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The almost-real world of VR Zone Shinjuku

Bandai Namco's virtual reality arcade blurs the line between game centre and theme park.

Aloysius Low/CNET

"KA-ME-HA-ME-HAAAAAAA," my opponent screamed, invoking the name of a powerful -- and fortunately fictional -- energy blast. 

Then a rush of air blew past me as I ducked to the left, narrowly escaping the Kamehameha's blast.

Now it was my turn. I quickly held my hands out, the base of my palms touching while my fingers grasped an imaginary ball. Then I thrust my arms forward to return the Kamehameha blast, hitting my enemy directly in the face. The force was so strong, it blew away the mountain behind him.

The victory was short lived and the scene faded away signaling my time in a Dragon Ball Z virtual reality world had ended. I waited for the attentive staff at Bandai Namco's VR Zone Shinjuku in Tokyo to help me out of the HTC Vive VR accessories I was wearing. They included shoes and gloves equipped with Vive Trackers.

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A player tries out Mario Kart VR.

Aloysius Low/CNET

A new arcade

VR Zone Shinjuku is a contemporary twist on the good ol' game centre. Located in Tokyo's Shinjuku entertainment district, the VR amusement center covers 3,500 square metres and boasts 13 fully VR games. It's only three months old, so it still has that new arcade smell.

The Shinjuku location follows an earlier Bandai Namco facility located in Tokyo's Odaiba area, a large stretch of reclaimed land known amongst fans of the Gundam robot series for a life-size replica of the giant mechanical robot. And Shinjuku won't be the last location. Bandai Namco wants to export the experience to other countries, with plans for a UK launch are already in the works.

VR video games don't come cheap. You'll part with 800 yen ($7, £5 and AU$9) just to get into the facility, which is somewhat bright compared to your usual dimly lit arcades. The main foyer, the first thing you see, grabs your attention with an interactive projection but you'll want to hustle quickly to the top floors, where the games are, though that will cost you another 4,400 yen ($40, £30, $50) for four game tickets.

The place had a sizeable crowd, but the facility is big enough you don't feel it. Given that it was a Monday, I was surprised to find that queues for some games were up to 45 minutes. If you want to try them all, you'll have to come back. Bandai Namco is intentionally limiting customers to four games a visit, which will encourage return visitors.

In addition to Dragon Ball VR, Bandai Namco has revamped some of its classic arcade games from the 1990s for VR Zone Shinjuku. Prop Cycle and Alpine Racer have been recast in VR as Hanechari (Winged Bicycle) and Ski Rodeo. If you're bored of VR shenanigans, you can also try a physical game in which you have to escape from a room as giant balloon slowly fills it up.

I wished I had more time and patience, but the queues for the new Neon Genesis Evangelion attraction were way too long. It would have been a blast to pilot an Eva mech and fight giant monsters dead set on crushing humanity.

Kamehamehaaaaa

So instead, I picked my childhood favorite, Dragon Ball. The VR game I played is based on the popular manga and anime series of the same name, which features characters that have special powers allowing them to fly and shoot energy beams out of their hands.

If you've never heard of Dragon Ball, the main hero's signature move is the Kamehameha blast. Named after a Hawaiian king, the move requires him to cup and thrust his hands in order trigger a giant energy beam.

If you grew up watching the series -- the dubbed English version is still popular -- you've probably entertained yourself by mimicking the Kamehameha move. Doing it in the game, where you'll see the fireball shoot forward, is intoxicatingly immersive.

It's not just the Vive headset and trackers that sell the experience. Bandai Namco built a custom wall into the arcade that blasts air towards Dragon Ball Z players in order to simulate a Kamehameha blast narrowly missing its mark.

Junichiro Koyama, an executive producer at Bandai Namco in charge of the VR project, said the company took its cue from earlier game centres, which offered an experience that couldn't be had on a home console.

"It's the same now as it was in the past," Koyama said in an email interview with CNET.

"An arcade game cannot attract people to the facility unless it has an attractive quality that cannot be replicated at home or on mobile."

VR isn't quite suited for ordinary households, Koyama explains, because it requires space and sensory machines, like the air wall, to create an immersive experience. These are better served at an arcade dedicated solely for VR, he added.

A karting we will go

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Mario Kart VR lets you compete against three other players.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Bandai Namco's Mario Kart (licensed from Nintendo) game may be the perfect VR experience. Unlike a real-life Mario Kart adventure I had on the streets of Tokyo, the VR experience is very competitive. 

On any given day, I've mentioned earlier that queue times at the VR Zone can go up to 45 minutes or more, especially on the popular rides. But I got lucky and only had to wait 30 minutes to play Mario Kart.

I settled into a replica go-kart and slipped on the headphones and Vive headset. With that, I was transported to the world of Mario Kart. Giant castles loomed in the background and Thwomps, living bricks, were ready to crush me if I was stupid enough to drive under them.

While zooming around the track, I raised my hands to grab at weapons suspended from a floating balloon. These included hammers, banana peels and turtle shells, all of which could be used to make my opponents falter. With every successful hit, I could hear them mutter in Japanese as I slowly grabbed the lead.

Despite my best efforts, I finished second. I thought that was a decent result given that I suck at racing games. It was loads of fun and I wasn't the only one who thought so.

"The VR zone experience was great and I like Mario Kart the most. It is fun to have yourself in the world of a worldwide famous game," said Miffy Chu, a visitor from Hong Kong.

"The feeling when playing the game was just the same as real life go-karting! Though the admission fee plus the gaming tickets are a bit expensive, I will definitely go again."

I decided to try out the Gundam simulation next. It's a semi-interactive experience that starts you off looking at the gigantic Shinjuku Gundam statue, which then comes to life to protect you. You clamber onto its hand (in reality, a couch with a finger-like extension) and as the Gundam battles an attacking enemy robot, you can feel the heat from beamsaber weapons as they barely miss you, thanks to a space heater located at the side.

It's a fun-but-short experience, more a ride than a game. Still, it demonstrates the potential of VR Zone Shinjuku. It also raises a question: Has Bandai Namco built an arcade or a theme park?

Even the man behind it isn't sure, saying VR entertainment will evolve over time.

"It's better not to force a decision," Koyama said.

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