Star Wars Episode VIII is just around the corner, and you can bet your BB unit that Disney will take that opportunity to unleash a galaxy's worth of new merchandise. Chief among them is Sphero's line of app-controlled droids, which has now expanded beyond BB-8 to include the newcomer BB-9E and the iconic R2-D2. New Atlas took the new droids for a test drive.
Unless BB-8 wears a new hat in The Last Jedi, there wasn't really much room for Sphero to roll out a new model when last year's still serves just fine. But the company's choice for who gets the remote-controlled toy treatment this time makes a lot of sense: R2-D2 pretty much slept through The Force Awakens, but now that he's up and about again it's safe to assume he'll play a more active role in Episode VIII. And BB-9E looks like he was added to the movie (at least in part) as an excuse to sell more toys.
If this is the first time you're hearing that particular jumble of letters and numbers, BB-9E is the little droid that looks like BB-8's evil twin. It sports the same basic body shape – a round head floating on top of a spherical base – but to show its devotion to the Dark Side, BB-9E is dressed in a black-and-silver paint job. According to the box, the little guy is essentially a janitor and handyman for the First Order.
R2-D2 on the other hand needs no introduction. He's been trundling through the Star Wars franchise and pop culture in general for the last 40 years, and although his characteristic trash-can form has adorned every conceivable type of toy, we don't think any have looked, moved, sounded and felt quite as authentic as Sphero's version.
Standing roughly twice as tall as BB-8 and 9E, R2-D2 is easily the main draw-card of the line. His little vents, buttons and lights are all rendered in intricate detail, but it's the way he moves that really hammers it home: R2 can stand on two legs, and when he takes off to explore he lowers a third down from inside his body. The way he shifts his weight between two and three legs is so seamlessly reminiscent of the movies that it never gets old, and the range of motion it gives him is a delight.
Not to mention the range of emotion he has. R2's head can spin a full 360 degrees around, he dances on the spot, spins and makes various clicks, beeps and whistles – all plucked straight from the movies – to clearly communicate curiosity, fear or joy. It's to Sphero's credit that the character's personality is so perfectly captured.
BB-9E is not quite as detailed, both physically and personality-wise, but just as much engineering prowess has gone into him. Unlike his Light Side counterpart, 9E's head lights up thanks to some new induction power trickery. He speaks in a similar babble of beeps and squeaks as the other droids, in a voice that sounds like a deeper, more intimidating version of BB-8's.
To get the robots moving and emoting, Sphero has rolled them all into one iOS/Android mobile app for ease of use. If you have more than one, pairing and switching control between them is a breeze, and in some modes multiple droids can be used at once.
The basic function is to just drive them around, and the main way you'll do that is through the virtual joystick on the phone screen. While we found it mostly responsive and easy to get the hang of, there were times where left suddenly became right, sending the little guy veering off-course. You can recalibrate fairly easily, but in our experience we had to do that far too often for our liking.
There are a few other ways to control the droids. A Draw Path mode lets users trace a path on the screen for the droid to follow on the floor, and while at first our drawings usually sent the bots crashing into the walls – it's hard to get a sense of scale in your scribblings – we did get better with practice. Eventually. Apparently the motion-sensing Force Band will soon be compatible with the new toys too, which could make it fun to send an army of droids chasing after unsuspecting pets with a wave of the hand.
For a more hands-off way to play, there's a Patrol mode that sends one or more droids out to explore on their own. While it's charming as hell to watch them roll around the room, stop, look around and then change course, unfortunately they seem to be really fond of exploring walls. They'll ram into them, get stuck – then ram into the same wall harder, just to make sure it's still there.
To round out the app, there's a couple of other modes as well. Each droid has their own AR experience, which amounts to a basic game where you explore a ship by tilting to look around and using the virtual joystick to move. Meanwhile, your robot buddy rolls around on the floor in sync.
And the Watch With Me feature – where the droids "watch" the Star Wars movies and react to different scenes – has been expanded, too. All of the droids can now watch A New Hope, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and Sphero says the other movies will be added over time. In The Force Awakens, we found that BB-9E screeched his support when Kylo Ren showed up and hissed at Han Solo, while R2-D2 whistled excitedly at his own on-screen presence.
There's obviously plenty to do, and as with BB-8 last year, new features are added fairly regularly. The problem is, we're worried about how long driving them around will stay entertaining, and that's further compounded when you look at the price tag. The craftsmanship and "cool factor" go a long way towards justifying that, but is there $300 worth of fun to be had in that package? We're not so sure.
The other problem might be how complicated it all is. The app isn't super streamlined, and just getting the droids to connect and go where you tell them isn't as smooth an experience as we'd like – we can only imagine that goes double for kids. But given the price tag, the attention to detail and the technical complexity, this is probably more of a toy for big kids, anyway.
Both droids are available from September 1, with BB-9E retailing for US$149.99 and R2-D2 running to $179.99.