Virtual Fun -- Nintendo Adds A New Dimension To Games

Nintendo of America, the largest video-game maker, has an aggressive strategy for the the first half of 1995 that includes the release of a new hardware system and eight new games.

Virtual Boy, which the company will unveil in the U.S. tomorrow at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is a follow-up system to the hand-held Game Boy. It combines several technologies to create astonishing 3-D effects and fast-paced play.

As the name suggests, Virtual Boy is a spin-off from virtual reality, a technology in which participants are totally immersed in computer-generated environments through the use of movement-sensitive body harnesses and head-mounted goggles.

Unlike true virtual reality, Virtual Boy will not track your view or body movements. Though they create 3-D effects as virtual-reality visors do, Virtual Boy goggles are really just a sophisticated monitor. Because it has two sets of precision controls to adjust to the player's eyes, Virtual Boy's 3-D effects are visible even to people with poor depth perception.

When Nintendo demonstrated Virtual Boy at a recent electronics show in Japan, reviews were unfavorable. Hoping for a more sophisticated system, critics complained about Virtual Boy's red-on-black, rather than full-color, graphics. They also panned the games, calling them simplistic and dull.

Single-color graphics have been a hallmark of Game Boy's cost-efficient technology. With more than 16 million units sold in the U.S., Game Boy is the most inadequate game system ever to succeed. The combined sales of the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Lynx, both color hand-held systems, amount to fewer than 7 million units.

Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo manager of corporate communications, admits the games Nintendo used to demonstrate Virtual Boy do not stack up.

"We're still developing the software... These demonstration cartridges were never meant for retail," Kaplan says. The system is expected to be in stores by June.

Nintendo has been demonstrating the system with two unfinished cartridges, a first-person-perspective robot boxing simulation and a pinball game. The pinball game showcases Virtual Boy's startling three-dimensional graphics. Every detail is clear and sharp. Playing this game, you quickly forget about its red-on-black graphics.

The boxing game highlights Virtual Boy's ability to provide fast play with very little distortion or flicker. But it's a very dull game (you punch a nimble robot until it explodes in a flash of nuts and bolts).

Whether Virtual Boy becomes a success depends on several factors. The market might not be willing to support a new single-color game machine, even with three-dimensional graphics. The 3-D goggles will create another hurdle. Unlike the portable Game Boy, which is easy to play anywhere, Virtual Boy is played sitting at a table with 3-D goggles perched on a stand.

But the ultimate hurdle is price. With a suggested retail of $200, Virtual Boy costs more than twice as much as Game Gear and four times as much as Game Boy.

New games for old systems

Convinced that a lack of software slowed sales in 1993, Nintendo executives finished 1994 by releasing eight game cartridges in three months. One of those, "Donkey Kong Country," outsold the next bestselling cartridge by a margin that may have been as great as 8 to 1, some industry watchers estimate.

Nintendo plans to release eight new games in the first half of 1995. One of the new games, "Donkey Kong Land for Game Boy," is already drawing a great deal of attention. A sequel to the Super Nintendo (SNES) hit "Donkey Kong Country," "Donkey Kong Land" raises the standards by which Game Boy graphics will be judged. Though not as colorful and clear as the SNES game, "Donkey Kong Land" is three-dimensional and more attractive than any previous Game Boy cartridge.

Though computer games have seldom done well on home video-game systems, Nintendo has decided to release one of the all-time best computer flight simulations in that format. "Comanche," an exciting helicopter simulation (developed by Nova Logic), puts players in control of a modern attack helicopter. Only partially complete, the Nintendo version of Comanche is visually disappointing when compared to the PC game, but the power and realism will make it fun for video gamers.

Nintendo is also releasing a sequel to Star Fox, their bestselling space flight simulation of 1993. "Star Fox 2," which features much-improved graphics and slightly better flight controls, might not be released until August, but is a shoo-in as one of Nintendo's top sellers for the year.

Other offerings for the year include "Kirby's Avalanche," a fun and highly competitive "Tetris" look-alike that features the character Kirby and shape-shifting ghosts instead of blocks, and "Earth Bound," a comical role-playing game about a young boy trying to deal with a UFO landing in his neighborhood.