In 1978 Gerald Rissman, Randy Rissman and Arnold Rissman started Tiger Electronics. The company originally started making gramophones and then branched out into educational toys such as the Talking Learning Computer and portable LCD games. Between their $20 price tag and access to IPs, including Robocop and several Disney titles, the handhelds – with one game on a console – were a huge success. That one, and his Talkboy tape recorder, made famous when it was used by Kevin in 1993’s Home Alone 2: Escape From New York, helped launch Tiger Electronics into another stratosphere.
In February 1995, Tiger Electronics bought the toy division of Texas Instruments, giving them the rights to the calculator company’s Speak & Spell and Speak & Math line of products. They also signed an agreement with Sega and Hasbro to make electronic toys for them, and the deal with Sega also meant more game licenses for their upcoming console, the R-Zone. The R-Zone was a headset-based “virtual reality” console that was unveiled at the American International Toy Fair that same month. It was Tiger’s attempt to compete Nintendo‘s infamous Virtual Boy console, which was released the same year.
The R-Zone had one big advantage over its more famous rival, which was that it sold for $29.99 compared to the Virtual Boy’s $179.95 price tag.
Unfortunately, that’s where the benefits of the R-Zone ended. Although the Virtual Boy was widely panned and discontinued in March 1996 (only 750,000 units were sold), under the hood it was simply vastly superior. It used a NEC V810 CPU and had a 32-bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processor that allowed it to project its famous red-and-black 3D images; they were painful to watch, but the technology was undeniably impressive. The Virtual Boy’s display also used dual mirror technology and had a resolution of 384 x 224 pixels.
As for the R-Zone headset, it didn’t have a microprocessor nor did it have any memory capabilities. It was also marketed as a virtual reality console, giving people the impression that it was using 3D images. But when in use, the images were very flat and of poorer quality than their LED handhelds. In addition, they retained the Virtual Boy’s unpleasant red hue, leading to reports of dizziness and eyestrain. The infernal red LEDs were ostensibly implemented because the contrast created an amazing sense of 3D depth, but the answer actually came down to economy: it was just cheaper.
The R-Zone headset, unlike the Virtual Boy, only used one lens that sat over your right eye, so only your right eye was blasted with these awful images, not to mention the headband which was extremely tight and uncomfortable, even for medium sized heads. Rather than leave a mark on the industry, the R-Zone simply left a sweaty red stain on your forehead.
In an effort to correct course, Tiger stepped away from the headset and concentrated on making handheld versions of the R-Zone. In 1996 a tabletop version called Super Screen was released and it was a complete 180 of the headset. Instead of shooting painful black and red images in your eye, it used a backlit screen that projected colorful, non-moving backgrounds and used 2D black images to show characters and actions.
Then, in 1997, the final year of the R-Zone, Tiger released the R-Zone XPG (Xtreme Pocket Gear), which was just a portable version of the headset. It used a single mirror to reflect the game into the user’s eyes, and it used the same horribly low-quality red-and-black imagery. Also for something with the word ‘pocket’ in the title, it wasn’t very pocket friendly, as the lamp used to illuminate and project the images onto the mirror was large, making the handheld take up a lot of space.
As you can see above, it wasn’t a great piece of gear, but the original headset had a lot of games. It had movie links like Apollo 13, Batman Forever, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park: The Lost World. If you were a sports fan it had Indy 500 and Daytona USA, and it also had fighting games like Virtua Fighter, Primal Rage and Mortal Kombat 3. The R-Zone and its variants didn’t want big name titles, it’s just the technology and deceptive marketing that led to it becoming forgotten and unpopular.
The R-Zone series was discontinued in 1997. Tiger Electronics was not a bad company; they had their time in the sun, their ads were all over children’s television channels, and they made handheld gaming cheaper and more accessible. They just invested a lot in VR, a technology that was far from ready for the mainstream, and it worked terribly. They were bought by Hasbro a year later in 1998 and were key in the development of the nightmare-driven toy that is the Furby.