I didn't need an excuse to go back to The Playroom VR, but its new "Toy Wars" mode was as good a reason as any to detangle the mess of wires and slip the headset back on.
"Toy Wars" is a tower defense game, after a fashion: You use a cannon to repel blocky invaders, from wriggling blue worms to yellow flyers and monolithic silver giants. A second, headset-free player can pick up a controller and help out, their character donning a mech suit and thumping anything that gets too close. Like the rest of the package's mini-games, it's perfect snack-sized play: Enjoyable on your own, and even more so in co-op.
It also reminded me of something I thought when I first played The Playroom VR—this could well be the closest thing we have to a Nintendo game on another platform.
One of the things I've come to appreciate most about Nintendo's games is the company's capacity for building worlds you can imagine existing in material form. There is a tangible, tactile quality to so many of its characters and settings, as if they're inviting you to reach into the screen and touch them. That's not a feeling I often experience, at least not to the same degree, in games by other first-party developers.
The very nature of VR lends itself to a similar sensation, but it's particularly noticeable here. The chunky, colorful art design of The Playroom VR helps in that regard. And while the aesthetic is nothing like classic-era Nintendo, the cute, characterful robots that populate these mini-games wouldn't necessarily look out of place alongside the likes of Splatoon and ARMS.
The N Factor is there, too, in the many mischievous, playful flourishes in each game. Take "Cat & Mouse," which sees the headset wearer poking their head through virtual curtains to catch mice scurrying around beneath empty cans as they attempt to grab scattered chunks of cheese. Rather than simply announcing the winner, the game offers two very distinct endings. If the cat catches the mice three times, they'll be lined up in front of her so she can smack their behinds with her paw.
That's cute, but it's nothing compared to a victory for the mice, as they bring out a saw and cut a circle around the cat, sending it plummeting through the floor. Without fail, every single person I've shown it to has either yelped with surprise or stumbled in response to the sensation of falling. A trophy for looking back to admire your tail while playing as a creature from the deep in "Monster Escape" is another delightful touch; likewise when the VR user's voice is converted to a hilariously high-pitched squeak, making the monster sound more silly than scary.
Playing it again this week, it struck me how much in common The Playroom VR has with Nintendo's vision for Wii U, at least in the sense that it explores the unique possibilities of asymmetric play. In each of the mini-games, the VR player has a different perspective from everyone else, and this results in unusual co-operative experiences like "Wanted", where the headset wearer is asked to shoot bandits that can only be identified by clues displayed to others on the TV screen. "Ghost House," meanwhile, asks observers to shout out the locations of spirits for the VR player to zap.
It's as immediate, inclusive, and family friendly as any Nintendo game. (Sure, VR isn't recommended for under-12s, but my son, 11, loves it to bits, and not only because it's supposedly verboten). Beyond that, it makes a persuasive case for the value of its host hardware, and sets a strong example for other game-makers to follow. It's not too much of a stretch to describe The Playroom VR as the Wii Sports of its platform—a limited but quietly essential freebie that you'll come back to time and again.