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The Game Boy was a massive success for Nintendo. Both the handheld and its Game Boy Color successor boast a combined 118.69 million sales, putting them in third position on the list of best-selling game consoles. By contrast, the Virtual Boy was a disaster. Both devices were invented by the same person, Gunpei Yokoi, but it wasn’t the Virtual Boy’s terrible reception that caused him to leave the company.
As reported by Kotaku, Yokoi left Nintendo on August 15, 1996—less than a month before his 55th birthday and just over a year after the Virtual Boy’s release. Nintendo expected to move 3 million units during the first holiday season, but just 770,000 Virtual Boys were sold during its short lifetime (Nintendo discontinued it a year after release). The only ‘console’ to perform worse for Nintendo was the 64DD, a magnetic disk drive peripheral for the Nintendo 64.
Livedoor recently republished an article from the November 1996 issue of Japanese magazine Bungeishunju, in which Yokoi explained why he left the gaming giant.
“After over thirty years, I left Nintendo,” Yokoi wrote. “After graduating from university, I was at Nintendo the entire time working on playthings, but at the 55-year-old juncture, I thought about working at a job that would allow me even more freedom with my ideas.”
“The day before I retired [from Nintendo], The Nikkei did a big feature on me,” he added. The article said Yokoi took responsibility for the Virtual Boy disaster. “In reality, I did not resign to ‘take responsibility for the Virtual Boy’s failure.’”
“To put it another way. I came up with a lifetime of ideas and continued making playthings. To continue tweaking Nintendo’s corporate philosophy of ‘niche-type playthings’—that’s the only reason I resigned.”
Yokoi set up his own company called Koto and worked on the WonderSwan handheld for Bandai after leaving Nintendo. Tragically, he was killed a year later in a traffic accident, aged just 56.
You can discover more about the notorious early VR headset in our feature Virtual Reality Then: A Look Back At The Nintendo Virtual Boy.