Go back in time about 25 years. While you’re there, tell the eight-year-old version of me running around Chuck E. Cheese that in your day there’s a virtual reality device that can take you to a “virtual arcade” in your own home. Tell the young self that this virtual arcade has dozens of counterfeit 3D cabinets that you can play endlessly, without having to put in any quarters.
I’m pretty sure the young version of me would die of excitement.
Fast forward to the present (the future?) and the 33-year-old me is having a little more trouble getting excited about the current beta version of Oculus arcade for the Gear VR headset. First announced in September, the app launched earlier this week with 22 retro titles from Sega, Midway and Namco. Each game can be played for a free 20 minute demo or purchased individually for a few dollars each.
To be sure, there is a first giddy thrill when playing these classics in virtual reality. Seeing a seemingly life-sized box in front of you and staring at a screen that more than fills your immediate view is an intoxicating experience, especially for youngsters who may have only experienced these titles through a PC emulator or the like. The Gear VR’s slight “screen door” blur actually works to its advantage here, evoking the low-fi blur of an old cathode ray tube source.
While playing in VR, I found myself subconsciously turning my head to focus on different areas of the screen, which emphasized the appeal of the larger-than-life experience. That illusion was shattered, of course, if I ever tried to bend my head towards the screen to take a closer look; the whole world would instead tilt nauseatingly forward with my movement. And playing with a handheld controller will never quite match the feeling of leaning on the solid joystick and spring-loaded buttons of a real arcade machine – I’m very sad that I couldn’t sync my iCade unit with the Galaxy Note 4 via Bluetooth.
A sterile arcade museum
I had a hard time really getting into it Oculus arcade‘s retro-infused world. Part of the problem is that the appeal of some of these games has diminished over time – I’m not particularly keen on paying a few bucks to get another copy of Sonic the Hedgehog, especially when I’ve had the chance to buy and play the game endlessly over the past few decades on at least a dozen other platforms (while we’re at it, it’s kind of weird seeing Genesis games, including RPGs, set up in virtual arcade cabinets). But that doesn’t apply to all games in this collection: cabinets like Pac man, Joustand Root Beer Tapper are as timelessly fun as ever in this new environment.
Part of the problem is surprisingly weak emulation work. The sound effects and background music came in and out regularly in the emulated Genesis games and some arcade titles (Spy Hunter in particular). I was also surprised that the games only supported the analog stick on my controller, functions like dropping coins and mapping the home button to the d-pad. This may be due to the quirks of the Ouya controller I was using, but I was still upset that there was no way to remap the buttons to get a more digital input.
But a big part of my problem with Oculus arcade is the presence-breaking effect of playing in such an artificial and empty environment. The world of Oculus arcade resembles a sterilized arcade museum, something set up by an alien race from the distant future trying to recreate a pastime of a long-dead humanity with no real knowledge of how it all worked.
Cabinets are perfectly positioned in neat semicircles under bright spotlights, and they are divided into different rooms by the manufacturer. Each room is adorned with extremely generic neon and dull-looking “outdoor space” carpet. When you “walk into” a room, these cabinets sit completely dark and silent without the visual and auditory cacophony of the attraction modes beckoning in a real arcade. You can’t just wander through this museum to admire the cabinet art either. The best thing to do at that point is to go to a cabinet and then look left or right to see the art on the sides of the nearby games.
If you decide to look around while playing a cabinet, you will probably get a feeling of intense and chilling loneliness. There’s something about looking at all those dead closets with no one around in a completely silent and lifeless virtual room that made me feel incredibly isolated (and this from a man who spends entire days completely alone in a home office). It’s also about as far from the loud, bustling, classic arcade experience as it gets.
Hey, where’s everyone?
Sure, past compilations of arcade games on PC and console usually fail to capture that arcade experience. But they rarely, if ever, try – those re-releases are content that merely recreates the game itself, allowing you to play in the comfort of your own living room or office without any pretense of arcade artifice. By literally surrounding players with the trappings of a virtual arcade, Oculus arcade highlights how artificial the whole experience is.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Emulator powered indie efforts like NewRetroArcade (and to a lesser extent MemoRift Arcade) on the Oculus Rift capture the feel of a classic arcade feel much more richly (albeit less legally). It’s the little things that really make the experience feel authentic: streamable retro music; realistic cabinet layouts; classic movie posters on the wall; a two-lane bowling alley in the corner; a table littered with CRT and Super NES games (and a playable Game Boy); and an overall dark, musty, neon-tinted aesthetic that really captures the arcade feel of the 80s.
Despite this window dressing, both Oculus arcade and NewRetroArcade don’t capture the social experience of the arcade. Being in a real arcade is all about the sights and sounds of other people playing next to you. It’s about sticking your neck out to watch an impressive game over someone’s shoulder, or sliding next to them and putting down a quarter to join a multiplayer game.
Virtual reality has the potential to replicate this original “social gaming” situation with multiple players walking and talking and grinding over a shared play space (and without having to wait until limited closet space is available to play). But any copy of Oculus arcade is currently a completely isolated experience, trapping players in their own personal, lifeless museums. And while eight of the 22 titles in Oculus arcade are at least partly built around simultaneous multiplayer, there is currently no way to play alongside another user either over the internet or locally.
This kind of VR connectivity might seem like a fool to ask given the relative newness of VR and the dearth of Gear VR headsets out in the wild. But since at least its acquisition by Facebook, Oculus has been talking about VR’s potential as a new kind of social connection; a way to come together with others, not just as words or images on a screen, but as a physical presence in a shared space.
An app like Oculus arcade could be the perfect showcase for this new kind of social VR gaming, with a familiar environment that would be instantly understandable and accessible to many gamers. We hope that the continued work of Oculus can turn what is currently a sterile showroom for dead arcade cabinets into a bustling virtual metaphor, where gamers can watch, mingle and play side-by-side, just as they did ten years ago in dark, musty basement arcades. .