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VR Kit is not Virtual Boy 2.0 – TechCrunch

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Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. Nintendo’s 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than the Virtual Boy. The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache.

Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, Labo VR is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo.

Like the first Labo kits, it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality.

It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others.

During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought.

Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint.

Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit.

The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience.

Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano.

Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this.

The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect.

Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect.

Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future.

Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences.

If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers.

Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.

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Resident Evil 4 VR announced for Oculus Quest 2 as a first-person remake

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Capcom

On Thursday, Capcom announced that its megaton horror series Resident Evil will soon return to virtual reality. But instead of adding a VR mode to the upcoming Resident Evil VIII: Village, slated to launch next month, the game maker threw horror fans a curveball. The project, as it turns out, is Resident Evil 4 VR, a wildly revised port of the 2005 classic, and it appears to be an Oculus Quest 2 exclusive.

You read that correctly: Quest 2, as opposed to Rift or other PC-VR platforms. No release date or estimate has yet been confirmed.

The VR port was announced as part of the latest announcement frenzy otherwise dedicated to May 7th’s RE8, and it confirmed that Oculus Studios and Armature Studios (made up of ex-Metroid Prime developers) are leading the VR port’s production. Because of Armature’s recent ties to Oculus, in terms of releasing exclusive VR games for its Rift and Quest systems, that collaboration points to this game remaining an Oculus exclusive.

Representatives for Oculus and Facebook have so far only described the port as a product for “Quest 2,” as opposed to a more generic platform description that might hint to the “Oculus Link” system, which streams PC games to the otherwise portable Quest headset family. If Facebook wants to clarify any additional ways to play the game, we’ll have to wait for next week’s Oculus Gaming Showcase, which will premiere on Twitch and YouTube on Wednesday, April 21.

The port appears to heavily revise the original game, which launched on Nintendo GameCube in 2005 as a third-person, over-the-shoulder adventure—and one that revolutionized how the series would play for years to come. Some of that action, particularly the twitchy gun-driven combat, will likely be a solid match for the first-person view of a VR game, but RE4‘s cinematic scenes and massive bosses are another story.

Thursday’s debut trailer avoided clarifying exactly how the original game’s more ambitious moments will translate to VR. Instead, Armature and Oculus took the opportunity to show some basic combat, including a moment where the player held a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other, along with a VR-friendly inventory management screen, a puzzle that required turning a lever with hands in virtual space, and some “reload a gun using both hands” gimmickry.

Amusingly, this port serves as a reminder that the game’s original 2004 announcement came as part of a “Capcom Five” press conference of exclusive games for Nintendo’s then-struggling GameCube platform. Months later, Capcom was forced to clarify that RE4 would indeed launch on the era’s dominant PlayStation 2 after all, and it wound up being ported to roughly 4,000 other consoles in the 16 years since.

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The looming software kill-switch lurking in aging PlayStation hardware

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Enlarge / These consoles could eventually be large paperweights if Sony doesn’t fix a problem looming in their firmware.

Unless something changes, an issue lurking in older PlayStations’ internal timing systems threatens to eventually make every PS4 game and all downloaded PS3 games unplayable on current hardware. Right now, it’s not a matter of if but when this problem will occur.

This ticking firmware time bomb has been known in certain PlayStation preservation and hacking circles for a while. But it’s gaining new attention amid Sony’s recently announced decision to shut down the online stores for PS3, PSP, and Vita software. While that impending store shutdown won’t impact players’ abilities to play and re-download previously purchased software for now, the eventual wider shutdown of PSN servers for these aging consoles could have a much more drastic effect on the playability of a wide swath of games.

What’s the problem?

The root of the coming issue has to do with the CMOS battery inside every PS3 and PS4, which the systems use to keep track of the current time (even when they’re unplugged). If that battery dies or is removed for any reason, it raises an internal flag in the system’s firmware indicating the clock may be out of sync with reality.

After that flag is raised, the system in question has to check in with PSN the next time it needs to confirm the correct time. On the PS3, this online check happens when you play a game downloaded from the PlayStation Store. On the PS4, this also happens when you try to play retail games installed from a disc. This check has to be performed at least once even if the CMOS battery is replaced with a fresh one, so the system can reconfirm clock consistency.

Why does the PlayStation firmware care so much about having the correct time? On the PS3, the timer check is used to enforce any “time limits” that might have been placed on your digital purchase (as confirmed by the error message: “This content has a time limit. To perform this operation go to settings date and time settings set via internet”). That check seems to be required even for downloads that don’t have any actual set expiration date, adding a de facto one-time online check-in requirement for systems after their internal batteries fail.

On the PS4, though, the timing check is apparently intended to make sure PSN trophy data is registered accurately, and to prevent players from pretending to get trophies earlier than they actually had. You’d think this check could be segregated from the ability to load the non-trophy portions of the game, but player testing has shown that this seems to be a requirement to get PS4 games to load at all.

An eventual issue

None of this is a huge problem for most PlayStation owners right now. Yes, the 10- to 20-year lifespan on your average CMOS battery is slowly running out, especially for the earliest PS3 hardware. But replacing the battery and resyncing the internal timer with PSN is a relatively minor annoyance for the time being (assuming you can find a Wi-Fi hotspot and PSN isn’t suffering one of its rare outages).

But nothing lasts forever, as Sony’s recent decisions regarding older PlayStation online stores shows. At some point in the future, whether it’s in one year or 100 years, Sony will shut off the PSN servers that power the timing check for hardware it no longer considers important. After that, it’s only a matter of time before failing CMOS batteries slowly reduce all PS3 and PS4 hardware to semi-functional curios.

Sony could render the problem moot relatively easily with a firmware update that limits the system functions tied to this timing check. Thus far, though, Sony hasn’t publicly indicated it has any such plans, and hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from Ars Technica. Until it does, complicated workarounds that make use of jailbroken firmware are the only option for ensuring that aging PlayStation hardware will remain fully usable well into the future.

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Fast and Furious 9 drops a new trailer ahead of June 25 release

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This past weekend, with little to do thanks to the pandemic, I marathoned through the Fast and Furious franchise. That was fortuitous timing, because on Tuesday a new trailer dropped for F9, the next installment, which arrives in theaters on June 25.

We actually got our first look at F9 well over a year ago, when the first trailer dropped at the end of January 2020. Family has been a central theme to the F&F movies, and that continues here. Dominic Torreto (played by Vin Diesel) and the gang have to confront his younger brother Jakob (John Cena), described as “the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve encountered.” He’s working with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who sports a much more flattering haircut than in Fate of the Furious, the movie where she improbably hacked a bunch of old cars to drive themselves.

Also returning to the series is Han Lue (Sung Kang), who we all thought died at the end of Tokyo Drift. (This was revealed to be the work of Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham) who was bad in Furious 7 but then turned out to be good in Fate of the Furious and Hobbs and Shaw.)

Based on this second trailer, the plot for F9 appears to involve magnets, and at one point Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) don makeshift pressure suits and take to the skies in what might be a DeLorean with rocket boosters strapped to the roof.

As my colleague Jennifer Ouellette explained last year, “F&F9 will probably make about as much sense as its predecessors—in other words, not much sense at all. And fans wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I know I wouldn’t.

Listing image by Universal Pictures

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