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Dtoid in Japan: Hands-on with Mario Kart Grand Prix VR Arcade

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Is this real life?

Despite everything cool I saw at E3, an official Nintendo-licensed Mario Kart VR was the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. It sounded too good to be true. A few of us in the press room had to do a triple take to believe it wasn't some weird fan-made homebrew (which by the way has existed since 2014, though I've never bothered). 

Is this real life? I couldn't wait to see what the world's first Nintendo "true" VR game might be like, so here I was ready to get back on the horse, er, kart. No offense to Virtual Boy fans, but I've been patiently waiting 22 years for this moment, and it's finally here. 100% authentic and it's out right now Japan, open to the public at the world's largest VR Arcade, a new facility in Shinjuku. I'm one of the lucky few to have spent all morning there for a chance to play the brand-new Mario Kart VR from start to finish. 

The burning questions I'll try to answer for you today: How does it play, what's the VR like, does it suck, and is it worth the trip to have a life-sized Luigi give you "the look"?

Warning: Minor spoilers follow, with the full track spoiled in the off-camera videos. 

Title: Mario Kart Grand Prix VR Arcade
Developer: Bandai Namco (Nintendo Licensee)
Arcade: Shinjuku, Tokyo VR Zone "Project I-Can"
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Price: Uh, ~$1,500 air/hotel/meals, ~$40 reservation, plus extras

Mario Kart Arcade Grand Prix VR is an arcade-scale Unreal Engine 4 re-imagining of what it would be like to hop into a kart and race around a fully imagined cartoony race track. Building on the 2005 Mario Kart GP limited arcade release, Bandai Namco delivers what appears to be a narrower mish-mash of one of GP's tracks, delivered through the lens of an HTC Vive and arcade cabinet wizardry.

I've been a die-hard supporter of VR since last year (I made a ghetto Vive for $40 when Riftcat was still free), yet continue to have my expectations crushed over and over. Nevertheless, here I was, and sure enough people here were managing and fighting with as many cables as I was at home.

From the sidelines, this ride looks awkward. Players are wearing two straps, they're wired into a headset, there's the steering wheel and pedals to manage, and there's the terrible dogtail cable sticking out of the HTC headset. It's still weird to me to see this version being tested in retail. It has such an unpolished garage-kit feel, but it's powerful stuff. The headset mount was different than the early home version. This one had a tightening knob located in the back of my cranium (like the premium audio upgrade). It was otherwise identical to retail. 

In the seat, it's totally organic. The game flawlessly tracks your hands with a sensor strap, your costumed gloves naturally grip the wheel and off with forgivable snapping, the seat realistically shakes and rumbles as you turn and smash into other carts, and there's a powerful wind machine that absolutely nails the feeling of being in a speeding kart that, uh, sometimes misses a ramp and plummets to its death. If you run down the checklist of what makes Mario Kart magical, it's mostly all there minus the retail-sized campaign. Somehow, this awkward salad of decades-apart technology works wonderfully together, with the help of some wranglers. The guy who helped me spoke pretty good English, too! Lucky.

Here's a close-up of the action:


If you saw the debut trailer you know what to expect: Larger-than-life piranha plants directly in your path trying to bite you and other massive obstacles with a full cast of familiar Nintendo characters on the track. You'll find ramps, cliff jumps, dead ends, a million unlucky ways to lose, and those damn turtle shells. To get ahead of the pack and win the race you must be ruthless, agile, and have impeccable timing. For the most part, the VR edition is very true to the source material with fewer weapons and a gentler, narrow rookie track. It seems designed to make going backwards unlikely. Being a franchise otaku gives you a definite advantage, as you'll know exactly what to do when that large Thwomp appears on the horizon. For everything else, you'll need to pray.

E3 Reveal trailer, in case you missed it:

Confession: I'm a bit of a fair-weather Mario Kart fanboy. I was excited for Deluxe and must have burned over 400 hours mastering the SNES version. 400 hours, you say? Yes, I was poor. I'm surprised my house didn't catch on fire. Still, I picked up the sequels less and less as I grew older. I won't hesitate to pick up a game at a friends' house, but I don't crave it at home in the way I crave my awkward hipster music-filled photo-realistic racers. I somehow couldn't resist this, though. If I'm honest I'm seeking the game that justifies the stupidly expensive VR rig back home.

Mario Kart VR requires an intimidating setup. It requires a large space, a lot of handlers, and all the pricey high-end VR gear. Four large kart machines are wired together for simultaneous competitive play, with an NPC cast of many other racers joining the race - including a garbage-truck-sized Bowser who makes a startling appearance by barreling through the start, slamming into your car and pushing you aside. You will feel that in your bones and even though I knew it was coming from waiting in lines it scared the living crap out of me.

Naaaaaaaah, right? Right?

I thought, "OK, I know VR games, I'm a seasoned game journo, I'm kinda over this whole VR thing. This hurr is Mario Kart VR, no big deal. I've got my Vive on and yup, I'm here sitting in some cute predictable Mario graphics, and they're not super polished or insanely subsampled." This went on in my head for a few minutes as other players were being calibrated.

I kept self-ruminating about how unsurprised I was so far: "Hmm, some of these shadows over here could be a little tighter," I thought, and wasn't particularly impressed with the fidelity of the ground texture. "It probably looks better when racing," I snobbily decided. Points off for this, points off for that, "desu desu desu."

Running out of material to note from the start line, I began to run through all my fancy game journo vernacular in my head, making additional nonsensical mental notes in my mind. The re-projection this, the field of view that, the draw distance such and such, the 90 Hz of whatever, UE4 yadda yadda, 360-degree gapless visuals, and so forth ....then the race started. Oh, boy was I wrong. 

Holy.

WUT.

I suspected it was going to be good due to the uncharacteristic nature of the game reveal at E3, but I wasn't ready to have my face digested and fed back to me through my fingertips. Think back to the first time you really hauled-ass on something with wheels down a slope as a kid, or when your snot-faced friend talked you into getting into a shopping cart and then hurled you into uncertainty. You didn't have full control of the situation, and that's what made it fun. The chaos element. You'd have to be a corpse not to enjoy this immensely.

The "this is dumb, but I could do this all day" appeal -- that's Mario Kart VR.

For the first whole minute of the race, I lost complete control of my lower jaw. It must have snapped off at the flag line, hit the floor, and rolled out the front door miles behind me. I seriously could not shut my mouth from the "oh-shitness" I was simply not ready for. I was so not cool, so not ready. This was nuts. This was faster than I thought it was going to be and smoother than I could have ever hoped. I was in a real cartoon. Niero's fleshy bone frame no longer, discarded somewhere back in the meat dimension where this is definitely less interesting on my TV.

This was the virtual reality I wanted. This makes total sense. This ... isn't giving me motion sickness somehow. Is it the rumbling car, the fan? No locomotion whatsoever. It has completely tricked all of my senses. I'm buying every second of this. It felt incredibly familiar and what made the game fun on a flat screen still made it fun in VR. Being in the game was just a really intimate perk. A Deluxer Edition, if they see this through. Of course, those are two totally different games, but it's just too bad there's nothing in between.  

My brain could barely process the holy-mother-of-wtf that was being burned into my eyeballs. I mentally tore up my notes and started over, a new journal to later transcribe in my review. It read something like: "Uh, pure fun. Can't talk now, sorry. Dude, I'm driving, call yourself later. I told you not to call me here! *slams invisible phone*"

There I was, sweating suddenly, barreling down the track at a speed way faster than how the couch game feels, and giant obstacles and believable Mushroom Kingdom landscapes approached with a terrifying reality. My hands gripping the steering wheel for the life-or-death scenario playing out before me.

I hear people screaming all around me and, oh, what's this? We all have voice controls and microphones! "Peachyyyyy!", one guy cries. Everyone is cracking up, international boundaries smashed. This is hilarious.

Then, suddenly, naturally reaching out for Koopa shells instinctively to lay waste to the karts that sped ahead of me. I was in that video game with all my blood and guts boiling. Game on, son, you're going down.

Here's how weapons work, the game's most unique addition:

You won't find any shells in bricks or on the floor: Balloons or Lakitu fishing rods will dangle power-ups in swarms throughout the level. You must reach out to thin air and grab them, and depending on the type of weapon you must either use it on the spot or cook it for the right moment. There's a giant hammer that lets you smash players within a single cart proximity that automatically goes away after a few seconds, or you can cancel it by putting your hands back on the wheel. I didn't see an invincibility star in all of the games I observed.

For turtle shells and bananas, you just toss them naturally. You can turn all the around in your seat and punt the player right behind you. The accuracy is bizarrely on point thanks to the Vive's portable motion capture sensor, which is bound to both your hands through a creative rubber strap held with Velcro. It's worth mentioning that this is stuff anyone can buy off the shelf. This is different than the gun-shaped controllers that come stock, they're smaller and lighter. It's kind of genius that they didn't use a glove; these are faster and more hygienic to take on and off. 

The responsive controls really bring this game home. If you've ever tried playing Project Cars or whatever on the Vive and feel like you're trapped in a soldier's locker in Metal Gear until you've out-calibrated all the fun out of it and must sit perfectly still or it's ruined -- it's not that. This just feels natural. You're on the kart, in an unapologetic cartoon universe, for five or six minutes. I was Mario and I believed it. They called me that by name. Real voices said so and they were looking right at me.

At one point, I jumped off a cliff and the familiar glider popped up to sail me down. I feared for my life, I laughed, I yelled; I felt like a child again. Hands down, this was absolutely one of the most lovely racing video games I've ever played. The SNES days came back to life right before me with a freshness and wonder.

For a moment, I felt like I was in deep in the heart of Nintendo

Parting thoughts from the pit deck: No regrets for the absurd amount of money I just burned through in five minutes to park my rear in this kart cabinet. This was the real deal.Bandai Namco did not drop the ball. They slam-dunked it repeatedly on my face for five minutes, and I loved every dollar-sucking second of it. They did it!

The appeal of this title truly is universal. The power of the franchise gets people to the door and the lure of the cackling racers closes the deal. There's nothing to explain, you just have to have it. The giant warehouse housed over 20 attractions, some non-VR related, and it seemed everyone was chiefly there for Mario Kart with a side serving of Evangelion. What a place!

At home, I have a Vive with 40+ "games" (honestly 90% are half-finished tech demos) and all the showcasing and parading I've done with my family does not hold a candle to Mario Kart VR. Unfortunately, it's over so fast that it's hard to call it a game. As a technology demonstration, this succeeds in every way imaginable. I'd kick a baby panda in the eye for five more minutes.

This is where the game, though consistent with other arcade racers, becomes hard to recommend. It's one track, and it's short. The game is far from complete. Yet again, it's not much beyond a VR tech demo, although the most polished and fun one I've ever tried.

The new mechanic left me with some mixed feelings. It's hard to prepare for this game, as the experience of driving while smashing someone near you with a giant hammer is not only unprecedented but felt bizarrely cruel and unusual. I was in line with these salt-of-the-earth giggly Japanese couples (great date spot, btw! 10/10) and five minutes later I'm bashing their brains in with a giant mallet. They'd yell "Mario!" and that was my cue to be aware of their proximity to crush them to pieces. I felt terrible but we laughed hard about it after. On the way out as I profusely apologized in my preschool-level Nihongo. I heard the word "Yasashi" (kind) being said to others during the race. They definitely were not talking about me. I was a monster, the worst!

Core players know friendships can be strained by blue shells on the sofa with the home edition. You can only imagine how red-faced souls will take a repeated Roger-Rabbitesque hammering to the mouth. We'll have to learn new manners.

If you're planning a trip to Tokyo the arcade was verbally confirmed (by an attendee) to be open for at least another six months. For my buddies coming for Tokyo Game Show in September: I pray it will be at the show, but if not please plan wisely or you'll be stuck enjoying the thrill from the sidelines. You don't really need an interpreter, but it helps. Some of the game manuals are printed in English, on laminate cards.

I need to express some childhood bias to you: This is one of those fantasy articles I daydreamed to someday write. Hop on a plane to Tokyo, dash from the airport to my appointment, play Japanese video games all day in a giant futuristic arcade until they dragged me away. I just did that, but it will never be off my bucket list: this is my passion for life. I cannot wait for this to cross the ocean so you can check it out for yourselves.

VR desperately needs a killer app, and Mario Kart is a solid candidate

Without hyperbole, this gives us a glimpse into the future of high-end Japanese Arcades. People of all ages and walks of life were having an absolute riot together in a seldom seen universal way, maybe most similar to when you watched an unsuspecting family member come to life with Wii Sports years ago - but with ten times the yelling and excitement.

That is to say, this can't replace arcades or videogames as they are. You can argue all day that Space Harrier II is more fun on the giant motorized machine of my dreams, but the cost, space, and personal commitment required to be temporarily blindfolded means it's another animal. VR's there when you want to go full reta....il. Full retail. It's expensive.

I wish I could say such a game would help Nintendo leapfrog the VR industry, and perhaps in arcades that can be true with Bandai Namco's game center geniuses. The unfortunate reality is that such a game requires a costly and complex set of logistics. A full Vive kit and capable computer are prohibitively expensive and not particularly easy to calibrate, and when coupled with the variable-length motorized kart machine, the cost of the multiple handlers at every single cart station, it quickly becomes like maintaining a ride at Disney World.


Pictured: Don't get your hopes up, it's just a concept by artist Antoine Beynel 

Then again, who knows? If you can turn a shitty Android phone from two years ago into a cardboard virtual world, Mario Kart 8 VR half-working in a low-poly mode on the Switch would kill it. It would be a heavy paperweight on your face, it would be blurry, and there would be riot in the streets to have it. I can't even wait for the day, having had a little taste of it. This game is crack. Non-gamers will shit themselves in a cold and wonderful sweat. Investors? Thrusting. A bad version of this might still be pretty damn good. A boy can dream.

Important: Don't show up without a reservation. Book online.

Finding the virtual reality game center is easy. It's a short walk from the Shinjuku JR Station, just ask people where the Toho Cinema is near Kabuki-Cho and you'll see it. The gray warehouse-like structure faces a large open plaza by a Godzilla-themed hotel. Mario Kart VR is upstairs after you clear security. There's no time limit once you're in the building, and there are two high-quality restaurants and some impressive projection-mapping activities throughout the gorgeous building. You can get your Pac-Man curry on and fap to Summer Lesson in public.

Pro tip: Depending on which way you walk from you'll want to blindfold your children through this neighborhood. Don't walk kids under that gate, make a wide left. If you get it wrong or miss your appointment there's a Hedgehog cafe around the corner, and I don't mean the eight-story Sega Game Center Megaplex to the left of that. Check the gallery below for my off-topic adventures.

Once you're inside, you have to choose which category of game you want to spend your UNO-style card/tokens. The "yellow" ticket gets you Mario Kart VR. You're not going to like this part: It was offered to me as a $40 bundle (by appointment only), which comes with four game tickets. The exchange rate works out to ~$8 US per play. Like at Disney or Universal, there's a ~$9 "express pass" to skip the line, which is sold on top of the play ticket. It adds up pretty quick, and you haven't even had breakfast yet.

That's $20 for a five-minute game if you don't want to make a 40-90 minute line. Tokyo's not exactly cheap. Bonus: You get a VR Zone round five-port USB hub as a door prize and a ninja-style sanitation mask, a bag, and a program guide. This also came with a train station-style access ticket to go in. For the arcade operator, a $9-a-pop ticket plus income from express passes every five minutes with a seemingly insatiable audience that leaves craving for more, this is the VR that appears to be wildly profitable (not factoring in their prime real estate in Asia's largest red-light district).

I should mention that pregnant women and drunks are not allowed. There's a drawing of both of these forbidden people on the same poster, side by side. Accidental genius. The steak at Glamper's (as in Glamourous Camping) was to die for, and there's a meatfoat burger with a whole boiled egg inside that's coated in cheese. Serious eats.

If you have the means, you must go. Book it ahead of time, arrive on time, follow the rainbow road, or pray to the Lakitu gods that Nintendo with or without the help of Bandai Namco will soon hurl this to a castle near you.

Mario Kart VR is an experience that even this hardened sarcastic critic cannot stop gushing about. I could not be prouder of Bandai Namco for bringing this into the world. I went to the Mushroom Kingdom and lived to tell the tale: A far-fetched childhood dream suddenly at my daily reach.

The videos we've supplied are cute at best, but they can prepare you for nothing. It's like looking at the Grand Canyon on Google. So what? Tall rocks and a hole, whoop-dee-doo. There are just certain things you can't appreciate from far away. Take my spoonful of hype with a grain of salt: you're right to not believe it until you try it for yourself. These VR-themed dick-hiders, however, are easy to appreciate from anywhere.

Mileage on some models may vary, see brain for details

Like all VR experiences, the individual experience can greatly vary by person. You know those '90s era 3D posters? I've never been able to see a single one. Your experience may be completely different, depending on how dead your guts and inner child are. I somehow luckily don't suffer from a fear of heights or motion sickness, which can also ruin your fun.

As for me, I'm on board and recommend it to everyone on earth. Mario Kart VR delivers an unforgettable experience with the power to convert unsuspecting people into gamers on the spot. Since the game appears to be in such an experimental stage it would be unfair to score it, but I'm giving it a strong DO WANT MAKE MOAR score.

As far as fleeting VR tech demos are concerned, this is video game magic at its finest.

Disclosure: We paid our own way, no junket or any form of sponsorship was involved.

Here's a gallery with a bunch of photos from my trip:


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reviewed by Papa Niero

 

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Papa Niero
Papa NieroMeat Vessel   gamer profile

I've been writing about video games on Destructoid for almost 12 years. It would be insane to stop now. I do a lot of stuff behind the scenes here, but mostly my job is to keep Destructoid wei... more + disclosures


 



Filed under... #Arcade #HTC #Mario Kart #Namco Bandai #Nintendo #reviews #Top Stories #Unreal Engine #Vive

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