Down in the food court of Union Station in Washington, D.C., Bandai Namco has set up what it calls the "VR Zone Portal" with three HTC Vive-powered experiences you can pay to try out. Popup VR arcades in high traffic areas aren't new, but this one has the holy grail of VR experiences: Mario Kart. I don't know anyone who hasn't lost hours of their life to at least one version of Mario Kart, either while growing up or today on the ultra-portable Nintendo Switch. But the promise of VR is to feel like you're really there, and who wouldn't want to feel like they were on a track racing against Bowser and Wario?
I had to know if this was as exciting as it seemed, so I went to check it out. And if you're near D.C., you need to go try it right now.
Climbing into the driver's seat
This four-player race is accompanied by many AI players, which means as soon as you sit down you're surrounded by all of the familiar racers from the game. This version of Mario Kart lets you choose between Mario, Peach, Luigi, and Yoshi. I went with Yoshi, and as I looked down at my hands I could see Yoshi's hands as I waved my own arms around. A moment later, I could hear the other human racers through my headset, all ready to talk trash and have a good time.
Everything about this race felt like Mario Kart, but the perspective you're racing from makes it feel like something brand new. When a green shell or a banana peel shows up, you physically reach out to grab it and throw it. The steering wheel, chair, and platform you are sitting on moves with the Kart in the game, so when you take a hard turn or you get hit by something you really feel it. When you sail through the air in glider mode, a fan kicks on and blows air on your face, It is very easy to feel like you are really there racing all of these classic Nintendo characters.
The VR experience is a single lap race around a single large track, so it's not particularly long. But it's so much fun, especially if you're able to play with all four seats filled. It doesn't seem like this experience has multiple tracks available, so everyone who races does so in this same configuration. If you were the type to want to go through multiple times, it wouldn't take long to learn the track and easily destroy your friends.
One thing I didn't see in this version of Mario Kart is the infamous Blue Shell. The race isn't really long enough to need it, but there are few things more satisfying than taking out the person leading the pack, so it's a bit of a bummer to not see it.
How it all works
Mario Kart VR exists in two places, Japan and Washington, D.C., but the reasons for this are not technical. Some VR Arcade experiences really need specialized hardware, like the Ski Rodeo simulator seen in this same arcade. You really need the custom SKI controllers for that experience to work, and buying them for your home would be both prohibitively expensive and take up a ton of space. Mario Kart VR, on the other hand, can largely be done with stuff a lot of HTC Vive owners already have.
The special rumble chair with its built-in fan and steering wheel are cool, but not necessary. All of the tracking data for the steering wheel is handled by the HTC Vive Trackers you wear on your hands as you grip the steering wheel. The HTC Vive you're using for this experience isn't the high-end Vive Pro made for arcades either, it's a standard Vive. This demo area isn't even using the Deluxe Audio Strap for integrated sound, it's using a gaming headset you put on after you put the Vive on. If given the choice I would absolutely prefer to play this game in this racing pod instead of just my chair, but from a technical perspective, it seems like this game could be released on Steam and enjoyed by everyone.
The VR Zone Portal staff is highly trained in making sure you are safe, and the headsets are clean, which is excellent. Everyone is given a face mask to protect makeup or keep sweat off the headset, but the headsets and seats are also cleaned after each use. As VR arcades go, this is a quality experience.
Go check it out!
The VR Zone Portal is set up currently to operate until March 2019. During that time, the exhibit will be open every day from 12 pm to 9 pm for anyone ages 10 and up. Each of the three VR arcade games in the zone cost $8 to play, with combo deals available to save you a few bucks if you want to try all three.
The other two experiences, including the ski simulation and a glance-to-aim mech shooter called Argyle Shift, are fun in their own respects but clearly exist to give people something to do while they wait to play Mario Kart VR with their friends.