For the last month or so, Scott Kellum — a VR enthusiast and Vox Media's senior front-end designer — has been inviting people over to try out the Oculus Rift. The first time I tried the headset was well over two years ago, and admittedly I haven't used it but once or twice since. So late last week, I re-entered the virtual world by way of an off-white desk chair in the middle of Scott's living room.
I ran through the usual motley crew of demos — sitting in a chair as civilization rises and falls around me, sitting in a mouse-sized roller coaster set up around a studio apartment, and "standing" (virtually) while Totoro steals my umbrella and leaves me in the pouring rain in the woods.
But what I really wanted was a game. And that's when we played Super Smash Bros. Melee. As in, the GameCube version from 2001 — but through the Oculus Rift.
Let's back up a second and explain how this came to be. Dolphin is an open-source emulator that lets people play GameCube and Wii games on a PC or Mac — in HD, no less, something the actual GameCube and Wii aren't capable of. The experience is imperfect — an emulator works by trying to recreate custom hardware via software — but it does mean the community can do crazy things like, say, program support for VR. (Indeed, Smash Bros. is just one of many games Nintendo games compatible with the Rift.) The only missing piece is a (legally obtained) unaltered ROM file of your favorite Nintendo game.
So there I was, wearing an Oculus Rift headset, holding an Xbox 360 controller, and beating up Pikachu. The entire experience made me giddy, from the title screen onward. The character select screen was a giant IMAX screen floating in midair. I could move my body closer to it, farther away, rotate my head to and fro — the usual head gestures people make when they start exploring a virtual world. I've used the Oculus Rift plenty before, but this was a chance to see one of my all-time favorites from (literally) an entirely new angle.
SO THERE I WAS, WEARING THE OCULUS RIFT, HOLDING AN XBOX 360 CONTROLLER, BEATING UP PIKACHU
It's a testament to Nintendo's designers that they've fleshed out parts of the stages that they never expected to be seen in full view. Corneria (the Star Fox level) is a two-dimensional battle on a starship that looks to be actually flying through a small track (ditto the F-Zero level Mute City). The world below Temple (a floating-yet-otherwise-stationary structure in the sky) spans surprisingly far. The lot across the street from Onett (Earthbound) has some development plots. Oculus Rift didn't fundamentally change Smash Bros. — which is already an incredibly fun game — but it did augment an experience I thought I knew all too well.
And because it's an experimental emulation on top of experimental emulation, naturally there are glitches. But I love glitches — as long as the game's still playable (still was), it's just a fun remix. To list a few:
The game itself was sped up a hair, audio and video, which became obvious whenever Captain Falcon taunted a high-pitched "show me ya moves!"
Some of the textures never loaded. In the matchup screen against multiple targets, it was Mario (me) vs. a harsh mass of distortion and TV snow
Because the camera would default to showing the entire map, levels like Target Test and Race to the Finish were nigh playable. I would literally have to get up and walk forward a few feet, but doing that would have knocked over the webcam tracking my head movements, the coffee table, a few bottles of beer, the TV itself, etc.
But the best experience, and one that harkens back to all those other Oculus Rift demos, was the credits. The Super Smash Bros. Melee credit sequence is an on-the-rails ride through a star system cluttered with hundreds of names — the designers, developers, programmers and QA testers involved with making the game.
So once again, I'm back where I started. On a roller coaster ride I have seen literally hundreds of times in my life (specifically, hundreds of hours of my high school years). Only now I'm able to look beyond the older constrictions.
Playing Smash Bros. Melee through an Oculus Rift has changed my view of the game — and it's changed my view on the Oculus Rift. Virtual reality allows for new means of immersion; that I already knew far too well. This experience showed me how it can remix my childhood.