Forty years ago, it was rare for any home to have a gaming console. Now, it’s rare for homes not to have one. While virtual reality gaming hasn’t yet secured its place within mainstream gaming in the West, Japan looks to be pioneering the field. As the birthplace of the video game industry, Japan has grown to become the second largest gaming market in the Asia Pacific according the Statista statistics portal and VR looks to be following the same trend.
Japan is one of the few places in the world where arcades still exist — and it’s not just game centers that are going strong, but virtual reality attractions are also on the rise. In Odaiba, Joypolis has added numerous VR activities. In Shibuya, there is the VR Park and Sega has started to introduce VR games to their locations nationwide. Yet out of all of them, the place that seems to have the most pull for foreigners — and even non-gamers — is VR Zone, a site that operates more like a virtual reality amusement park rather than a mere game center. VR Zone Shinjuku opened in July 2017 and now has 20 portal locations across Japan as well as two in the U.K. Owned and operated by Bandai Namco, VR Zone offers intense experiences with licensed blockbuster video games like Mario Kart or Ghost in the Shell: Arise Stealth Hounds that you can’t find anywhere else. For non-Japanese speaking foreigners — staff members are also trained to guide visitors through each attraction in English.
VR Zone’s take on the iconic Mario Kart franchise is much more than just a game with a headset. Players sit in a fully kitted out go-kart controller with pedals, a steering wheel and an integrated fan to simulate speed and wind resistance. The cherry on top is the vibration of the entire unit — something that really simulates the power of a lightweight racing vehicle and lets players feel every rumble and roar of the engine. Along with the racing mechanics, the game allows players to steer with one hand and grab items with the other. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to race alongside Mario or hit Bowser with a Koopa shell, this game alone is worth the trek.
For fans of Dragon Ball who have always dreamed of firing a kamehameha (energy wave), the Master the Kamehameha attraction lets you do just that. After a brief tutorial, it’s your turn to take aim at the surrounding targets, ending with a head-to-head battle with another visitor. As many of the games in VR Zone are multiplayer, it’s best to come with a friend. While the experience may be a dream come true for hardcore fans of the franchise, people unfamiliar with the anime will feel a strong lack of game play and engagement. This is because players stand pretty much motionless both in the virtual game and the two-square-meter game pad for the duration of the experience.
The Hanechari, or Winged Bicycle, experience tasks players with reaching a castle in the sky on a creaky and tottery winged bike while dodging falling ruins and maneuvering through narrow caves. Out of all the games in the center, this one was the most visually breathtaking — so much so that I found myself just looking around and admiring the view of the lush mountains and raging waterfalls.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ghost in the Shell: Arise Stealth Hounds. In this one, you must take out enemies with your pistol while searching for intel boxes randomly generated around a map. Players wear shin guards and forearm covers with motion capture technology that creates a virtual avatar for their specific body proportions including inputted height. Once I entered the virtual arena it was like no other gaming setup I’ve ever tried in my life. The experience was seamless and once the map loaded, I was transported to another world — a simulated adventure that felt too real to be a game.The shooting mechanics were polished and I experienced no lag between my body movements and my in-game avatar. I became so engrossed that I forgot the rules and had to be warned to stop running. However, therein lies the one drawback: players must move slowly, never faster than a medium-paced walk or the game might not work properly.
Other game experiences at VR Zone Shinjuku include:
- Argyle Shift
- Armored Trooper Votoms Battling Dudes
- Evangelion VR The Throne of Souls: Berserk
- Fear of Heights: The Show
- Fishing VR Gijiesta
- Gundam VR Daiba Assault
- Hospital Escape Omega
- Jungle of Despair
- Ski Rodeo
- Swarm Shooting Galaga Fever
Amenities and accessibility
Admission also gives visitors access to an indoor rock-climbing wall (an additional ¥1,000) as well as Glamper’s, an on-site virtual resort themed café and diner (no additional fee). Glamper’s customers can sink their feet in a virtual beach created with artificial sand and hologram technology that simulates water, waves and even crabs. There is also a gift shop selling a huge variety of items related to each attraction in the center.
Just like any other touristy area in Japan, it’s best to go on weekdays to avoid large crowds and lines. The color of the ticket designates the games that can be played using each one. Due to the color-coded ticket system, VR Zone wait times are generally quite decent. Lines are usually 30 to 45 minutes and rarely reach over an hour. To regulate wait times, only a certain number of each ticket can be sold each day, so reserving ahead of time is highly recommended. If reserved online, entry plus four attraction tickets will cost ¥4,400, but special attractions like Ghost in the Shell: Arise Stealth Hounds will cost extra.
Staff members are trained to guide visitors through each attraction in English.
If you’re worried that your level of Japanese will interfere or hinder your game play at the center, VR Zone staff members are trained to guide visitors through each attraction in English. The complex is completely foreigner-friendly and provides detailed written instructions for each of the attractions in English as well as Chinese.
VR Zone Shinjuku is located in Kabukicho (1-29-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku) next to Toho Cinemas and across from Cinecity Square near Seibu-Shinjuku station.
However, if you’re not in Tokyo or planning to visit any time soon — never fear! There are also 20 smaller portal locations across Japan that feature the most popular VR Zone attractions. These are found in Aichi, Chiba, Fukuoka, Gifu, Gunma, Hiroshima, Hokkaido, Hyogo, Ibaraki, Kagawa, Kanagawa, Kumamoto, Kyoto, Miyagi, Osaka and Saitama prefectures. You can check their website to find the location nearest to you
Is VR Zone Shinjuku or one of it’s portal locations worth the trek? Simply put, the rights Bandai Namco has managed to secure for the Mario Kart intellectual property, Dragon Ball and numerous other anime-based attractions make their games and experiences truly unique and unparalleled anywhere in the world — let alone Japan.
Have you been to VR Zone before or do you have another virtual reality gaming center to recommend? Let other readers know about your experiences in the comments below!