There's a new arcade in town, but it's not like any other arcade you may have been to. Bandai Namco Entertainment has opened its VR Zone in Shinjuku on July 14th, which is reputedly the biggest Virtual Reality game center in Japan. It's an ambitious venture—not only does Bandai Namco plan to expand their VR activities overseas, they also appear to be pitching Virtual Reality to a broader, more mainstream audience.
Several TV celebrities in Japan were invited to the opening day of the VR Zone to speak about their experiences playing VR. The guests were Akemi Darenogare, a model-cum-TV talent, and the comedy duo Woman Rush Hour, which consists of Woman Muramoto and Nakagawa Paradise. Darenogare remarked that “It blew all of my previous experiences playing video games out of the water,” while Woman Muramoto described VR as “So realistic that it made me question the difference between virtual and reality.”
The guests dedicated much of their time to speaking about the Mario Kart VR game, which is played by using a steering wheel controller. Unlike your usual racing arcade game, however, items can be picked up by physically clenching your hand and activated simply by raising it. “The Mario Kart game was like no Mario Kart game I've ever played before,” said Nakagawa Paradise as he breathlessly explained the game mechanics. Woman Muramoto agreed and said that “It's like stepping into the future all of a sudden.”
According to the guests, VR isn't just something that should be played by a small group of enthusiasts but rather something that anyone could enjoy. When asked who he would play the VR games with, Nakagawa Paradise said, “I'd want to come with my family. My kid is still only five, so he can't experience VR, but it would be nice to see a kind of VR just for the kids someday.” Darenogare said that she would recommend VR to her friends at her birthday party.
The three celebrities even helped cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony, which indicates just how important their presence was for the publicity. Japanese press outlets have focused heavily on the celebrities in their coverage so far; there are even some reports that talk less about the VR Zone and more about a risqué joke Woman Muramoto uttered in the press conference after the opening ceremony.
Beyond fans of Japanese TV talents, Bandai Namco also appears to be reaching for an international audience with the unveiling of the new VR Zone. The official trailer, which was unveiled last month and screened again at the opening ceremony, depicts young people of various ethnicities enjoying VR games from internationally recognized franchises, including Neon Genesis Evangelion and Dragon Ball Z. No dates have been announced for international release yet, although Bandai Namco has stated their plans to expand the VR Zone to at least twenty locations around the world.
After the opening ceremony and press conference, I was allowed inside the VR Zone to watch the center's very first customers experience the games. Judging by the queues, the most popular games were Hanechari (lit. “Winged bicycle”), Mario Kart Arcade GP VR, and Evangelion VR: The Throne of Souls.
In Hanechari, you fly through the air on a bicycle. Players can feel the wind as they peddle. This was a very intense game for the players, who would peddle frantically to prevent themselves from falling.
In the Evangelion VR game, you play as an Eva pilot. The setup of this game is that the tenth Angel is attacking Tokyo-3, and only you can stop it. (This is set in the Rebuild universe, so the tenth Angel is Zereul, for those Eva fans who are curious.) You can experience the Eva activation sequence firsthand, including the LCL immersion, A10 nerve synchronization, and sync ratio measurement. Fortunately, you don't actually experience your Eva's pain when you're damaged.
Other popular anime-themed games include the “Master the Kamehameha” Dragon Ball VR and the “Daiba Assault” Gundam VR, which was first previewed last year. A Ghost in the Shell Arise game was originally slated for the opening, but it has been delayed until August.
The games use Valve's HTC Vive headset, and most of them are equipped with custom-made controllers. They're a significant step up from the retail version of the HTC Vive headset, and it indicates that Bandai Namco has invested heavily into the tech side of things.
The VR Zone in Shinjuku is open now to the general public. It's worth noting that a one-day ticket will only grant you entry into one game from each of the four categories, so you'll need to visit the center multiple times to try them all. At the opening ceremony, Satoshi Ōshita, the President of Bandai Namco Entertainment, said, “We've made this center so that it can be experienced not just once but multiple times.”
A one-day ticket costs 4,400 yen (approximately 39 USD). Only a limited number of people can enter the center per day, so it's recommended to preorder tickets online. Click here for the VR Zone's English website.