“It’s me, Mario.”
That’s how I greeted my neighbor at the new immersive Nintendo pop-up at Union Station, where players can embody the game’s iconic characters and experience the Royal Raceway in a virtual-reality setting.
Launched by the Japanese video-game company Bandai Namco, the arcade-style game recently opened in the District following successful launches in Tokyo and London. Washington is the first American city to offer the multiplayer program, which has prompted gamers to travel as far as four hours for the five-minute whirl on the racetrack, according to Nick Iftner, a sales and support specialist with Bandai Namco.
A Nintendo fan, I had to try it out and brought a friend to join. The first challenge: locating the actual arcade within Union Station. The VR Zone Portal is tucked inside the lower-level food court, across from an Aloha Poke.
All three games are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations aren’t required, but you’ll have to pay with a card to snag a seat at the racetrack.
Once we spotted the arcade, we discovered four seats that corresponded with some of Mario Kart’s classic characters: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi. (Iftner said Mario and Yoshi are the most popular.)
Like most arcade racers, the seats came with a built-in steering wheel and pedals. Before we could rev our engines, we were outfitted with a VR headset, headphones and hand-strapped trackers to detect and reflect our movements.
After I made my character choice (Mario) and got strapped in with the gear, I had a minute to look around, adjust to my new virtual surroundings and admire my new bulbous hands.
“As soon as we put on our headsets and entered the world, we had the same collective reaction,” says Gerard Massey, a 30-year-old IT contractor and fellow gamer. “We all started giggling like children.”
Then we were off to the races. As soon as I hit the accelerator, my seat jolted forward and a stream of cool air hit my face. Soon I was flying through the arena, making hairpin turns to dodge hungry Piranha Plants and thwart angry Thwomp cinder blocks.
I had to “grab” power-ups with my hands — think floating green turtle shells and balloons — and lob them in the direction of my opponents, which was just as fun as it sounds. It was also an entertaining sight for onlookers. The aggressive hand movements looked like a hybrid of a Jersey Shore fist pump and a mechanical-bull move.
The racers are able to communicate via headsets, which led to some lighthearted ribbing and trash talk. When Luigi launched a banana peel in my direction, causing my car to spin out, my seat rattled and vibrated. I returned the favor by bludgeoning his with a giant red hammer.
Before I knew it, the race was over. It’s a teasingly short but action-packed adventure, and a fun entry point for VR beginners. “If you want to have fun and understand where VR is headed, this is a great opportunity to try and test it out,” says Tom Bridge, a Nintendo fan and 40-year-old IT consultant.
Mario Kart is the headline attraction, but there are two other interactive, physical VR games to keep you distracted as you wait your turn at the racetrack: Argyle Shift, a flying simulation, and Ski Rodeo, an Alpine skiing game. I tried the latter and, not a natural-born skier, crashed more than several times. My advice: Skip both and save the money for another round of Mario Kart.
Just make sure to soak in as much as you can of the Mushroom Kingdom — the experience is quick (4 minutes, 45 seconds) and a tad expensive ($10 a game). But for Mario Kart regulars, it’s worth a play. Who knows, you might run into some Washington Capitals’ players — admitted fans of the game — duking it out.
Arcade open through March. Noon to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Mario Kart VR game consists of one track and costs $10 per play. Argyle Shift and Ski Rodeo are $8 per play.