Tokyo Moment: Shinjuku VR Zone

Originally posted in 2018

Last year I took a 2 week trip to Tokyo with 2 friends, we visited Shinjuku VR Zone. Here’s what happened:

As a gamer, programmer and all around optimist when it comes to VR, I had to visit the Shinjuku VR Zone. If you’re in Tokyo for any length of time, you must have a go on the Mario Kart VR game. Pro tip: try and visit during the week, if you’re lucky, it’ll be quiet as it was for us.

English language speakers: the staff are excellent at explaining the games, and all games come with easy to understand diagrams and even a translated version of the instructions to read. I wouldn’t expect every member of staff to speak English, but some were exceedingly helpful, using a few English words in the explanations.

The venue:

The building itself is styled appropriately, it’s very ‘futuristic’ in appearance, featuring some sort of synthetic tree in the central plaza. The lights dimly lit the central area, during our visit, adding to the aesthetic and not exacerbating the mild hangovers from our Halloween party. Food and drink can be purchased at a not inconsiderable price, but we had our eyes set on fried chicken at the other end of Shinjuku.

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The exterior of the building. Surrounded by tall urban structures, the short futuristic building stands out. Credit: Ollie Barder

Here’s a breakdown of the ticket system and the games we played:
Upon entering the VR Zone, you’ll either have to buy your entry ticket, or have your QR code scanned if you pre-purchased. As for our tickets, we were permitted entry and had 4 rides already paid for. These rides were colour coded, we had 4 tickets of different colours and could pick a game with the corresponding colour. I was the yellow ticket which granted us access to Mario Kart VR; the other Yellow ticket game was a “Fear of Heights” experience and is probably safer to experience here, rather than at home. During our visit, there was a Ghost in the Shell game undergoing ‘constuction’ (or development) but we couldn’t even sneak a peak behind the doors.

Games:

Red ticket: Hanechari (Winged Bicycle), 4-players max

First: the ‘peripheral’, if you can call a robust exercise-bike style machine a peripheral (you can’t, it’s massive). The website calls the bicycle a ‘sensory machine’, which explains the air jets and the wide back, to stop people falling off. On that note, the staff are very attentive, so I daresay if you have any issues, they’ll readily assist you. Not all games are as physical as this one, I believe some of them are more accessible, especially the horror game, which has you sat down.

Those strange boxes by the handlebars contained other immersion aiding devices, including a jet to blast air at the player.

Cinematic splendour came first, realism took a back seat (I’m unconvinced these winged bicycles are airworthy, nor safe enough for the real world). The start of the experience had all players sat on the edge of a large column of rock, as soon as the pre-flight checks were done, each player had to launch themselves into the air and race to the end of the course. Players with vertigo might want to give this one a miss.

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The view one is ‘treated’ to before forcing their contraption into the loving embrace of the open air.

As someone who’s flown a plane before, I felt confident I could fly a winged bicycle. I was also cautiously optimistic that I wasn’t actually going to plunge to my death during this experience. I was right, and successfully navigated the caverns and chasms, despite the wind blowing me off course and the falling rocks narrowly missing my bike. I’m not sure if my friends crashed, I didn’t look back to check on them.

The environment was awe inspiring, and the route was rather open, despite being linear. Near the end of the course you have to ride an up-draft all the way to the final area, featuring a runway which you need to land on.

Having the physical bicycle so elegantly control the in-game bicycle meant there was no VR sickness or dizziness induced by this short 5-10 minute experience.

Blue ticket: Evangelion VR, 3-players max (although it would seem it’s now 4-players max)

The closest I’ve been to being a mech pilot was when I nearly had the chance to ride an off-road version of a segway, until I climbed into my EVA at the VR ZONE. Well, it’s really just a comfy chair with two joysticks used to control the virtual EVA, somewhat effortlessly I might add.

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It looks cooler on the other side, trust me. Image courtesy of MuttonBashers(YouTube)

Introduced to an on-rails opening, whereby you’re placed into your EVA, it’s possible to soak in the sights of the hangar before being tasked with blasting the ‘Angel’ and most of the surrounding city. It might be apparent that I’ve yet to see the anime, but as far as the game goes, it’s worth a go just to experience being a mech pilot.

Yellow ticket: Mario Kart VR: 4-players max

This one is a no brainer, and with as many Karts as they had, you wont be waiting too long before you get to throw deceased tortoises at your friends (assuming you have brought some friends with you). The staff will ask which character you wish to play as (Mario, Luigi, Peach or Yoshi) and you’ll be set up in the respective Kart. Wario and Bowser will always be AI controlled, and they’re in huge Karts. Throughout the race they will bully every player, which makes the game feel oddly fair, for a Mario Kart game (no blue shells here).

Adjustable seats for the vertically challenged and a light steering wheel makes this game accessible for most ages.

For me, this was the most immersive experience out of them all, and the first one I played. Not only does the Kart shake and rumble, but I’m pretty sure other things are going on too, but you’d be hard pressed to notice them in the heat of the race. The feeling of peril is great, it’s enough to cause you to slam on the brakes or look away in horror as a Piranha Plant reaches for you. Gliding your Kart during the air sections is impressive and a nice break from the clamour of the engines and squealing of tyres.

You’re given a sensor on each hand with which you grab items to ruin your friends’ day, or just troll an NPC; Mario was the only AI player, he drove competently enough and got suitably picked on by myself. At one point, I was holding onto a green shell, only to look left and see Mario trying to get past me on a rather nasty corner. I soon put a stop to that, accurately throwing a shell into his Kart, inflicting misery onto the moustached poster boy. The weapons are very responsive and easy to grab, the most fun weapon being the hammer; just don’t get carried away and hit your hand on the Kart.

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It wont be long before ‘Luigi Death Stares’ are being shot at you from your fellow, real-world rivals.

All that being said, I didn’t notice the lack of jumping or powersliding until after the race was over, a testament to the robust gameplay and immersion of this VR experience. Even with the abstraction from control by being in a Kart, I can imagine jumping might feel ersatz and cause some VR sickness/confusion. Not to mention the health and safety concerns of having people jumping around while blindfolded to the physical reality.

After the race (I came 2nd as Yoshi) the three of us were surging with adrenaline; the immersion was all encompassing, only missing some sort of device with the sole purpose of blasting a garlic smell in your face when Wario is in front of you. We still talk of the time I hit Vap over the head with a hammer… that wasn’t during Mario Kart however.

Green ticket: Ski Rodeo

Arguably the weakest of the games we played, 66% of us had problems controlling the skis and 1 of us even had a problem with the display in one eye. If he spoke any Japanese (he could ask for alcohol and for the bill, neither of which were relevant here), he’d probably be able to rectify that last problem, but as non skiers, we were doomed from the start when it came to successfully navigating the alpine course.

The highlights of the game was the immersion, the sense of speed and the physical nature of skiing really worked when you were in control. I hit a few rocks and fell of a cliff, thus never making it to the end of the course (truly, I wanted to see what falling off a mountain feels like).

Summary:

It seems clear to me that the immediate potential of VR lies in dedicated ‘theme parks’ like Shinjuku VR Zone. Not only do the headsets cost a fair amount, but I’m sure the sensory equipment would set you back a lot, and the larger input devices, such as the Kart, would really only work for the games created for them.

As a consumer, if you’re unconvinced of VR, I fully recommend visiting a place such as this to see the potential for yourself and have a great day out. You could spend most of the day here, with the cafe/restaurant on the lower floor you don’t even have to leave to refuel.

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During our visit, a large image of Godzilla faced us upon leaving the VR Zone. Yes, I’m buying a new phone with a better camera for next time.

As for the rest of my Tokyo visit, it was on to other things, most immediately: fried chicken, Meiji Jingu, Golden Gai and Robot Restaurant…

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