After finding success at Bandai Namco's VR Zone in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Mario Kart VR launches at London's O2 arena on Friday. I popped along on Monday to don an HTC Vive headset, grab some VR bananas and give it a try. Here's what I found.
Know that I'm not an experience VR gamer. I've tried one or two experiences and demos in the past, but have never taken the plunge and bought a VR setup at home. So the first thing that struck me was just how immersive Mario Kart VR felt – despite being thrust into Nintendo's unreal Mushroom Kingdom replete with balloons, bob-ombs and vivid primary colors.
That immersion wasn't too dated by running on the original HTC Vive, though pixelation is evident: this is a less crisp visual experience than playing Mario Kart on Wii U or Switch.
It helps that you're sitting in a real kart, of course – one of four: Mario, Luigi, Peach or Yoshi's, complete with steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. I chose Yoshi (obviously), and was delighted to see his bulbous green mitts on the wheel as the headset was placed over my head. I was quite taken aback, let me tell you, by my virtual avatar's hand rising to scratch his chin just as I scratched mine.
After the green light the game more or less immediately thrust me into the air to descend gracefully though swiftly back to the ground. I felt a palpable surge of exhilaration. VR is visceral in a way most gaming isn't, and once racing, where I bumped into walls or other drivers, I found myself bracing for an impact that never came, such is the assault on the senses.
Whether seasoned VR gamers would be duped in the same way I'm not so sure, and even I found the sheer thrill and novelty diminished over the course of my all-too-short time with the game.
But that's not to say the fun lessened the same way. This is a stripped-back, accessible Mario racer, seemingly lacking the jump tricks and drift turns of the versions for Nintendo machines. But that's a good thing, putting players of all stripes on a more even footing. And Mario Kart's core fun factor is fully evident.
Intact, of course, are Mario Kart's signature attack items. Here they're suspended from balloons for you to reach out and grab (you wear gloves so the game can track hand movements). They're limited to shells, bananas and hammers, but that leaves plenty of scope for chaos.
It's the last of these that steals the show, seeing players literally try to hammer other drivers out of contention, one hand on the wheel, the other smashing away perilously close to obscene gesturing. So good is the location-tracking that I found myself leaning out of the kart for greater reach – which actually works, though it's more advisable a strategy here than on the A34 Newbury bypass.
But regardless of what item you pick up, being able to look in all directions to wield it towards players wherever they are is the real strength – and joy – of Mario Kart VR.
Races are short, though – a couple of minutes each, and at £7.99 (about US$10) a go there are much cheaper video game thrills to be had. You can buy a group pack of one race for four people for £24.99, but even so – it's for a few minutes' entertainment. Note also that only one track is available, albeit one that takes in many of the sights and sounds of Mario's many kingdoms – but it's crying out for more.
You'll also need to book up front. But so far as value for money goes remember that, unlike a traditional arcade, this one needs human supervision – both to help players and to make sure they don't run off with a Vive headset.
If you're in the area, there are definitely worse ways to spend money at the O2, but it's not worth a long journey unless you're a Mario Kart or VR zealot eager to try every experience available.
Mario Kart VR will be coming to other UK Hollywood Bowls in Leeds and Tunbridge Wells later this year. But if you're in town, and have a few cockney quid burning a hole in your sky rockets, you could do much worse than give it a go: it's tremendous fun.
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