I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that just about anyone who has encased their mug in a VR headset has been initially awed but very soon thereafter started to question both the potential of the device and their own economic wisdom. Heavy, uncomfortable and sometimes a chore to set up and configure, rigs like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift remain niche products for a number of reasons: upfront cost, the need for a dedicated high end PC to run the software and most important, a lack of really compelling, must-have content.
Sure, there are alternatives. Oculus introduced the Oculus Go, a standalone headset with one controller and the processing power (and games) of a last-gen smartphone. Then there’s the PlayStation VR, without a doubt the most comfortable headset of the bunch and with the largest install base of any VR system. Still, the PSVR has, like its brethren Oculus and Vive, lacked the killer app that would make a purchase of the device a no-brainer. Games like Skyrim VR were only amazing until you realized that you were playing vanilla Skyrim with the least impressive graphics of any version.
That all changed in late 2018 with the release of three really outstanding titles for the PSVR. First, there was Moss, bucolic puzzle adventure game set in a fairy-tale forest world. Although only a few hours long, Moss is visually and emotionally captivating and makes excellent use of VR’s potential to draw the player into the world. Late in November, Astro Bot Rescue Mission gave the PSVR its Mario-level platformer. Astro-Bot is joyous, family-friendly, full of personality and most critically, uses the VR space in unique and wholly appropriate ways. Unlike so many games where VR feels like — or literally, is — an afterthought, Astro Bot Rescue Mission could not exist outside of the medium.
For me, Beat Saber is not just the third and strongest argument for VR, but the best music/rhythm game I’ve encountered in years. Like the best music games, Beat Saber couples an incredibly simple premise with addictive action, depth and challenge. The physicality of using virtual light sabers to slice ‘n’ dice colored cubes in time with the music goes far beyond that of the relatively sedate Guitar Hero and combines rhythm and movement in an almost dance-like way. Indeed, watching expert Beat Saber players hack and slash through endless streams of blocks is a ballet-like study in compact and graceful motion. Although it only includes 16 original, non-licensed tracks on the PSVR (with the promise of add-on packs coming soon), Beat Saber is also available on Oculus and Vive, and modders have been busy creating new musical content, though much of it not as skillfully produced as that by the developers.
Here’s the real reason that Beat Saber has convinced me that VR may have some future after all: it burns around eight calories a minute, or the equivalent of playing real-world tennis, and fitness-conscious players have taken to wearing weighted vests or weighted gloves to amp up the cardio effect. It’s perhaps unsurprising, but there’s a large and devoted internet following for using VR as a fitness tool. Games like the boxing simulation Creed: Rise to Glory or the track running game Sprint Vector burn significant calories and are legitimate fitness tools. The connection between video games and fitness training is nothing new — it’s at least as old as Wii Fit — but the application of VR adds a new and interesting dimension. As motion tracking improves and headsets become lighter, more powerful and (hopefully) untethered, VR fitness products will certainly follow and become a valuable tool for both the amateur and serious athletes. It’s simply impossible to play Beat Saber and maintain doughy couch potato status so often associated with gaming.
Beat Saber is an incredibly fun way to enjoy music and gaming and as an added bonus, burn off a few holiday calories in the process. Together with Moss and Astro Bot Rescue Mission - and Tetris Effect to boot—Beat Saber has given me new hope for the concept of VR gaming and for the first time made me think it might be worth recommending as something more than a limited-value novelty. Holiday sales of PSVR have been boosted by these excellent games, which bodes well for the future of the device.