Oculus Rift Gets Its Mario Bros. in 'Lucky's Tale'

Lucky's Tale tries to take Mario well beyond 3-D
"Lucky's Tale" tries to take Mario well beyond 3-D. playfulcorp.com

In 1981, Nintendo introduced us to Mario. Ten years later, Sega gave us Sonic the Hedgehog. But it's been a while since a gaming platform launch introduced a character that captured the public's imagination in a way that, for the most part, only Disney (or maybe Pixar) can pull off. (Xbox got close to iconic with Halo's Master Chief, but we all know you haven't really made it until you show up as a pattern on children's pajamas.) Game developer Playful Corp. thinks it can break that bad streak: The company hopes that soon after Oculus Rift launches on March 28, the cape-clad, big-eyed fox named Lucky will become as recognizable to your 8-year-old as Mickey Mouse.

It may have competition from everyone from Sony to Verizon on a price scale that ranges from high-end to, well, Cardboard, but there's no question that Oculus is going to be a huge player in virtual reality gaming. Oculus hasn't given any numbers for pre-orders or sale expectations, but it's safe to say that the company and its parent organization, Facebook, are putting a lot into making a huge splash. When consumers start getting their headsets in the mail later this month, they'll have 30 possible titles to download, with a dozen more on the way.

But despite all the early game options, there's only one that's shipping with Oculus, a 3-D (duh) Super Mario–like game called Lucky's Tale. "We hope for Lucky to become a franchise that is known decades from now. The launch of a new platform with this much excitement, and it's especially rare for that to paired with a mascot character," Paul Bettner, the CEO of Playful Corp., tells Newsweek.

Playing Lucky's Tale is like watching a life-like diorama that moves and responds to your commands. The boards appear in miniature, but you can lean in to look at things or under them. You can poke your head around corners to find Easter eggs and even knock things over as you explore in 360 degrees.

Lean close to Lucky, an orange fox with a big, expressive face, and he'll look back at you, turning to watch you as you look around the space. He'll even startle if you get too close. The player develops "sort of a Calvin and Hobbes relationship," with Lucky, according to Bettner. You often feel more like teammates with Lucky than a godlike player guiding him. One level actually requires you to use a flashlight that lets Lucky see where to move.

When it came to Lucky himself, Bettner and his team wanted an animal that could be iconic, and part of that was invoking a sense of nostalgia in the player. "We want players to look at him and think, That looks like a Disney character or a Nintendo character. We wanted people to think, I've been here before, but I've never experienced it like this."

The game has a slightly retro feel, harks back to when Mario first entered the 3rd dimension in the Nintendo 64 days. However, unlike Mario 64—and the other Mario games that followed—playing Lucky is intuitive and uses just a couple of buttons on the controller. That was intentional. says Bettner, who says early research showed a lot of players disconnected from the Mario franchise when it went 3-D and began to require a thumbstick to change camera directions in addition to moving the character.

That doesn't mean viewers are stuck behind or next to Lucky as he collects coins (hello, Sonic) and stomps on enemies (greetings, Mario). But the camera work is limited and not left to the user's control.

There's another big reason for not swinging the camera around like a cut-rate action director. Oculus is such an immersive experience that one of the biggest hurdles has been keeping people from getting motion sickness. Motion sickness happens when the input from the inner ear, which measures acceleration, doesn't match the input from your eye. In evolutionary terms, this might mean your brain isn't working because you ate some poisonous mushroom and now need to puke. You can see how that could hurt the gaming experience.

The game designers on Lucky's Tale came up with a solution: The game gives players a rest after every big camera move, so there's a pleasant pause that lets your brain catch up before you need to reach for an airplane bag.

Although (like everyone else) Playful Corp is new to VR, it's not new to video games, working on titles as diverse as Age of Empires for the PC, the Halo series and Words With Friends. (Bettner confirms there are no plans for a Words With Friends port to Oculus for the time being.) VR meant forgetting a lot of the lessons about what works on other platforms.

A lot of the things that at first seemed like great applications of Oculus's super powerful visual engine didn't end up functioning as expected. The highly detailed microscale was one adaptation for regular gaming to full blown VR 3-D. It turns out giving players a fuller view of the field is one way to prevent users from flipping around in space, which can make you ill.

Another change for VR gaming was pacing. At one point in the game, the developers wanted players to pause and look around, to take in the amazing virtual vista in front of them. They finally forced a pause from players by putting a bridge behind them, making them take in the whole scene instead of quickly plunging ahead.

"We think about sight lines and hiding secrets underneath things," says Bettner. "We want to make a game that isn't a platform ported to VR. Secrets are the best part of that."

The game is also a bit shorter than the Mario and Sonic games of yore—Lucky's Tale should take just four to six hours to play through. Bettner says that's partially because the game engine is new, and he hints at possible sequels.

It's hard to know if Lucky will make it to lunch boxes, but it's worth meeting him, especially if he introduces you, or your kids, to Oculus. "The technology can make you scared, or it can make you excited," Bettner says. "We wanted to make you happy."