You probably haven’t played Hamburgers En Route To Switzerland. Described as R-Type if R-Type starred a flying burger, the solo indie production ranks among 2020’s most obscure games. And that’s largely because it was released for the Virtual Boy.
Nintendo’s infamous flop console receives a trickle of homebrew titles every year, and Hamburgers creator Chris Read is one of its most prolific developers. Titles like Craig the Cranberry and 3D Crosswords aren’t complex, but are clearly made with care. Read’s motivation is simple: “I just make games because I can. I think the fact that the Virtual Boy failed is interesting. I was a kid when it was released, and I wanted one, but my parents never got me one.”
Old Coupons and New Emulators
All of Read’s work is tracked at Planet Virtual Boy, a “dedicated and enthusiastic community of Virtual Boy fans, gamers, collectors, hackers and homebrew developers.” In addition to their extensive development tools, the site is an encyclopedia of Virtual Boy ephemera. From scans of old ads and coupons to interviews with Nintendo employees in long-dead magazines, it’s an exhaustive effort to catalog any mention of the doomed console’s brief existence. One 1994 interview predicted three million first year sales in Japan alone; the Virtual Boy eventually sold about 770,000 units worldwide.
Not every Virtual Boy developer is a fanatic. 2019’s Red Square, developed by Kresna and their partner Nyrator for a game jam, was an excuse to give the console a try. “Originally, the idea of developing for the Virtual Boy was proposed by a friend as a joke,” Kresna says. “When I started researching I discovered that the hardware was really quite fascinating. Developing for the Virtual Boy was probably the best experience I’ve ever had programming for a retro console. It has an exceptionally fast processor, a generous amount of memory, and a very powerful video processor.”
Kresna, who’s thinking of moving onto the TurboGrafx-16 or Sharp X68000 next, lauds Planet Virtual Boy and the tools it provides new developers. “If anyone is interested in developing a game for a retro console, I highly recommend considering the Virtual Boy. The community has created a complete programming environment, and the documentation is top notch. [It’s] one of the best retro communities I’ve been a part of.”
Those tools include VUEngine, an open source engine created by the mononymous Jorge and backed by 42 Patrons pitching in $450 a month. The project began in 2005, and has since become the gold standard for Virtual Boy homebrew. Chris Radke, who became Jorge’s co-contributor in 2014, estimates they’ve put in “15,000 hours at least.”
Radke’s motivation is also simple. “I have a weak spot for Nintendo products, as well as stereoscopy and virtual reality,” he says. “The Virtual Boy combines that special Nintendo charm with an early form of the latter. Its obscurity only adds to the Virtual Boy’s appeal.” And, at least in his experience, the console’s reputation as a headache-inducing bore is unfair.
“I live in Germany, so a Virtual Boy was not initially within my reach. I was finally able to import one in 1997, and I was blown away,” he tells me. “It was a rare sensation back then, I think the only stereoscopy I had experienced before that was a short television movie in red/blue anaglyph. I don’t think I ever got any headaches from playing VB, even after playing for hours without breaks.”
A 1976 Console With a 2019 Cartridge
While homebrew games can be run on an actual console, some developers and players don’t actually own a Virtual Boy (Kresna has never even seen one). So VUEngine has to recreate its famous 3D effect. “The Virtual Boy outputs two images, one for each eye, each from a slightly different point of view,” Radke explains. “Our brain combines both into an image with depth, just like natural vision. VUEngine is primarily a sprite based engine, and it renders an object’s sprite(s) at different offsets on the X axis based on its Z coordinate. The higher the offset, the farther or nearer the object appears to the player.”
Radke notes that this creates “a bit of a challenge design-wise,” although the console is otherwise “a quite simple and straightforward designed system.” He and Jorge have even been able to push the emulated hardware past its initial limits. “Often I request a new feature I think would be useful for a demo, Jorge comes back with an initial idea for implementation, and we flesh it out in a ping pong-like process where we both throw our strengths in the mix. This way [we] work beyond the system’s restrictions, like tricking more colors than the original four out of it. [That’s] one of the most interesting and satisfying aspects.”
Jorge and Radke are also at work on Formula V, “a fast futuristic top-down racing game that could be described as Micro Machines meets F-Zero,” and VUEngine Studio, “a full fledged development environment which allows non-programmers to create Virtual Boy games solely via visual editors.” For Radke, the appeal of creating for a platform with an inherently limited reach is a plus, not a minus.
“I have dreamt of making my own game ever since I got a Game Boy for my ninth birthday,” he notes. “Eventually I taught myself C while making my first game — BLOX, a Sokoban clone. It is incredible to see your own code run on a real console the first time, and in that moment I was totally sold. When thinking about something new to create, the console was never a question. The audience is tiny, but like most homebrewers I create stuff for myself and for the fun of it. But if others enjoy it as well, that’s fantastic!”
The Virtual Boy isn’t the only obscure console with a passionate homebrew scene. Chris Read also makes games for the Magnavox Odyssey 2 and Fairchild Channel F, two consoles released in the late 1970s before the Atari 2600 devoured the market. Both have miniscule modern audiences, and both offer Read, a collector of obscure consoles, unique challenges.
“The Odyssey 2 is hard because all the code must be put in ‘pages’ of 256 bytes, and no part of it can reach through to another page unless you call for it,” he says. “So going back and adding one minute thing might break the whole game. Although the Channel F lets you have more freedom with its code, I find I can’t do more complex things with it. Not only that, I only have four colors to work with.”
Read sometimes creates print runs of 25 to 50 copies, complete with colour manuals, for truly hardcore fans willing to pay money for, say, a simple Channel F golf game. But it’s the oft-lambasted Atari Jaguar where the homebrew scene gets really serious about physical cartridges.
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Consoles Minus Console Wars
The Jaguar, maligned for its weak game library and hulking controller, bombed even worse than the Virtual Boy, moving no more than 250,000 units. But Carl Forhan of Songbird Productions is one of its strongest advocates.
“I cut my teeth on the Atari 2600 as a kid,” Forhan tells me. “I was amazed at some of the more advanced titles, but even really blocky, simple games like Asteroids provided many hours of fun. Fast forward 10 years, and I didn’t even know Atari was still in business! Then Usenet opened up a new world for me. There I found Atari fans, and learned that Atari was indeed in business and producing the Lynx and the Jaguar! I knew I had to get them. Over the next year or two, I became acquainted with hobbyists who had discovered techniques to hack around encryption schemes and load custom games. I was already a programmer by day, so I thought why not try my hand at it?”
Here, the obscurity is again part of the appeal. “I find [the Jaguar and Lynx] interesting in that they never had significant market penetration, yet they still had some outstanding games and technical capabilities,” Forhan explains. “They’re also fairly accessible, with common CPUs. I really enjoy making new software work on old tech. Plus it’s fun to make something that you know a certain set of people will appreciate, versus getting lost in the sea of phone apps or the large hurdle of getting something onto a mainstream game system.”
Songbird sells boxed copies of Forhan’s own creations, as well as those of other homebrew developers and old Jaguar games he’s acquired the rights to. Prices ranging from 35 dollars (for a simple arcade game) to 125 dollars (for the “The first-ever RPG for the Jaguar!”) are a big ask, but hardcore Jaguar fans are happy to pay. Decades removed from yesteryear’s console wars, the Jaguar is just another platform for interesting games.
“Protector SE is both my best-selling title and the one I am the most proud of, with over 500 units sold since 2002,” Forhan tells me. “I acquired the partially finished source and IP from another company that abandoned the project in 1998. I added about 30% more code, including the entire powerup scheme, new enemies, all the boss fights, etc. It’s been very popular with Jaguar fans, and an easy ‘wow’ game at retro gaming events to show off the Jaguar.”
While it’s a niche product, Forhan notes that physical games will always have their appeal. “There’s something satisfying about collecting physical products and knowing your game will always work with your system — no patches, no firmware upgrades. Sometimes there are [hardware] quirks which hobby developers can utilize to create some really interesting on-screen tricks, and it’s fun as a system owner to experience that on the real hardware.”
Regardless of the console, homebrew developers are optimistic that these little fandoms will continue to attract interest, and continue to make each other happy with games created with zero expectations of fame and fortune. “It takes technical expertise, long-term commitment, and a specific resilience when games may only sell dozens or hundreds of copies,” Forhan concludes. “It means more games for the fans, and that’s really what it’s all about.”