There’s a rumor going around that Nintendo is making a VR headset in partnership with Google. The rumor is still unconfirmed, but when the world’s oldest extant gaming company finally thinks it’s time to make a dedicated XR device, you know it’s going to be something special. Having seen how far the technology has come though, it raises a question: why hasn’t Nintendo made a VR headset yet?

Nintendo basically has a singular MO, and it does it well: create broadly accessible hardware to serve as a vehicle for its exclusive swath of family friendly games. Ok, it’s more complicated than that, but it’s a good starting point to understand why Nintendo hasn’t made a proper VR headset yet, and probably won’t for some time yet to come.

Wait. Didn’t Nintendo have that Virtual Boy thing in the ’90s? And what about Labo VR for Switch? Those were VR headsets, right? Yes, and no. Or rather, no and kind of (in that order). I’ll get to those in a bit.

In short, the reason Nintendo hasn’t made a real VR platform like Meta Quest has a lot to do with risk aversion, since the company generally prefers to wait until technologies are more mature and have proven market potential. Over the years, Nintendo has also become increasingly reliant on big singular projects which, while not always exactly cutting-edge, have allowed it to comfortably exist outside of the PlayStation and Xbox binary.

Lateral Thinking with ‘Withered’ Technology

Much of Nintendo’s market strategy can be attributed to Gunpei Yokoi, the prolific Nintendo designer best known for pioneering the company’s handheld segment. Yokoi is credited with designing Nintendo’s first handheld, Game & Watch, which at its 1980 launch made use of the cheap and abundant liquid crystal displays and 4-bit microcontrollers initially conceived for calculators. Among many other accomplishments, Yokoi is credited with designing Gameboy, creating the D-pad, and producing both Metroid and Kid Icarus. His last project before leaving the company in 1996: Virtual Boy. More on that later.

Yokoi’s career at Nintendo spanned 31 years, covering its transformation from the then nearly century-old Japanese playing card company to worldwide video gaming powerhouse. His philosophy, mentioned in his Japan-only book ‘Gunpei Yokoi Game Hall’ (横井軍平ゲーム館), sums up the sort of thinking that vaulted Nintendo to the world stage; Yokoi coined the phrase “lateral thinking with withered technology,” outlining the company’s strategy of using mature technology which is both cheap and well understood, and then finding novel and fun ways of applying it to games. That’s basically been the case from Game & Watch all the way to Switch and Switch Lite.

And it’s not just handhelds though. Nintendo consoles don’t tend to focus on cutting-edge specs either (as any former Wii owners can attest). For Nintendo console owners across the years, it’s more about being able to play games from a host of recognizable franchises such as Mario, Zelda, Smash Bros, Pokémon, Pikmin, and Animal Crossing. Since the success of Wii, it’s also been about creating new types of games centered around novel input schemes, like how the Wiimote lets you bowl in Wii Sports, or how Joy-Cons let you grove on-the-go in Just Dance. In short, Nintendo is really good at serving people with what they’re already used to and baking in novelty that owners can engage with or equally ignore.

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Virtual Boy Failure, Labo VR Experiment

When Nintendo sticks to its principles, we usually get a DS, Switch, Gameboy, Wii, Game Boy Advance, 3DS, NES, SNES, Game & Watch, Nintendo 64—10 of the top 20 bestselling video game platforms in history. When they don’t, we get Virtual Boy.

Accounts hold that Yokoi was rushed to finish up work on Virtual Boy so the company could focus on the launch of Nintendo 64, which is partially why it failed. Timed right at the peak of the ’90s VR craze, Nintendo released what essentially was no more than a 3D version of Gameboy though—a 32-bit tabletop standalone console that just so happened to have stereoscopic displays, making it no more a VR headset than Nintendo 3DS. Besides relying on some objectively useless stereoscopy, being shaped like a headset, and having ‘Virtual’ in the name, that’s where the comparisons between it and virtual reality stop.

Image courtesy Evan-Amos, Wiki Commons

Note: Every time someone refers to Virtual Boy as a VR headset, or pretends to wear it like one in a YouTube thumbnail, I scream into an empty paint bucket, hoping the residual fumes will calm my nerves.

There was no head tracking, motion controllers, or even games that wouldn’t have played equally as well on a standard Gameboy. Moreover, its red monochrome displays were criticized for giving players eye strain, nausea, and headaches during gameplay. Its awkward tabletop stand also didn’t articulate enough to adjust to each user’s height, making users strain their necks to play. The nail in the coffin: it was priced at $180 at launch in 1995, just $20 less than Nintendo 64 which arrived one year later and promised to deliver true 3D graphics (something which Virtual Boy couldn’t do, despite supporting stereoscopy!).

Still, I don’t think Nintendo tied Virtual Boy’s failure to the larger failure of VR at the time, but rather recognized what happens when it innovates in the wrong direction and abandons its core principles. Nintendo’s successive handhelds focused on keeping the pocketable form-factor, and typically offered a generation or two of backwards compatibility so consumers could easily upgrade. Gameboys to follow were truly portable, and offered all of the games you wanted to play on the bus, train, plane, wherever.

But what about Nintendo Labo VR for Switch? Well, it was a pretty awesome experiment when it was first released in 2019. The DIY accessory pack made of cardboard actually got Nintendo involved in VR for the first time, and it did it with the same family friendly flair the company seems to bring to everything it does.

Image courtesy Nintendo

It’s a fun little kit that uses Joy-Cons in some unique ways, but with only a few high-quality native VR ‘taster’ experiences to play with, it’s basically a one-and-done deal that Nintendo critically hasn’t iterated on beyond its initial release despite a generally good reception from its target market.

Granted, Nintendo did provide Labo VR support for a number of first-party titles, including Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Super Mario Odyssey, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but this just provides basic 3D viewer support, and doesn’t convert these games into any sort of full VR experience.

To boot, Labo VR actually has Unity support, meaning third-party developers can create games and experiences for it; the fact is the headset and slot-in Switch form-factor just isn’t built for long-term play like a standalone or PC VR headset though. It’s front-heavy, doesn’t have a strap, and just isn’t the basis of a modern VR platform. It’s a toy more than a platform.

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Switching It Up with One Big Platform

The big question is: when? When will Nintendo feel like VR is mature enough to enter in full force with something like a standalone headset, replete with a host of beloved Nintendo franchise games? If past performance predicts future outcomes, it’s pretty unlikely we’ll be seeing such a device in the near term.

The company has spent the better part of the last decade recovering from the failure of Wii U, the company’s least successful video game console to date (next to Virtual Boy). Going headfirst into the XR niche soon with a dedicated hardware release doesn’t seem plausible given how focused the company has become on melding both handheld and console product development with Switch.

Fun Labo VR adds-on aside, Nintendo has expressed some skepticism of VR in the past. Speaking to TIME, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto said in 2014 that VR just wasn’t the sort of broadly accessible player experience the company was trying to crack with Wii U:

“When you think about what virtual reality is, which is one person putting on some goggles and playing by themselves kind of over in a corner, or maybe they go into a separate room and they spend all their time alone playing in that virtual reality, that’s in direct contrast with what it is we’re trying to achieve with Wii U. And so I have a little bit of uneasiness with whether or not that’s the best way for people to play.”

Granted, the technology has changed a great deal since 2014, the same year Oculus Rift DK2 came out. With mixed reality passthrough becoming a standard on standalone headsets such as Quest 3 and Apple Vision Pro, Nintendo would be crazy not keep tabs on the technology, albeit with same hesitation it has mostly shown in the past with its adoption of cutting-edge technology.

Nintendo VR patent | Image courtesy USPTO, via Levelup

In fact, the company is actively creating patents around mixed reality systems that focus on cooperative gameplay using players both in and out of a headset. Above is one such patent from 2022 showing a multiplayer game based on some sort of proposed tabletop platformer.

Unlike a lot of the tech companies out there trying to spin up multiple products and maintain large, interconnected platforms, Nintendo’s main MO is to gamble on one big thing that will probably come with additional functions and a few input quirks. Whether that’s some sort of additional headset peripheral or not… you never know. In the end, the more inclusive nature of mixed reality may change some minds over at Nintendo, although you can bet whatever comes next from the Japanese gaming company will be another experiment, or similar add-on that uses mature hardware in a new and different way.

– – — – –

What is certain is Nintendo isn’t in any rush, as both hardware and software sales of traditional games still far outweigh VR games. Still, you can’t help but wonder what a Nintendo headset might look like, and what a full-throated XR release from Nintendo would do for generations of kids (and adults) to come.

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Well before the first modern XR products hit the market, Scott recognized the potential of the technology and set out to understand and document its growth. He has been professionally reporting on the space for nearly a decade as Editor at Road to VR, authoring more than 3,500 articles on the topic. Scott brings that seasoned insight to his reporting from major industry events across the globe.
  • ViRGiN

    They aren’t doing VR for the same reason valve don’t – they have other highly successful products, and there is much more milk to milk out of them. Nintendo had switch, valve has deck.

    • NL_VR

      ☝️A fanboy wishful thinking

  • Till Eulenspiegel

    Nintendo is known to be cheapskate and likes to use outdated hardware to cut cost.

    Since Apple is now pushing VR/AR into a higher realm, Nintendo must be eyeing Quest 2 level VR tech – that will be outdated soon. They will then buy all the obsolete components at wholesale price and make a killer game so consumers will pay for last generation hardware.

    Worse – they could be working with Google on cardboard VR version 2.0.

    • Lo Pan

      It’s important to remember that Nintendo was, first and foremost, a toy company. And they’ve never lost that perspective.
      I still say they should partner with Tilt5, plugged into the mythical Switch 2. Smash bros in co-located AR around the living room table is their sort of thing, immersed VR is not, as they have often said themselves. And Sony already beat them to the Console VR punch.

  • Really great article Scott. Generally in agreement with you here, although the tech of VR is starting to get pretty established at this point.

    That couch co-op aesthetic that Nintendo strives for remains a big hurdle to get over. I think PS VR2 has taken some important steps with that, mirroring to a TV by default and supporting asynchronous gameplay. If they could get the headset cost down enough to make it practical to buy 2~4 headsets. Then being able to drop into someone’s experience just by putting on your own headset would really put that in Nintendo territory.

  • FrankB

    Which began life as Another World, on the Amiga.

  • FrankB

    VR Mario Kart though…would be awesome.

    • Till Eulenspiegel

      It’s available 6 years ago:

      youtube dot com/watch?v=WsjX5mIW1ew

  • VR isn’t on their radar at all, but AR/Mixed Reality… you better believe it. Anyone who’s played Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, especially with more than one car/switch knows that they’ve nailed that experience. It’s easy to set-up and effortlessly brings the digital world of games straight into your living room. It’s magical.

    • Jarom Madsen

      Agreed Home Circuit is awesome! Wasn’t made by Nintendo though. That was made by Velan Studios and published by Nintendo. They’ve moved on to work on Hot Wheels Rift Rally.

      • ah! never realised that. What a shame. Looking at Hot Wheels Rift Rally, it’s very similar but I’m not sure if it has the same charm as the Mario Kart IP.

        • Jarom Madsen

          I tried it. It’s cool, more customization and the tricks are fun with a high skill ceiling but yes Mario Kart Home Circuit is just better.

          • Lo Pan

            Got a whole squad of nieces and nephews to shop for around Xmas, and I go hard on spoiling them, including handing them down my older headsets and GPU’s. But nothing was a bigger hit than when 4 of them got Home Circuit. Really ticked my sister off. She didn’t regain control of her living room and kitchen again for weeks.

    • ViRGiN

      Magical for 3 days before kids go back to their real digital entertainment.

      • Not in our house :) and it isn’t just the kids who are hooked! We spend wonderful afternoons rearranging the furniture to make ever more intricate circuits

    • Till Eulenspiegel

      MarioKart VR wasn’t made by Nintendo either, it’s Namco.

  • VR5

    Counter examples to the withered approach would be the DS’s touch screen (predates the iPhone) and the Wii remote’s motion sensors and IR camera for inside out tracked spatial aware cursor. But of course, they don’t use withered tech for withered’s sake but for affordability, and neither of these exceeded the budget.

    Although, without competition from the PSP, a touch screen might have been to expensive for a Gameboy. But since the PSP was more expensive, Nintendo took the risk to launch the DS as a 3rd pillar well before the normal end of life of the GBA. If it had failed, they could have just continued with the GBA.

    Similarly, the VB was a defensive move against Atari’s plans to launch a VR console. They both had to face the fact that the tech wasn’t ready for VR yet, but Nintendo stubbornly pushed out what they had and tried to sell it as VR regardless.

    Labo VR is too impractical to be a useful platform but it could be if it also supported streaming to a more comfortable and higher resolution (proper!) HMD. The other day I was looking for an Iwata quote (but couldn’t find it) regarding the NX in which IIRC he talked about a new platform that would be like a TV, and which Nintendo would then support like it does support TVs.

    Maybe finally the XR landscape can become that platform. The Qualcomm XR initiative HMDs keep getting delayed, but the Vision Pro was finally announced (at a ridiculous price though), and competitors are looking to present their answers to Apple’s XR device. If customers can choose from HMDs by Meta, Apple, Samsung, LG, and so on, Nintendo could push VR without mainly supporting Meta, who are the only one to sell affordable “TVs” as of now.

    A good sign for continued steps towards VR are the rumored camera functionality on the Switch successor model, which could provide full 6dof support for another Labo. Also on screen AR as shown for smartphones in that patent illustration. One of the Joy-Cons already has an IR camera for 6dof tracking. Replace that with a depth sensor, on both Joy-Cons, and Switch 2 could have capable 6dof controllers. Are depth sensors affordable enough yet? Mass production in Quest 3 and next gen Joy-Cons could make them so.

    • Christian Schildwaechter

      A couple of BOMs for the AVP were leaked, and showed it using a Sony IMX611 depth sensor. That is pretty much state-of-the-art regarding how well it works with limited light, and is expected to also be used in the iPhone 15. Sony published a lot of specs about it, incl. the price of 1000 yen/USD ~7 for the sensor itself, you’d have to add more for optics/enclosure etc.. These things show up in more and more phones, which has already driven down costs significantly, so I’d say they are affordable enough for headsets now and for controllers soon.

      • VR5

        I guess by modern (post Iwata) Nintendo standards that’s withered enough then. They also had auto stereoscopic 3d screen (which only some obscure devices like some smart phone I think used before 3DS) and HD rumble.

        If Nintendo start doing proper VR outside of Labo, one big problem is, are the games developed for VR to fully utilize the medium or is it the same flat games but in VR? Introducing 6dof gameplay to flat games could help closing the gap but otherwise they’d have to support two different platforms again, which for select titles like Ring Fit and Switch Sports (both only playable on TV, not in handheld mode) they still do, but those games don’t require an expensive peripheral.

        Either the added cost for VR has to be very low or the playable games have to be the same as for flat.

        • Christian Schildwaechter

          Nintendo regularly includes advanced tech into their products, but usually for the sake of increasing accessibility. Touch screens are easier to use than button sequences or menu structures, and the Wii motion controls led to an unprecedented expansion of the user base beyond traditional gamers. The physical movement and accessories like the balance board allowed for it to be used for sports by non-gamers, and Wii bowling famously ended up a popular activity in many retirement homes, somewhat foreshadowing the use of the Quest as a fitness device.

          That accessibility improvement doesn’t really work with VR. While interaction in VR can be more intuitive than with a game pad, the extra requirements regarding setup, the isolation from the environment plus many comfort issues make VR a lot more hassle than playing on a console, pretty much the opposite of what Nintendo is using advanced tech for. So I’d agree with the article that we won’t see any serious VR activity from Nintendo anytime soon.

          VR seems stuck at a rather low percentage of market share for PC, traditional and mobile game consoles, drawing in a rather limited group of users that value immersion above comfort, not exactly Nintendo’s more casual target group. So I’d expect them to pretty much skip VR, wait for AR/XR to solve more/most of the pressing ergonomics issues first and use components like depth sensors to enable features like advanced hand tracking that again will open it up to user groups that have no idea what to do with a game controller, conceptually closer to AVP than Quest 2. It’s less about the price or tech maturity and more about making sure their consoles appeal to a very broad audience, not just a high end/”hardcore”/enthusiast one. Which would also mean that typical games would most likely be more like Switch Sports/Beat Saber instead of room scale 6DoF with free movement. And probably using a similar hybrid strategy as Sony on the PSVR2 with flat games getting optional XR modes instead of games developed for XR only to keep development costs low enough.

          • Traph

            I’m probably being pedantic, but the OG DS touchscreen and Wii sensor bar were absolutely not advanced tech.

            Resistive touchscreens already had a robust manufacturing chain (due to Palm Pilots) but suffered from a huge decline in orders (due to BlackBerry). Perfect opportunity for Nintendo. Capacitive touchscreens WOULD have been advanced for the time, but the only devices using them at the time were expensive niche pseudo-smartphones from Kyocera or whoever. iPhone was the first mass market device using them.

            The Wii sensor bar was essentially a hardware remix of a stopgap tech for light gun games so they could work with new televisions. It was honestly pretty garbage which is why games quickly devolved to “waggle Wiimote” and they developed the slightly better Motion Plus controllers for Zelda. Nintendo simply used the tech in a way no one had tried before and it seemed highly impressive. For comparison, the Xbox Kinect WAS advanced tech and everybody hated it because MS doesn’t have Nintendo’s special sauce for coming up with cool ideas to utilize their hardware.

          • Christian Schildwaechter

            Nintendo simply used the tech in a way no one had tried before and it seemed highly impressive.

            The unconventional/unexpected/new use of a technology is probably the main aspect of the “advanced tech” label here, not that the technology itself was necessarily new or radically improved. It’s actually often more impressive if someone can come up with a very convincing new use case for something cheap that already existed, than someone creating a device by combining rather expensive state-of-the-art tech.

            I’m very impressed with what Apple has achieved with the AVP at USD 3500 in 2023, but I’m still sort of more impressed by Meta releasing the Quest 2 based on mostly recycled technology for only USD 300 in 2020. Most of Apple’s success is also based on taking existing tech and bundling it with an innovative user interface for a package that people actually want to use, instead of huge, technological breakthroughs.

            And the glass covering the innovative capacitative touch screen on the original iPhone was another case of resurrected zombie technology. Corning had been trying to sell their toughened “Gorilla” glass to numerous companies, but none were interested, so they were about to shut down the production. Apple was developing the iPhone with a plastic cover like all other phones at the time, but Jobs complained about scratches on the prototypes. So Apple called Corning and got them to restart the production, making the iPhone also the first phone with actual glass covering the screen, and turning Corning from almost broke to a very successful company. Corning had been working on strengthened glass for cars since the 1960s, with Gorilla glass being a new development after 2000, but it never occurred to them or anybody else to use it in phones.

          • VR5

            Comfort is a key problem in VR’s slow adoption but in actuality, Nintendo hardware tends to have comfort issues of its own. Handheld gaming either strains your arm or neck and Nintendo controllers are often ergonomic nightmares. DS went from ugly but comfortable to stylish but hand biting. Doesn’t stop people from playing their games extensively.

            Those comfort issues are easily offset by low entry prices and quality of game experiences.

            VR comfort issues on the other hand only escalated with standalone hardware like Quest and it’s the combination of entry price, motion sickness, practicality of different solutions (slot in doesn’t work with phone cases and traps dust, wired headsets inhibit free room scale movement), search of play styles suitable for the medium and of course various comfort issues that holds it back.

            Quest is on track to tackle most of these problems but unfortunately they took a hit in the comfort department.

            And as much as an enthusiast I want Nintendo to do VR, unless they over deliver on comfort, have the HMD very lightweight, they better not bother at all. Labo VR unfortunately was the worst in comfort of any HMD I have used.

        • Traph

          “Withered” tech can also refer to repurposing technological dead ends.

          Eg: dual layer stereoscopic screens, Tegra SoC mobile gaming, light gun tech combined with sensor bar (designed to allow old light gun stuff work with non-CRT TVs), resistive touchscreens (superseded by capacitive in iPhone), etc.

          All of those things were “dead” by the time Nintendo utilized them, but only by a couple years at the longest as opposed to the ancient tech in the original GameBoy. Resistive touchscreens were still in active use, though only because Palm Pilots were a thing. Everyone expected the BlackBerry model to be the future (including Google who put scroll balls on the first Android devices until they saw/copied a prototype iPhone – and eventually got sued lol).

          The “lateral thinking” part of “lateral thinking with withered technology” is Nintendo’s biggest strength.

          • VR5

            light gun tech combined with sensor bar (designed to allow old light gun stuff work with non-CRT TVs)

            What’s the previous appliance of IR cameras though? The Wii remote pointer might also have been used for light gun like play but it didn’t reuse light gun tech. Light guns used one photo sensor only, the IR pointer on the other hand is a whole camera/sensor array and unlike a light gun also measures angle, distance and rotation. It was used for flashlights, Pong paddles, as a mouse cursor and for gun play it had a reticle, which light guns didn’t have.

  • Traph

    Not sure if you already know this, but the creator of Another/Out of this World actually released a VR title for PSVR1 and PCVR a year or three ago.

    It’s called “Paper Beast” – while it didn’t personally click with me, several of my friends who are also big fans of Another World absolutely love it.

  • Till Eulenspiegel

    You obviously don’t know anything about Nintendo.

    “Rather than focusing on shiny, new technology to make new gaming hardware, he created his masterly game consoles by using old technologies, for new purposes.”

    Enlightened yourself by reading this:
    umvel.medium dot com/innovation-nintendos-vision-on-using-old-tech-for-new-challenges-844836c31fa

    Nintendo has made cheapskate their philosophy for decades – that’s how they make so much money.

    • NL_VR

      So start writing consoles from Nintendo you consider them being cheapskate

      • Till Eulenspiegel

        “writing consoles from Nintendo”

        What the hell are you talking about?

        • NL_VR

          Name nintendo consoles that makes nintendo cheapskate.
          You dont have to get angry

          • Till Eulenspiegel

            Didn’t you look at the link? Gameboy was using monochrome screen when Sega was already using colour. Wii reused Gamecube’s processor to cut cost and DS and 3DS use crappy low res screen and processors when PSP and Vita had beautiful screen and fast processors.

            The Switch use the exact same processor as the Nvidia Shield that was already slower than the iPhone’s processor at the time it was launched. They were buying up the Tegra chip for cheap – no company was even using them except Tesla for one generation of their cars.

            The only time Nintendo spent big on R&D was N64 – they paid a lot of money to Silicon Graphics to build them a 64 bit chip. Sony had just entered the market with Playstation – a 32 bit system, Nintendo thought they can up the game by skipping 32 bit and going straight to 64 bit. Later they knew it was a mistake, 64 bit was only for marketing – no developers were even using 64 bit codes. Today we use 64bit CPU and Windows to get access to > 4GB ram, back then N64 has only 4MB of ram, using 64bit was a joke!

            I think Nintendo learnt their lesson and since Wii in 2006 they had been using outdated processors, they weren’t even competing with Playstation or Xbox anymore. By being cheapskate and using old tech, today they sold more consoles than Sony or Microsoft.

          • NL_VR

            Ok so cheapskate means you dont develop new tech and optimise what’s already there.

    • Anmol Agrawal

      If being merely a cheapskate AND successful is so straightforward, why don’t other companies emulate them?

      Better yet, offer both perf. and novel means of interaction.

      That is because I am guessing they have to make a choice.

      If you try to change two things at once, things are going to get too experimental and with the long lifecycle of a console, stability is a must.

      • Till Eulenspiegel

        You need to create REALLY GOOD softwares to make people buy your crappy hardware. Very few companies can do that.

  • ViRGiN

    Yeah and Nintendo had virtual boy and labo.
    One swallow does not make spring