Super Mario 64 is one of the most important games of all time for a lot of reasons. Of course, it’s a fun game that still stands up and it successfully took an existing 2D genre and made it work in 3D. But more than that, Mario 64 became the template for making third-person action games work in a 3D space, from design to controls to camera. Think about how many games use an analogue stick for movement across open planes, face buttons for interaction and some means of moving the camera around — they can all trace their mechanics back to Nintendo’s classic. 3D games existed before Mario 64, but for the most part they feel crude and awkward. On the eve of Oculus Rift being released to the world, this is how current games tend to feel when fitted into virtual reality today.
In case you missed the news, the consumer version of Oculus Rift is now available to pre-order. If you can part with £499 and have access to a well specced gaming PC, you too can join the virtual reality revolution. The question of whether you should naturally depends on what you want from your gaming experience and how much disposable income you have (though jumping now when credible rivals are on the horizon would probably be premature), but anyone who does so needs to bear in mind that VR gaming is still an almost total unknown. All of the most successful demos have featured a stationary player, whether they’re driving a car, flying a plane or playing some weird meta-game like in Oculus Rift’s demo from last year, which is symbolic for the challenge that is making more conventional games work with the technology.
It’s a paradigm shift, much like how 3D was a paradigm shift in the 1990s. For the first time since then, marketing types can say something like “Everything You Know Is Going To Change” and have it actually mean a damn. The old rules don’t work any more and new rules are needed to take their place. Though VR is exceptionally good when you’re able to just look around and take in what you’re seeing, as soon as you have to move somewhere the old abstraction of pressing W or pushing an analogue stick forwards starts to fall apart. Take, for example, the standard FPS. Currently, FPS controls bind where you look, where you aim and where your body is facing to one control (the right analogue stick or the mouse). But that doesn’t really work in VR, where you can freely look around with your head and independently aim and turn with the controller, breaking the mechanics in ways the designers never really anticipated, which is why current first-person games feel so weird and awkward as soon as you put a headset on.
It’s a bit like all those terrible early 3D platformers on the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, which tried to take the most popular genre of the time and make it work in a 3D space, but finding that it simply wasn’t that simple. Indeed, Super Mario 64 is notable in how it differs from the earlier games in the series rather than how it’s like them. Mario 64 worked because Nintendo started almost from scratch, ditching the linear obstacle course in favour of a more open world, while pioneering the analogue stick and dedicated camera controls to overcome the problems of fine motion and the need to position the camera — issues that barely existed in 2D games but which crippled early 3D attempts — to counter the fact that navigating a 3D space is more difficult and abstract than going from one side of the screen to the other.
Already, we’re seeing attempts to find equivalent breakthroughs for VR. Oculus Rift may come bundled with an Xbox controller, but this is nothing more than a stop gap measure to work with existing games. Oculus Touch, the company’s own attempt to deal with the issue of controlling VR games, is a first step step, as are Sony’s experiments with reviving the PlayStation Move for their own VR headset, but it’s possible — probable, even — that any meaningful solution to the problem of controlling games in VR will be very different from anything we’re currently imagining.
Though the fact that Oculus Rift has launched in consumer form is a victory, it’s still very much a niche enthusiast item and its current audience is the earliest of early adopters. That’s why the current high barrier to entry almost doesn’t matter — VR is not ready for the mass market and won’t be for some time because the content simply hasn’t found enough meaningful uses for it. If or when we reach the point of critical mass, we’ll have better technology for less money, and the mainstream market will be much more accommodating. VR gaming is still in very early days, so much so that it could yet prove to be a flash in the pan and that the issues above could prove irreconcilable. After all, it took several years and many millions of dollars for developers to realise that motion controls had no future within the games of the time, by which point the Wii had stopped printing money and Microsoft had already sunk billions into the Kinect white elephant.
Whether VR proves to be a defining innovation like 3D gameplay or a dud like motion controls is still far too soon to tell, but we should be excited for its existence. Technical innovation precedes and enables creative advances. Without the potential for 3D gameplay, Super Mario 64 could never have been made; without affordable hardware available to ordinary people, longform games that don’t work in arcades would have been infeasible; without the computer revolution, video games as a medium would simply not exist. If we work to overcome VR’s limitations, there’s every possibility that someone will make a masterpiece, and then everyone will one one.