An official virtual reality version of Mario Kart is a thing that exists for actual humans to play today. It’s true. Unfortunately, there are a few significant caveats. You must travel to Tokyo, Japan. You must pay about $40. You must wait in line for over an hour and a half, if my experience on Saturday afternoon — stretching into evening — was representative.
But it’s worth it.
Mario Kart Arcade GP VR is located at the new Shinjuku outlet of Bandai Namco’s VR Zone arcade. Bandai Namco develops the Mario Kart Arcade GP series under license from Nintendo — it’s been a fixture of Japanese arcades for over a decade. The VR Zone arcades seem to be doing pretty well since I visited the first one on opening day a year and a half ago; that Odaiba branch featured many of the same attractions in a smaller, less ambitious space, but the Tokyo location is a huge, cavernous arena with a resort theme and projection-mapped light shows that create virtual beaches and cliff faces.
It’s also really busy, and Mario Kart is clearly the main attraction. To play, you have to buy a 4,400 yen (~$39) ticket that lets you choose four VR experiences, only one of which can be Mario Kart. You play it in groups of four, each person sitting in either Mario, Luigi, Peach, or Yoshi’s car. The car frame features a force-feedback steering wheel, and the whole setup moves and shakes in time with the gameplay — it even blows wind into your face. The VR headset is an HTC Vive, as with all the other VR activities in the arcade, and you wear handstraps with Vive Trackers attached so that your arm movements can be detected by the game.
Why is that important? So that you can pick up turtle shells from floating balloons and hurl them at the other players, of course.
What you’re waiting to hear is that this is an incredible experience. And, well, it really, really is. The sense of scale is phenomenal, whether you’re dodging giant Piranha Plants or being overtaken by a colossal Bowser. Although the graphics aren’t technically much more advanced than the Mario Kart arcade games, it’s hard to convey just how immersive it feels in VR. Never mind that the Thwomp cinder block looming above your head has a goofy face — you definitely won’t want it to squish you.
Incredible experience, not much of a video game
What Mario Kart Arcade GP VR is not, however, is much of a video game. The regular Mario Kart series is known for its usually welcome but occasionally maddening focus on inclusivity, where weaker players get stronger power-ups like the infamous, near-unavoidable blue shell that targets the driver at the front of the race. The VR incarnation is even less competitive, though, with the track divided into discrete sections that all players warp to at the same time. There'll be a winner at the end, but their identity might not have much to do with driving ability.
To be clear, this is the right way to do it. It would be awful for someone to line up for 90 minutes and then get stuck or left behind, and the way Bandai Namco has designed the experience ensures that you’ll always be racing right alongside the other players and reacting at the same time. But it does mean that Mario Kart in VR is more like a rollercoaster than a video game — a short burst of exhilaration after interminable anticipation.
That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t buy the heck out of it if Bandai Namco and Nintendo decided to release it on Steam, of course. Judging from the lines in Tokyo, though, I’d say that Mario Kart Arcade GP VR is more representative of Nintendo’s plans for theme parks than its plans for virtual reality video games.