SAN FRANCISCO – Even though they make me feel kind of sick, I've played plenty of VR games. Some of them have even been pretty good. But for most VR games, I can't shake the feeling that they'd be just as much fun on a traditional screen.
That's definitely not the case for Pixel Ripped 1989: a retro throwback to the Game Boy adventures of my childhood, which also happens to be one of the cleverest applications of VR tech I've seen so far.
At GDC, I met with Brazilian developer Ana Ribeiro, who showed me Pixel Ripped 1989 firsthand. (She was so excited about her game, she cosplayed as its protagonist, Dot.) Like me (and a lot of other folks my age), Ribeiro grew up playing Game Boy games on the go. The monochrome screen and stripped-down gameplay captured her heart the same way that NES and SNES titles seem to inspire a lot of other indie developers, and she decided to put her own modern spin on the concept.
In Pixel Ripped 1989, you play as two characters: Dot, the heroine of an old-school Game Boy-style platformer (the system is called the Gear Kid here, but it's easy enough to guess where it came from), and a grade-school student named Nicola. When the villainous Cyblin Lord attacks Earth, only Nicola (one of the world's greatest gamers, even at nine years old) can stop him, by guiding Dot through a series of retro challenges.
Don't pay too much attention to the story here, which is pretty much '90s tween wish fulfillment, just 20 years after the fact. Instead, focus on the fact that Pixel Ripped 1989 wants you to play two games at once – and actually does a pretty good job balancing them.
As Nicola controls Dot on her Gear Kid, she'll have to keep her teacher and classmates distracted, or else risk their wrath. In the game's first level, I had to split my attention between running, jumping and shooting as Dot (think Mega Man's combat meets Sonic the Hedgehog's platforming), and shooting spitballs at various classroom items to keep the teacher's attention anywhere but on Nicola.
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Where the game really excels, though, is in its boss fights. In the first level, Dot emerged in full color onto a VR landscape, where I had to look around the VR landscape to guide her through a 3D maze. By using spitballs, I could pop bubbles that blocked her path, while taking out pixelated enemies with more traditional run-and-gun tactics. It's part puzzle and part action sequence, and all very satisfying.
While each half of Pixel Ripped 1989's gameplay is pretty simple, putting the two together elevates the complete package. There's clearly a lot of love for Nintendo's blocky old system, and yet it's equally clear that Pixel Ripped 1989 could never work as anything but a VR title. I'll admit that keeping half of my focus on the Gear Kid and half on the classroom wasn't always fun, but the rewarding hybrid of VR and old-school platforming made it a worthwhile tradeoff.
Pixel Ripped 1989 will be out on May 22 for Oculus, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, although Ribeiro hasn't finalized the price yet. She'd eventually like to release the game on a real Game Boy cartridge, and perhaps even engineer a real-life Gear Kid, but those ideas are both a little further off in the future.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.