I've been meaning to get around to posting this for a while now. It has been on my mind for most of the current handheld generation. A lot of people like to believe that the only reason the Nintendo 3DS exists is because Nintendo always looks for gimmicks to add to their future hardware iterations. Like how the Wii U's gamepad was written off as a gimmick to latch onto the popularity of devices like the IPad, Kindle, and other tablets; when in reality I believe it was a dry run for what became the Nintendo Switch. This label of "relying on gimmicks" and "chasing popular trends" are broad generalizations meant to marginalize Nintendo's hardware, even when successful. In actuality, Nintendo has been researching and attempting to implement stereoscopic 3D almost for as long as they have been making gaming hardware. The first example of which would be the Famicom 3D System which was a peripheral for the Famicom that added stereoscopic 3D to games through active shutter glasses.
The Famicom 3D System was not well received, and so Nintendo never released the peripheral outside of Japan. But, Nintendo never gave up on the concept. When Gunpei Yokoi began development on the Virtual Boy, he was seeking to create unique technology not replicated by Nintendo's competitor's that would encourage more creativity in games. Gunpei Yokoi had been General Manager of Nintendo's Research and Development 1 team which had designed the Game & Watch series & the Gameboy, so he had a solid track record for success in the handheld market. Nintendo entered into a licensing agreement with Reflection Technology Inc of Massachusetts for exclusive use of their stereoscopic 3D display to build the Virtual Boy around. One of the major problems with the Virtual Boy was that it utilized a Red LED system for its graphics. But this was not the original intent. Gunpei Yokoi and his team took a good look at creating the Virtual Boy with Color LCD. Unfortunately, Color LCD in 1994 was prohibitively expensive. Nintendo stated that a Color Virtual Boy would have had to retail at $500 compared to the $179 launch price of the Red LED Virtual Boy that actually released. The Color LCD also was not advanced enough at the time to produce the level of depth that a non-backlit black backround with red wireframe graphics was able to present. Another problem with the Virtual Boy was that it was shaped as a headset, but could not be worn. It was released with a tabletop stop stand which rendered the system a clunky device that wasn't very portable as far as handheld devices were concerned. This also was not "the dream design" of the Virtual Boy. Nintendo had planned to implement head-mounted tracking functionality, but this was also removed due to concerns of motion sickness that is associated with 3D and Virtual Reality to this day. Gunpei Yokoi believed in "withered technology", a personal theory that coincided with Nintendo's penchant for "adapting mature technology which could be mass produced cheaply". And so, he did his best with the technology available, and made cost cutting decisions that he thought were in the company's best interests. Just as he had successfully done with the monochrome displays of the Game & Watch and Gameboy. Unfortunately, the cons of the Virtual Boy out-weighed the uniqueness, and so the product was a commercial failure. Some believe this led to Yokoi's exit from Nintendo after 31 faithful and productive years of service, although Nintendo denies this.
Most people think that Nintendo was completely done with 3D after this debacle, and did not revisit it until the 3DS. This is also untrue. The GameCube, released in 2001 is actually a 3D capable system. The technology to display games in 3D was built directly into the system as released. However, it would require an LCD screen attachment that would be sold separately to display the games in 3D. "Luigi's Mansion", a GameCube launch title, was released as fully functional in 3D. Unfortunately, the LCD attachment was never released due to the cost of LCD screens at the time. Satoru Iwata stated that the cost of the screen as a peripheral would have been "far above the cost of the GameCube itself." And so, the peripheral was scrapped. But again, the idea was far from dead in Nintendo's eyes and minds.
(this is the Color Game Screen, not the planned 3D LCD screen!)
The Gameboy Advance SP released in 2003 was also originally intended to utilize a 3D LCD screen. But here as well, Nintendo did not yet believe the stereoscopic 3D effect was rendering to their level of satisfaction. So again, the idea was scrapped, but not forgotten.
Finally, in 2009, Nintendo began developing a successor for their wildly popular handheld, the Nintendo DS. All of Nintendo's years of research and development with stereoscopic 3D technology culminated into what became the Nintendo 3DS. Far from a trend-chasing fad, the 3DS fully emobdies and replicates the design envisionment of Gunpei Yokoi's original plans for the Virtual Boy. While not head-mounted, it is portable and renders full color 3D with an impressive level of depth which adds to the immersion of its games. The 3DS is what the Virtual Boy both could have, and should have been if the technology were satisfactory and if the price of manufacture had been reasonable enough. Even in 2011, however, the initial price point of $249 was still considered high for a handheld gaming device. When sales stalled soon after launch, Nintendo pro-actively decided to take a loss on hardware by reducing the price to a more consumer friendly $169. However, price-cuts alone don't guarantee sales. Slashing the price of the GameCube from $199 to $99 did not magically prevent the console from being perceived as a failure. A price cut on the 3DS similarly would not have reversed the handhelds fortune unless their was a consumer interest in the device. That interest was clearly there as Nintendo increased it's marketshare of the dedicated handheld gaming market from 68.3% in 2009 to 81.5% today. While the handheld market has shrunk since the heady days of the DS due to mobile phone penetration, the Nintendo 3DS has still managed near GameBoy Advance level sales, having sold over 70 million units since launch, compared to the 15.8 million of it's direct competitor the Sony Vita in almost the same time frame. It was sales of the 3DS that propped up Nintendo to profit throughout 2015-2016 while the Wii U was failing and the Nintendo Switch was in R&D and production.
There are those who will argue that "The 3D is a gimmick", "the majority of 3D owners play with the slider turned off", and "the existence of the 2DS is proof that the 3DS is a gimmick/failure". But, I disagree with this. If that were the case, the 3DS sku would have disappeared the same way the Xbox One Kinect sku disappeared when the Kinect was removed from being mandatory. The 2DS sells to both kids and those who aren't interested in 3D, but the 3DS still enjoys healthy sales within the "3DS family" of systems. As a 3DS and 3DS XL owner, I personally enjoy the depth of view that the 3D slider gives to the games I play. I've heard similarly from other 3DS owners as well. Therefore, I believe this success, and how closely the 3DS replicates what the Virtual Boy originally wanted to be, has both vindicated the Virtual Boy as a product itself, and the vision of Gunpei Yokoi. I always believed this to be true, but it was in doing the actual research for this post that I discovered that behind the scenes, Nintendo never actually wavered from their dedication to bring this to fruition. I will close with a quote that I reminded someone of recently when they questioned Nintendo's willingness to experiment with technology even before it is ready to be conceptually realized:
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery” ― Samuel Smiles,