The Vanguard V Kickstarter is raising funds to bring the sleek virtual reality arcade shooter to a bevy of VR platforms, with the potential to support one platform that hasn’t been available for nearly two decades. Developer ZeroTransform has an audacious $1 million dollar stretch goal that’s not a joke; the team says they’re ready, willing, and able to make a version of Vanguard V for Nintendo’s 19 year-old ‘VR headset’ , the Virtual Boy.
When it comes to examples of failed virtual reality platforms (and weird names), Virtual Boy is almost always mentioned. The headset-console, which sat atop a mount and had users peer into it, lasted less than a year before being discontinued by Nintendo. Released in July of 1995, despite projections of 3 million hardware and 14 million software units sold, the Virtual Boy was discontinued by December, 1995 in Japan and March, 1996 in the U.S. I’ve dug up the figure 770,000 when searching for hardware sales, though wasn’t able to confirm it with an official source, apparently Nintendo closely guards the data surrounding perhaps its greatest hardware blunder. Regardless of the specific number, the Virtual Boy is a renowned failure in the world of videogame consoles and virtual reality hardware. Users of the device cited simulator sickness, high cost, and lack of immersion (due to limited graphics, lack of headtracking, etc.) as the leading factors in the system’s downfall. And yet the unit could see a new game added to its unofficial library 19 years after discontinuation.
ZeroTransform, a newly formed indie-dev studio headed by Justin Moravetz (of Proton Pulse fame), is in the midst of a Kickstarter for one of the most polished VR games I’ve seen yet, Vanguard V. The studio promises support for just about every consumer VR platform on the horizon: Oculus Rift, Sony Morpheus, Android, and iOS (the latter two for use with VR smartphone adapters). And while the future is bright for VR, ZeroTransform hasn’t forgotten about the past. The studio is dedicated to producing a version of Vanguard V compatible with Nintendo’s 19-year old Virtual Boy ‘VR headset,’ if they somehow manage to blast through their $198,000 funding goal to the $1 million stretch goal.
I was curious to see how serious the studio was about this stretch goal. It turns out that Moravetz owns four Virtual Boys himself. He put me in touch in touch Max Maroe, ZeroTransform’s Tech Director to learn more. To my surprise, the studio is not only confident that they have the means to create a game to run on a Virtual Boy emulator, they could even run it on the genuine hardware.
“Can we make a version for Virtual Boy?”
“Going back to a 20Mhz system that time forgot might prove quite challenging.”
“Justin [Moravetz] asked me this question one day while we were brainstorming stretch goals for our Kickstarter,” Maroe told me. “At the time, I didn’t give him a positive answer, because, quite frankly, I didn’t know. I’ve done a small amount of assembly-level programming in my day, but I’ve always enjoyed it. Still, I’ve grown accustomed to the fantastic magical tools we have available for modern platforms, and effectively unlimited processing power. Going back to a 20Mhz system that time forgot might prove quite challenging.”
Although the system is 19 years old and only ever saw the release of some 22 games, ZeroTransform wouldn’t need to start from scratch. In doing research on the feasibility of a Virtual Boy version of Vanguard V, Maroe stumbled upon a document literally called ‘The VB Sacred Tech Scroll.’ The document, though perhaps sacred, isn’t ancient—it was written in 2013. The 95 page ‘scroll’, credited to ‘Guy Perfect,’ brings together all of the Virtual Boy’s technical development details.
“Astonishingly, there’s actually a still-active development community built around the Virtual Boy.”
“This document alone was enough for me to give an affirmative to our ability to deploy to Virtual Boy. It contains pretty much all the information you need to address the Virtual Boy at a hardware level, and even without further tools and examples, would be all the information I’d need to build the needed tools (image converters, music trackers, and the core game engine),” said Maroe. “Astonishingly, there’s actually a still-active development community built around the Virtual Boy. In my travels, I stumbled upon PlanetVB, a site containing information about all things Virtual Boy.”
As Maroe explored the pioneering Virtual Boy development work done by the PlanetVB community, he found that someone had developed a C-compiler for the Virtual Boy, which eventually lead to the development of a compiler based on the GNU Compiler Collection.
“What does this mean? It means that I don’t even have to base the game on V810 assembly [programming language], at least not primarily.” Maroe said. “This was a relief, because while I’ve done assembly coding in the past, it’s been on small, simple projects (for the Sega VMU); I’ve never had my mettle tested on a large project. I still may have to (joyfully!) delve in there for certain repetitive functions to ensure optimization, but the basic structure can now be defined in soft, comfy, imperative code.”
A Modern Retro Game
Of course, a version of Vanguard V for the Virtual Boy would share little more than conceptual and thematic similarities between it and the slick modern version made for the Oculus Rift. “This is more like a ‘port’ back in the good ol’ days when arcade hardware was significantly stronger than home console hardware. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game for NES vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade. Or Robocop NES vs Robocop the arcade, etc,” Maroe told me.
“Firstly, the control scheme will not be able to carry over into the Virtual Boy easily. While it technically would be possible to add a gyro/accelerometer to the cartridge and address it using the Cartridge Expansion memory space (similar to how Wario Ware Twisted adds motion sensors to the GameBoy Advance) the feasibility of this and the additional cost and hardware R&D time would not be worth it,” said Maroe. “Besides, Virtual Boys aren’t really designed to be strapped to your head; they are quite heavy and not very well balanced for it! That being said, I am excited about the control scheme because we could unlink movement and firing, putting targeting on one d-pad and movement on the other.”