Like many animals that spend a lot of time killing other animals, humans have binocular vision – two eyes looking in the same direction. When you look at something, you actually see two images of it, from slightly different angles, which your brain then combines into a single three-dimensional image in a process called “stereopsis.”
While this helped us climb the food chain, it poses a problem for any form of entertainment that tries to believably depict anything on a two-dimensional surface – like, say, video games. You can create three-dimensional models interacting in three-dimensional worlds. You can exploit other cues the human brain uses to determine depth and distance, like parallax and changes in size. You can make wildly spinning objects zoom into the player’s face at every opportunity while “THIS IS MODE 7. NEAT, HUH?” flashes across the screen in bright red letters, just in case the effect is too subtle for some people. But you can’t actually place a three-dimensional object with depth in front of the player’s eyeballs.
Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped developers seeking to create the most immersive possible experience – or at least an interesting marketing gimmick – from creating gaming hardware intended to do the next best thing and trick the player’s brain into seeing 3D objects anyway.
Luckily for these devs, the human visual system is actually embarrassingly easy to fool, as anyone familiar with optical illusions can attest. Unluckily for them, the part of our nervous system that processes questions like, “Is seeing Mario play tennis in eye-gouging red monochrome worth $180?” is usually at least a little more discerning.
So, gird your eyeballs as we explore eight of the devices developers have used to add three-dimensional visuals to their games.
Appearing in arcades in 1982, Sega’s SubRoc-3D was a first-person shoot’em up that put players at the controls of a submarine fighting hordes of hostile ships, airplanes, and UFOs. As a game, it wasn’t particularly remarkable, but its presentation was.
Rather than looking at the screen directly, players peered at it through a periscope-shaped contraption containing two spinning disks, each half-opaque and half-transparent. The monitor displayed two slightly shifted versions of the same image, one intended for each eye, and rapidly alternated between them. The discs’ spinning was timed so that one of the player’s eyes was always obscured while the other had a clear view, alternating in sync with the shifting image on the screen.
The synchronization of eyepiece and screen meant that each eye saw only the version of the image intended for it. Voila, 3D! This is one of the most common types of 3D display technology: the active shutter system. Modern active shutter 3D devices have replaced mechanical whirling discs with layers of liquid crystal in front of each eye that go from transparent to opaque and back again as electricity is applied, but the fundamental principle remains unchanged.
The illusion works by artificially mimicking how depth perception functions when looking at real-world objects, described previously. Normally, you’d perceive the image on a flat monitor as, well, flat. By creating two shifted versions of the image and showing each eye only one, the active shutter system mimics seeing a single object from two slightly different perspectives, as if it were a real object in three-dimensional space. This creates the appearance of depth where none exists, like Magic Eye pictures or the Gears of War “Mad World” trailer. (Zing!)
As a game, SubRoc 3-D was a fairly run-of-the-mill shooter. The technological marvel of its 3D visuals was also undercut by Sega’s decision to save money with cheap, unreliable motors that sometimes led to the discs getting stuck. Nevertheless, as the first 3D videogame, it has certainly earned a place in history.
2. Tomytronic 3-D
In 1983, Japanese toy manufacturer Takara Tomy released the first 3D videogame hardware for the home market with its series of “Tomytronic 3D” handheld electronic games. Unlike SubRoc-3D, which used a single screen that had to be viewed through a separate set of spinning whirlimajigs, Tomytronic 3D cut out the middleman and used two displays, one for each eye, inside a device that the player held to their eyes like binoculars. Seven were released in all, often under several different names for different markets – one of the Japanese games was actually called Jaws 3D, which became the more lawyer-friendly Shark Attack in the United States. Other games included Jungle Fighter, Skyfighters, Sky Attack, Sherman Attack (you may be noticing a recurring theme here), and Thundering Turbo.
3. Vectrex 3D Imager
The Vectrex was a short-lived entry in the home console market by General Consumer Electronics – a name so militantly generic it almost circles around to being memorable – and then Milton Bradley after it bought GCE. (In the grocery store’s store brand aisle next to the bottle that just says “COLA” on it, presumably.)
Instead of using a television, the Vectrex had a built-in monochrome vector display – a technology that seems utterly antiquated now, but was actually superior to contemporary pixel-based graphics in some respects. Vector graphics were used by many contemporary arcade games, which aided in porting them. Sadly, the Vectrex had the misfortune to be released the year before the great videogame crash of 1983, which killed it.
It had a few peripherals in its brief life, including the first 3D add-on ever released for a home console. The Vectrex 3D Imager was a set of 3D glasses that worked similarly to SubRoc 3-D, except instead of a pair of disks, the imager contained a single spinning “Color Wheel” that was translucent on one half and black on the other. Different games came with different Wheels, since the vector display was monochrome and used plastic overlays to provide suitable tints for individual games.
Only three 3D Imager games were released before the demise of the Vectrex, but it likely wouldn’t have taken off even if it had been given more of a chance. There’s probably a good reason that nobody else ever tried to market a vector display-based game console, and the track record of subsequent attempts at 3D graphics on home consoles is not encouraging.
The Color Wheel also spun fast enough to produce an appreciable gyroscopic effect, making it resistant to being moved. So resistant, in fact, that if the rest of the Imager moved, the Wheel could be jerked out of position by its own rotational inertia. Not a problem for the immobile Subroc-3D eyepiece, but on home consoles you have a problem when a peripheral reacts poorly when the player turns their head.
We’ll never know for sure, though, so if you want to dream of a world that might have been where the Vectrex 3D Imager ushered in a golden age of 3D and the console war of 2015 is a struggle between the VectrexOne, the Atari Colocolo, and whatever nightmarish obscenity the Virtual Boy might have evolved into after 20 years, go for it.
4. & 5. SegaScope 3D Glasses and the Famicom 3D System
1987 saw two new entries into three-dimensional gaming on home consoles with the SegaScope 3D Glasses for the Sega Master System and the Famicom 3D System for the Nintendo Famicom. Both used an active shutter system that worked on the same principle as Subroc-3D or the Vectrex 3D Imager, but were among the first commercially released devices to use liquid crystal displays rather than mechanical shutters. So no more Vectrex-style clashes of strength between man and machine if you wanted to turn you head, which was a plus.
Neither was a success. They were clunky, they were pricey, their game libraries were limited, and the sort of 3D effects an 8-bit system could muster weren’t exactly dazzling anyway. Only the SegaScope was ever released outside of Japan, and Sega eventually gave up on it so thoroughly that it couldn’t even be plugged in to later versions of the Sega Master System.
Each had only a handful of compatible games. SegaScope had eight. Almost all of them helpfully included “3-D” in the name, though in inconsistent and confusing ways. Out Run 3-D was a 3D-enhanced remake of the version of Out Run released on the Master System two years prior, while Zaxxon 3-D was the only version of Zaxxon for the Master System, whereas Space Harrier 3-D was actually a full-blown sequel to Space Harrier.
The Famicom 3D System had seven games, of which there is very little of interest to say except that three of them were pre-Final Fantasy Square games made by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Two of these- Highway Star and Tobidase Daisakusen – got international releases as Rad Racer and 3-D Worldrunner, respectively, packaged with a pair of cheap cardboard anaglyph 3D glasses to recreate the 3D effect. Speaking of which…
6. Anaglyph 3D Glasses
This is the 3D display technology most immediately recognizable to the average person, associated with classic (for a certain value of “classic”) B movies of the 1950s. Each eye is covered with a translucent colored lens that filters out different wavelengths of light. Meanwhile, instead of alternating between two streams of shifted images in succession, the display shows both at once – each tinted a different color that will be filtered out by the lens over one eye, but not the other.
The tinted, doubled image on the screen will be a hideous, headache-inducing nightmare to anyone looking at it without anaglyph glasses. For those suitably equipped, however, each eye receives only the visual stream intended for it, and the brain obligingly fuses them into a single 3-D image. Take two pieces of plastic, mount them in enough cardboard to keep them affixed to the wearer’s face, and you’ve got 3D – without the need for bulky, expensive active shutter goggles that must be precisely synchronized with the shifting display.
The 3D visual quality of anaglyph glasses is not as good as an active shutter system, and all the filtering leaves a final image with a limited, muted spectrum of colors. They are, however, much cheaper, making them a potentially more practical alternative for 3D graphics. Over the years, a number of games have been made attempting to take advantage of that.
These span numerous platforms across the decades. Square’s 3-D Worldrunner and Rad Racer for the Nintendo Entertainment System have already been mentioned. Others include Wanderer 3D on the Amiga in 1988, Contra: Legacy of War on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn in 1996, and Magic Carpet, Duke Nukem 3-D, and Serious Sam on PC. More recent titles include Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, Toy Story Mania!, Minecraft, and Elite: Dangerous. Some of them used 3D as their central selling point, often including a pair of cheap anaglyph glasses packed in with the game.
You may have noticed that these games can be divided into two categories: games no one remembers, and games no one remembers featuring an anaglyph 3D mode. Despite numerous attempts and the relative accessibility of the technology, anaglyph 3D has never made much of a splash in gaming. Perhaps it’s because of its inferior visual quality, or because you can’t make money selling an expensive peripheral for it, or because wearing a piece of cardboard with two differently colored lenses on your face makes you look sillier than even hard-core gamers can tolerate. Whatever the reason, anaglyph’s also-ran status seems unlikely to change any time soon.
7. Sega’s “Holographic” Games
Sega’s Time Traveler was quite the attention-grabber when it hit arcades in 1991. It had no screen! Instead, holographic characters strode across its three-dimensional stage, projected into the air as if by magic, telling the tale of a heroic cowboy fighting opponents across time. (And occasionally taking time off during attract mode to remind prospective players that winners don’t use drugs.) The gameplay was extremely limited and clunky, and it was ludicrously expensive to play ($.75 at my arcade), but wow! Holograms! 3D! The next year Sega followed up with Holosseum, seeking to combine holographic visuals with the fighting game craze newly ignited by Street Fighter II..
Contrary to their billing, no actual holograms were involved. The games were actually two-dimensional images on a standard CRT screen, with a cleverly placed concave mirror to create the optical illusion of freestanding “holograms” on the game’s stage. Unfortunately, aside from the 3D gimmick, they didn’t have much going for them. Even their visuals were pretty lackluster once the novelty wore off: No backgrounds, no visual effects to speak of, just little digitized characters walking around a bleak, featureless void. And speaking of bleak voids…
8. Virtual Boy
Terrible vistas open before you, wrought in agonizing lines of crimson light blazing against utter sepulchral darkness. They sear your eyes like a thousand red-hot brands, their inhuman geometric precision a mocking counterpoint to your own bewilderment. You look to your left, then to your right, frantically seeking some refuge, but in vain. Beyond this hellish incarnadine abyss there is nothing, nothing except the burning pain in your eyes and a growing cramp in your neck and the terrible awareness that somehow you chose this.
Welcome to the Virtual Boy.
More prosaically, the Virtual Boy was a “portable” 3D game system released by Nintendo in 1995. It was a rare misfire by brilliant designer Gunpei Yokoi, the man responsible for (among other things) Mario Bros., Metroid, the Game Boy, launching the career of Shigeru Miyamoto, and inventing the D-pad. Even the greatest of us have our bad days.
It was a bulky headset worn over the eyes, nominally portable but so heavy it was supported by a tripod. Two LED displays provided separate streams of images to each eye in now-familiar fashion, without the need for a shutter system. A visor/shield blocked the player’s peripheral vision. Instead of conventional displays with pixels arranged in a grid, it used 1×244 linear arrays, which were then turned into a full field of pixels by reflecting them with rapidly oscillating mirrors.
This system had problems dealing with multiple colors, and the green and blue LEDs needed for a color display would have been costly, leading to the most distinctive visual feature of the Virtual Boy: Everything is red.
Bright red on black, to be more precise, which is exactly as pleasant to stare into for prolonged periods as it sounds. Combined with the potentially disorienting 3-D effects and the awkward posture often needed to look into the device properly, playing the Virtual Boy could be a physically punishing ordeal. Users complained of eye pain, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and neck soreness. It was bad enough that the Virtual Boy provided warnings to take a break every 15 to 30 minutes, lest the abuse it inflicted on its users overwhelm them completely.
Those stalwart souls willing to endure this could choose from a library of three games at launch, expanded to 22 by the time of the system’s demise. These included pack-in game Mario’s Tennis and such killer apps as Nester’s Funky Bowling, Bomberman: Panic Bomber, and Waterworld. The Virtual Boy does bear the distinction of having the first Megami Tensei game released outside in America (a year before Persona) in the form of Jack Bros.
Virtual Boy did about as well as you’d expect a system that physically attacked players to do, vanishing from the market and back into the abyss from whence it was birthed after less than a year.