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Training a velociraptor feels a lot like playing Street Fighter.
Grab your controller. Study the attack combo. Hold up. Click-click-click. Swing wrist down.
I spent a few days trying to reach Chris Pratt-levels of raptor mastery. It took some patience and practice -- but man, is it fun.
Mattel just may have the hottest tech toy of the year with Alpha Training Blue. The $250 dino toy will ship in time for the holidays, and you can preorder it now on Amazon. It's an interactive velociraptor you train with a remote-control clicker, similar to Pratt's character in the Jurassic World movies.
Built into its programming is a training game that requires you to master combos of clicking and moving your hand to level up your bond with Blue. But you can also switch to other modes. Blue will sometimes randomly animate and growl to act alive. She can guard your space to alert you when someone is near with motion sensors in her snout. She reacts to sound and petting on her nose and chin. And you can take complete control to move her like a puppet.
Seven servo motors inside offer precise movement of her neck, head and jaw. A joystick on the controller will control her mouth, shift her eyes left and right -- it even manipulates how much her eyelids blink. (And yes, there's plenty of that movie-quality raptor squawking, chirping and roaring fans want.)
A radio-controlled mode will send her zipping around hard floors, swinging her tail back and forth as her hips sway with each step. Wheels on the bottom of her feet keep movement smooth, making her sort of like a rollerblading dino.
It's for ages 8 and up, and it's flat out the coolest robot toy I've seen yet this year. It's just fun to play with something so detailed and fluid.
Blue's lead designer, Michael Kadile, said the two-year project resulted in the most complex toy Mattel has ever created. He's also designed other highly detailed tech toys for Mattel, including 2017's Ultimate Justice League Batmobile.
The hardest part of the raptor design? Getting her to walk with speed and grace. Other robot dinos on the market avoid this challenge by not having moving legs, instead opting to use wheels as feet. Raptor robots of the past would hobble on massive claws to keep balance. Nothing walks quite like Blue.
"The fact that the hip had to move in time with the feet, in time with the speed ... that took a year and half for it to walk and be stable," Kadile said. "And every animation had to be timed to getting it back in the right walking position so it didn't faceplant."
When Kadile began programming the training section of Blue, he was also in the middle of training his own puppy at home: Pico, an Alaskan Klee Kai. The experience of training his pup -- the need to be exact with each command and gesture -- shaped how he built the raptor's training game.
The accelerometer inside the controller requires you to move your hand just the right way to execute the trick, combined with using a clicker button. A printed guide book helps with tips.
If you don't do it right, the controller will buzz and flash a red light. Sometimes I would try a trick over and over again for 10 minutes until I got it right. A green light and multiple buzzes alerts you of success, eventually leveling up your friendship to unlock more abilities as you progress.
"What she does is train you to do the movements right," Kadile said.
Just like any pet, you'll need to give a treat with a job well done. Reward Blue with a pet on the nose or by throwing her food. Press down on the treat button, and her head will follow the "meat" in your hand as you move until you motion to toss it and release the button. Then watch her chomp away at the invisible snack. Raptor friendship achievement unlocked.
Some of these trick moves are not easy, but within an hour I got pretty far in the game. Blue and I are now best buds, yet I still struggle with a few tricks. I could use more practice on my technique.
"If I made it super easy I don't think there would be anything rewarding about finishing it," Kadile said. And he's right. I didn't find it so challenging that I wanted to quit, yet it wasn't so easy that I was bored.
And let me just say how refreshing it is to not have to stare at a phone screen to operate it, like so many other tech toys today. It's just you, Blue, and the clicker -- which puts you in the moment and makes the playtime more engaging.
But if you do get bored with Blue and stuff her in a closet, she'll forget her training over time. It's a hidden feature to the beast. An internal clock is counting down time between play, and after a month you may have to do some work to get her back to where she was in her skills.
Mattel also gave it another quirk: You can never train it to be 100 percent obedient. After all, as any fan knows, you can never truly control a raptor. There are moments she won't respond the way you want or do the trick. It's a brilliant twist to the design. Any user error or delay in response time isn't a deal breaker -- it becomes part of the make-believe of playing with a wild animal.
You can get about an hour of playtime out of it before it'll need a recharge, but it seems to recharge fast, in under 30 minutes. If there's any need for a software update, it can be done through a USB connection, with updates posted to Mattel's website. It also means new capabilities and tricks could be enabled in time.
I don't know what other tricks she can do to get much cooler. Unless it figures out how to open doors.
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