If you think it's hard to set up an HTC Vive in your American-sized home, spare a thought for the people that live in regular Tokyo apartments. Japan does seem to be interested in VR, but it's perhaps the reality of those living spaces combined with the ongoing viability of arcades that has inspired Bandai Namco — Namco being the company behind arcade smashes like Pac-Man, Tekken, and Ridge Racer — to open a dedicated space in Tokyo with its own unique Vive-powered experiences. There are shades of the theme park-style VR experiences that had a brief moment in the ‘90s, but VR Zone Project i Can is different; it's clearly been made possible by the explosion of interest in consumer-level VR hardware.
Appropriately enough for a virtual reality showcase, VR Zone is located in the least natural part of Tokyo — the artificial island of Odaiba, which plays host to shopping malls, a ferris wheel, and a fake Statue of Liberty. The arcade is an expansive area with six main attractions, the clear highlight of which you may have seen on The Verge a couple of weeks ago: a game that simulates rescuing a kitten from a plank of wood sticking out from the top of a skyscraper. Its Japanese name translates to "Acrophobia Show," and Bandai Namco isn't kidding — this was, to be frank, really scary.
I've used the HTC Vive before and am familiar with how walking around in its environments usually works, but Bandai Namco has rigged this cat-saving experience for maximum terror. Your feet are tracked as well as your hands, unlike the regular Vive, and rather than the Vive's motion controllers you have sensors strapped to your wrists so your hands are free to actually pick up the "cat," which is a similarly sensor-rigged prop. There's an actual plank of wood in the room that you have to walk along without falling off — there's some level of haptic feedback to give it a convincing sense of creaking, and it doesn't help that you're being blasted with air throughout to simulate the height. Indeed, you have to play the game with a seatbelt strapped to the ceiling along a rail in case you do take a tumble.
But when I did manage to get to the end of the plank and feel the furry cat facsimile in my hands, there was a level of joy and relief unlike any other experience I've had in VR, or video games in general. And then I had to walk backward along the plank to return the kitten to its mother without plummeting to our doom. It's a simple tech demo, but that's really the point — as a demonstration of the sort of thing that would be completely inconceivable without VR, Acrophobia Show is about as good as it gets.
The other standout was what I'll translate as Ward Escape Omega, a Saw-like multiplayer horror game that solves the problem of VR movement by placing you in a motorized wheelchair in a hospital where — yes — things have gone very wrong. A lever on your left lets you move forward and back, while a Vive motion controller in your right hand acts as a torch. Each player moves back and forth along predefined paths with branching options, and you can speak over your headset to solve puzzles together.
Aside from the predictable jump scares, which I will admit were pretty effective, Ward Escape Omega is ludicrously bloody. In one scene, I was sitting in my wheelchair in a half-circle with about a dozen other people who were being violently executed in pairs; I could see my partner on a live map and had to give him directions to reach the room and take out the executioners before they got to me. We both died in the end after our miscommunication over Rorschach patterns failed to stop some oncoming meat grinders. (Long story.) As with Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, many of the best multiplayer VR games may prove to be asymmetrical and cooperative.
I was surprised by how uncompromising Ward Escape Omega was for something found in the middle of a mall, but it’s further evidence that the limited control options afforded by VR can prod developers into to creating some pretty inventive horror situations. Capcom’s notorious Kitchen demo for PlayStation VR, where you hold a PS4 controller throughout to simulate cuffed hands, is similarly designed around making the player feel helpless.
VR Zone’s other attractions were a little more conventional. Ski Rodeo is an effective take on the Namco arcade classic Alpine Racer; you move your feet and hold the poles in the same way, but this time you’re free to look around with the Vive headset, and the TV monitor has been replaced with an air blaster. Design-wise, VR headsets have improved a lot over the past few years, but they still do feel unavoidably like ski goggles — Ski Rodeo is able to double down on that fact and feel all the more immersive for it.
Train Meister is a simple Japan Rail-licensed train-driving simulator, a genre which has been more popular in Japan than you might think through series like Densha de Go. The VR element is limited to your ability to look around the train’s cockpit — the primary control is a physical lever and button that you operate with your left hand to modulate speed. While I didn’t have quite enough time to practice the nuances of when to brake and accelerate between stations to arrive on time with typical Japanese punctuality, I could see a game like this being a pretty great way to chill out and see the sights of Japan. Bandai Namco would just have to simulate more of the country, and hopefully some more attractive parts than the stations in Tokyo’s business district I travelled between.
Argyle Shift is the obligatory anime-style mech simulator with obligatory chirpy co-pilot wearing next to nothing. You have a joystick in each hand and can aim your guns by looking around, but there’s not really any freedom of movement; you travel in a straight rail, and tilting the stick just lets you lean a little further in one direction to shoot enemies that are slightly out of view. It’s fun, and there’s a great set piece in the middle, but the experience is very shallow.
Real Drive is the only game at VR Zone not to use a Vive headset at all. You sit inside a hydraulically controlled car with a wide curved screen displaying realistic graphics — albeit with the low-res graininess typical of VR — and drive a few laps around Suzuka Circuit with a pretty good simulation of a clutch and manual gearbox. The experience is convincing, but I left wondering why it doesn’t use the Vive — it really feels like it was made for that.
VR Zone is a solid introduction to virtual reality for anyone unwilling or unable to devote a space at home to their own Vive setup, but it’s still kind of in the realm of early adoption in one respect — price. I had to spend 4,900 yen all-in to try everything, or about one thirteenth of the price of an Oculus Rift headset; the kitten-rescuing game alone was 1,000 yen (about $9), though admittedly it was totally worth it. At this kind of cost, Bandai Namco clearly isn’t targeting people that’d otherwise spend that money on ten credits in a Street Fighter machine.
But some of these experiences, especially for anyone who’s never tried VR before, are incomparable to what you’d find in a regular arcade. By setting the price relatively high, Bandai Namco is trying to legitimize VR as a heck of a technology that everyone really ought to check out. And honestly, I don’t think too many people would be disappointed.