THE TOKYO GAME Show overflows with virtual reality games, and many of the best of them don’t simulate reality at all.
Developers and publishers arrived at Japan’s premier show with 110 VR games for PlayStation VR, Oculus, Vive, and every other VR rig you can think of. As you’d expect, realistic games like Capcom’s freaky horror show Resident Evil 7 and Sony’s gun-toting shooter Farpoint are drawing big crowds. But many titles are more attuned to the Japanese zeitgeist and invite you to enter the worlds of anime and manga.
The HTC Vive booth is clearly aimed at Japanese fans. One game, Kai-ri-sei Million Arthur, dropped me into a colorful cartoon world, drawn in a contemporary anime style, for a typical turn-based role-playing game boss battle. My enemy’s magic spells filled the room (and my face) in a most convincing manner.
Fun, yes, but I the game I really wanted to play was Space Channel 5 VR. Let me attempt to describe it: A space-age TV reporter in a shiny orange getup fights aliens by dancing to the immediately catchy beat of 1970’s-era brass-band funk. It was a cult hit on Sega’s Dreamcast, but hasn’t been around for 15 years.
The demo consists of little more than shaking the Vive motion controllers to cheer on the action, but as a fan of the series, it was quite a trip to find myself inside the opening level of a game from 1999. Game developer Grounding says the project remains in the early stages, and the company is enthusiastic about Space Channel 5 for VR.
“It’s been 15 years, but Space Channel 5 still looks really new right now,” says CEO Mineko Okamura. “It’s funny and sassy, and the graphics are really cool—a retro-future aspect.” Okamura was the original game’s assistant producer, and is joined at Grounding by other members of the original team. Okamura wants to focus on creating event demos until VR adoption picks up in Japan. “My feeling is that all of the developers are really excited to make VR, but normal people, like families, are I think a little bit distanced to that kind of new experience,” she said.
As we chatted, another Space Channel 5 fan wandered by—Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, who came to Tokyo to try as many new VR games as possible. He threw himself into the dance moves with gusto.
“It’s bizarre being here at Tokyo Game Show and seeing two of my favorite Dreamcast games, Space Channel 5 and Rez, coming back in virtual reality,” he said. (Rez, another Sega title by the Space Channel team, will be a PlayStation 4 VR launch game next month.) “I’ve been trying basically everything. Have you tried the manga comics viewer?”
No, I replied, suddenly feeling like I must.
At the Square Enix booth, the people behind Final Fantasy showed off Project Hikari, a “concept showcase” by its Advanced Technology Division. Instead of stepping into an animation, Project Hikari explores the idea of stepping into a black-and-white comic—in this case, the popular adventure series Tales of Wedding Rings. It was like reading a manga Minority Report-style. Panels pop up onscreen as dialog is read aloud. I could drag panels anywhere I wanted, pull them up close to see details, push them away to see the whole picture. Some major panels were 3-D, which was a bit like peering through a window.
In the background, the game’s main character was asleep on his bed. As the scene’s climactic moment happened (an explosion out his window), the panels fell away and the action resumed inside that animated background. As the demo continued, panels grew to encompass the space around me, or shrink to page size.
“We make some of the most high-end game technology,” says lead developer Kaei Sou. “Now that VR technology is becoming more and more prevalent in society, we need to think about how to evolve our entertainment content.”
Sou and the Advanced Technology group wanted to break from the typical VR experiences. “In our division, especially people on our team, we love storytelling,” Sou says. Beyond the simple desires of the team, Project Hikari is an attempt to create a VR experience that’s compelling to the average Japanese player.
“We wanted to do an experience where we have a connection to what people’s normal lives are,” Sou says. “Manga that people already buy and read in real life.”
While Project Hikari, like Space Channel 5 VR, is a conceptual demo, Sou is enthusiastic about it becoming a commercial product. “We would not be doing this if it were not intended to let more people have access to this type of content,” he said. “Rather than try to recreate real life in a virtual space, let’s make something that could not exist in real life.”