'Ready Player One' VR games show the future is now

Retrofuturism is so hot right now.

Ready Player One imagines the year 2044 as an industrial wasteland where people escape the perils of modern life by strapping on virtual-reality headsets and disappearing into a vast digital playground called the OASIS. The book, written by Ernest Cline, was published in 2011 -- a year before Palmer Luckey and Brendan Iribe founded Oculus VR. Since then, VR has become a staple of the technology and gaming spheres, with dozens of headsets on the market -- everything from cheap, smartphone-powered devices to untethered PC rigs costing upward of $1,000 to run properly.

Ready Player One may be set in the near future, but it could have easily taken place in 2018. Nowhere is that more apparent than SXSW's Ready Player One VR event.

To promote the Ready Player One film, which opens March 29th, HTC partnered with a handful of VR developers to create 1980s-inspired experiences for the Vive and Vive Pro headsets. At SXSW, I dived into four of these games -- Smash, Fracture, Gauntlet and Rise of the Gunters -- ahead of their launch on SteamVR and VIVEPORT later this month.

Smash and Fracture come from 2 Bears Studio and they're easily the most accessible titles of the bunch. In Smash, players smack robotic orbs down a neon-striped hallway using the Vive's motion controllers, attempting to make the balls ricochet past enemies and into a portal at the far end. The Vive controllers transform into circular shields, essentially attaching two huge, transparent paddles to each hand. The game feels like a futuristic mix of dodgeball, baseball and pingpong, and the whole thing is wonderfully responsive.

Fracture is the Breakout of VR. Instead of bouncing a 2D ball into a wall of bricks at the top of the screen, players are surrounded by transparent cubes in a giant 3D room. Fracture places a glowing bat in one hand and a ball-recalling device in the other: Swing the bat arm to smack the ball and explode as many blocks as possible before time runs out. It's a simple premise, but as it turns out, smashing a bunch of glass-like cubes with a ball and bat is really fun -- even just in VR.

Gauntlet, meanwhile, comes from Directive Games and it's a true VR upgrade of a 1985 arcade game. The original Gauntlet was a top-down dungeon crawler, but the Vive version is a first-person action title set in a fully realized 3D hellscape packed with violent skeletons. Your main weapon is a bow and arrow, which you shoot by making standard archery motions with the Vive controllers. You know what I'm talking about -- we've all pretended to be Legolas at some point in our lives.

It's immensely satisfying to unload arrow after arrow into hordes of aggressive zombie creatures, but like many VR games, Gauntlet uses teleportation as a movement mechanic -- and it feels fairly jarring and imprecise. The game's strength lies in actual combat.

And then there's Rise of the Gunters from Drifter Entertainment. This is the only game I played with the untethered Vive Pro, using the wireless adapter HTC unveiled at CES in January. It's also the only multiplayer game -- I jumped into a desolate war zone with two other people and, together, we used futuristic guns to fight off waves of enemies. It was fast-paced and action-packed, with attackers running in and shooting at my team from all sides, and dropping money bags and upgrade cherries when they died.

Despite a few clunky locomotion mechanics, every one of these games is incredibly immersive -- that's the draw of VR, after all. Just ask Wade Watts.

Catch up on the latest news from SXSW 2018 right here.