “Steambox” architecture. Pippin also had Internet connectivity and a specific service for the console at a time when video games were just starting to get networked online.
But practically no one noticed when the consoles released in 1995. Apple did not market the console, as that was the responsibility of the licensees. And these were going up against the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn at the time, which was a lost cause for an under-supported console with a library of games focused on dreadful “edutainment” titles. When Steve Jobs reclaimed his throne at Apple in 1997, the Pippin was one of the things he buried.
Oddly, the Pippin is quite collectible and commands a considerably higher price than most past-generation game consoles. The Katz Media models are the most desirable because they are the rarest and have some different hardware features that make them appealing to hackers and modders. There are a couple of variations in hardware and branding between the Bandai Atmark and @WORLD units, and apparently they are fairly easy to acquire new in the original packaging, which really kind of says a lot, frankly.
Pippin systems can sell for $250 or more, but I really have no idea why you’d spend that kind of money for one when you could just buy an iPhone 5S instead and get much, much better games.
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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