Nintendo games can work shockingly well in Dolphin VR

Metroid Prime and F-Zero GX aren't built for VR, but they just became some of our favorite VR games anyway.

James plays Pikmin in VR.

I don't want to oversell it, but after putting on the HTC Vive and playing Metroid Prime through the Dolphin emulator for five minutes, the words "this is the best thing I've done in VR" came out of James Davenport's mouth. This was after a flurry of "whoas" and "cooools" and "ohhhhs" elicited from playing Metroid in true, 360 degree first-person for the first time. Maybe it was the nostalgia talking. But the point still stands: Metroid Prime running at high resolution on a PC is amazing. What's also amazing is that it actually works.

Dolphin, the GameCube and Wii emulator that's been in open source development for nearly a decade, has had basic VR support since the Oculus Rift DK2 days. While VR isn't supported in the main fork, developer Carl Kenner developed a fork called Dolphin VR that now works with both the Rift and the Vive. As he warns on the Dolphin VR site, it's still very buggy.

Kenner did some custom work to support VR in a number of games, including a range of controller profiles and other settings that help save a ton of tinkering time. But more significantly, he made VR work in games that weren't designed for it. In the games we tested, you're free to look around in 360 degrees, and the game HUD follows your head movements instead of staying locked in place. The VR implementation can lead to all sorts of graphical oddities—it's far from a polished VR experience—but i'ts still a thrill.

To get Dolphin VR working, I followed this short tutorial on reddit from Kenner. You can download the latest build of Dolphin VR (newer than the one in that reddit post) from his Mega upload here. Fine-tuning for specific games is more of a crapshoot. There are few good tutorials out there, so be prepared for some frustration trying to get the right controller and VR settings working for your games. Patience and enthusiasm while tinkering are necessities.

As with most VR, it's hard for images or video of these games to do them justice. But here are the games we've tried in VR, and our best efforts to describe the sensation.

Metroid Prime

James: Wes didn’t understate my childlike wonder when playing Metroid Prime in VR. I was losing my damn mind. Metroid Prime is my favorite game of all time, and revisiting it year after year always reinforces my love for its quiet alien landscapes, but actually ‘seeing’ those spaces in VR uncorked a well of love I didn’t know was inside of me. After adjusting to the controls and disconnect between Samus’ body movements and my own, I got back into the groove without much trouble and almost no hint of motion sickness. Lock-on combat targeting slingshots you around space pirates, but because I was focusing on and perfectly orbiting my enemies, nausea was limited. It’s similar to how a dancer focuses on a single point while spinning to avoid getting dizzy. And the morphball, hoo boy—I’d play an entire VR game designed around it. It’s a bit disorienting moving in and out of tunnels, but kicking around ball Samus from above gives a nice sense of scale and weight to an otherwise silly mechanic.

I am now absolutely convinced that Nintendo needs to get into VR, and this is how. They’re infamous for selling their games over and over again, but what better way to archive and celebrate an achievement like Metroid Prime than by letting you walk around that space and appreciate it up close? Lauded at the time for pretty frills like rendering Samus’ HUD in-game, it nearly feels like a UI designed for VR. I drool at the thought of revisiting Wind Waker in the same way.

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect experience. While I could look around naturally with my head, Samus’ arm was still rigid, tied to the Gamecube’s original control scheme, which is especially strange for most first-person games nowadays. And due to the limited power of the Gamecube hardware and how the game streamed in geometry to compensate, I could see the level load and deload just outside my peripheral vision, though there’s a checkbox in Dolphin to compensate for that.

Tom M: It was a strange and somewhat broken experience, and moving around in VR with a controller will never not be uncomfortable, but it still managed to be one of the coolest things VR has done for me. A lot of that is probably nostalgia, but it was also surprising to see old mechanics like Metroid Prime’s auto-lock aiming actually work extremely well in VR. It made me wonder what other lessons from older games could be learned for this new tech.

I think the scale of the game was also exciting, as it’s probably the largest and most detailed campaign-based game I’ve seen in VR. The idea that I knew my time in that world wouldn’t be done in 4-8 hours was comforting, even if textures were popping in and out as I turned my head. I know it’s difficult, expensive, and time consuming to make games that big, let alone for a hardware platform that doesn’t have a huge audience, but seeing Metroid Prime like this made me yearn for it.

Also, there was something so cool about transitioning from a first-person view to the morphball that it made me want a game full of just that. 

F-Zero GX

Wes: I didn't expect F-Zero to be the thing that sold me on Dolphin VR, rather than Metroid Prime. But it totally was. It's one of the best racing games ever made, insanely fast and mercilessly challenging after the first few courses. I figured I'd want to throw up in no time. Somehow, it mostly just works in VR.

The menus are a glitchy mess, but once you get into a race you're looking around the course and down at your little ship, almost like racing Micro Machines. Or you can pop into first-person view (no cockpit trappings, sadly) and scream across the course at speeds that somehow didn't make me nauseous at all. It's successfully immersive in that general way third-person VR can be. It's not like you're convinced it's all real, but it's occupying your whole mind and focus and entire field of view. And man, that sense of speed.
Redout is overall the better VR racing experience, no doubt, but seeing F-Zero in VR has a certain kind of magic to it.

Tom M: Like Wes, I was shocked my stomach didn’t want to immediately jump through my mouth playing F-Zero in VR, but it was actually totally fine. I have a strong tolerance for VR in general, but didn't think it would last long against the speed of F-Zero. Turns out I could happily keep racing that fast in VR.

The main problem was bouncing off of walls—the camera is just not designed to be kind about that in any way, and really jars your vision. It was easy to lose track of myself or the course because of the jolting motion that would happen, and it’s a clear sign the game never expected to be played this way. But it was well worth it for being able to gaze around Big Blue and Mute City as I screamed through the course. Oddly enough, VR actually made F-Zero feel slower to me, but I still don't think I could handle the later cups with insane back-to-back 90 degree turns.

Pikmin 2

James: So, quick confession. I’ve never played a Pikmin game. But my first experience with it in VR made it feel like a natural fit for the platform. Standing tall over Olimar while directing him to pull up and command tiny plant people felt to-scale and like an efficient way to keep track of the entire field while multitasking. That said, the camera was directly locked to my head movement, so I couldn’t walk around the level naturally and had to keep my body pretty still in order to avoid getting sick. With a few tweaks it could play as intuitively as the best strategy games available for Oculus and on Steam VR. Until then, it’s worth experiencing if only just to see the Vive wands rendered in game to look like Gamecube controllers, the best Nintendo console, irrefutably.

Wes: I have pretty decent VR legs these days, but something about the perspective of Pikmin 2 in VR made me feel immediately ill. I think it might've been the FOV: even holding my head still, something just felt off. Where Metroid and F-Zero actually work in VR as they are (with plenty of bugs, but still!), I think Pikmin 2 in VR is more of a proof-of-concept. Yeah, this could definitely work. Being able to walk around the field and look down on an army of tiny Pikmin? Heck yeah. Make a Pikmin God Game already, Nintendo.

But yeah, Pikmin 2 messed with my equilibrium so much that when I tried to take a step I actually lost balance and nearly fell over. Figuring out the right settings to tweak might solve that issue, but it was rough.

Metroid Prime 3

Wes: We had a lot of trouble with this one, and I'm still hopeful we'll get it working in the future. Youtuber JoshDub has shown off Dolphin VR working with more games than anyone else online, and his Top 5 Nintendo VR games video names Metroid Prime 3 as the best of them. I'd believe it: because Prime 3 was built for the Wii, its IR aiming controls are a natural fit for free look and the Vive controllers. Despite mirroring his settings, our look controls were still tied to the Vive's touchpad, and slowdown made James want to throw up. We'll keep trying to get freelook working on this one, because the potential is just too good to give up on.

James: I don’t feel so hot, Wes. The only time Metroid made me feel this way was during my first attempt at playing Other M.

Wes: At least VR sickness fades quickly. Some wounds last forever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As hardware editor, Wes spends slightly more time building computers than he does breaking them. Deep in his heart he believes he loves Star Wars even more than Samuel Roberts and Chris Thursten, but is too scared to tell them.
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