Under the Virtual Big Top — A night at Two Bit Circus

What happens when you combine VR, carnival games, escape rooms, reimagined carnie fare, and a robot bartender? The answer, it turns out, can be found in Two Bit Circus, a new big-top themed barcade in downtown Los Angeles. We got to explore the impressively large digital carnival grounds during the 2BC and Tiny Sponsor Creator Night to see what all this indoor amusement park has to offer.

Being the VR junkie that I am, I immediately made a beeline for the VR games. Two Bit offers a host of different VR experiences, from the more beginner friendly, sit-back-and-enjoy experiences to a four player co-op shooter. While there are many more VR attractions, I was able to go hands-on with three VR experiences: Beat Saber, Hologate, and a skydiving experience, complete with a fan and haptic rig.

I started the evening by heading over to the single-player VR Stations to check out Beat Saber. $10 will book you 15 minutes in your own VR station, equipped with three different games. While the outer space shooter game looked interesting, I only had eyes for one title. You’ve likely been living under a virtual rock if you haven’t yet heard about Beat Saber.

Combining Guitar Hero and Star Wars, Beat Saber arms you with two lightsabers and shoots colored blocks at you in time with the beat. Your mission is to slash the appropriate colored block with the appropriate colored saber, slashing in the direction of the arrow on the block. It’s fun, it’s frantic, and it will separate the Jedi masters from the padawans. I was never the best Rock Band player, so it took me a few tries to get the hang of it, but I was immediately hooked. I only got to play a few songs, but I could easily see myself gleefully losing hours to this title, slashing and stabbing blocks, moving and ducking to avoid walls, and spinning my laser swords with a flourish.

Feeling decently warmed up, I moved on to Hologate, where we jumped into a four person co-op game called Simurai, which, despite the title, turned out to be a shooter. Dawning the visor, we found ourselves inside inside a Tron-esque world with glowing, minimalist avatars, and were each given a two-handed, futuristic blaster gun. While the game has complete freedom of motion, everyone spawns in and stays inside a quadrant, you can turn completely around and duck, but there’s really no moving around beyond that.

Perhaps it’s simply that I’ve been spoiled by other co-op VR shooters like Raw Data and Deadwood Mansion, but I found Hologate to be a bit of a letdown. The game looked great, with bright colors, glowing designs and strange monsters to shoot, but the overall experience felt a little lacking. On top of the lack of movement within the game, there did not seem to be real danger or threat of failure; no matter how many times monsters lobbed red energy balls at us, we escaped with no greater punishment than the screen flashing red for a moment. The shooting mechanics felt a little loose and soft, between a lack of accurate scope targeting and the fact that the spray of bullet-like energy pellets seemed to drift, rarely landing where I expected them to. While ammo was unlimited, it did require the occasional reloading, which was accomplished by squeezing the grip under your dominant hand and waiting. While this worked, it was often difficult to tell if your squeezing was registering, and I would have prefered a cocking or arcade-style reloading method.

Still, it was an entertaining and frantic experience, populated by a wide variety of interesting monsters equipped with various kinds of attacks and unique defenses. Power-ups occasionally spawned as blue icons, and by shooting them you could add a shield or power boost to your weapon. Shooting slightly up and to the right seemed to mostly help compensate my ammunition drift, landing me the second highest score in our group.

Then it was time to go skydiving. I’m going to be honest, I was terrified of this experience. I’m more than a little afraid of heights, having frozen solid due to my distance from terra firma on more than one occasion, and I was worried about just how dramatically I’d react to the insane haptic rig, which was complete with a fan blowing air into my face. Fortunately, it turned out my fear was entirely unfounded. I was delighted to soar through Central Park, nose-dived into the ocean at sunset, and even waved to King Kong as I sailed past. This is a short, two minute experience, and while I’m sure it doesn’t hold a candle to the actual experience of skydiving, it did provide a real sense of freedom and no small bit of enjoyment. Be sure to check out the video above!

Having sated my thirst for VR, I went off to explore other parts of the circus. Tragically, the robot bartender, which not only allegedly mixes a mean drink, but can also carry on conversation and even flirt, was not operational that night. I will be sorely tempted to make a trip back just for that experience, once it’s up and running again. Instead, I nabbed an old fashioned with a torched orange peel made the old fashioned way, by an actual human, and headed over to check out the food. While a sign warned me that run-away robots had stolen all the hand pies, I got to dive into some hot potato tots and some truly delicious flatbread pizzas made from vegan tough, whose toppings ranged from Chorizo to Brussels sprouts, and absolutely went back for seconds on the flatbreads.

Next stop was the Midway, a collection of classic carnival games reimagined with a digital twist. Instead of throwing darts at colored balloons, the game is now played with ball pit-styled balls. Throw a red ball at a blue balloon and the balloon turns blue. Hit a blue balloon with a blue ball and it will pop, bursting any other matching balloons immediately adjacent. The digital screen also features icons such as balloon animals, tubas and pinwheels which will pop additional balloons on the board, depending on the icons and the color ball you hit it with. It’s a fun, modern twist on a tried and true carnie game, now without the risk of anyone getting stabbed by a dart. Other games include swinging a physical wrecking ball to knock down a digital building, (aim for the dynamite, but don’t hit the construction workers!) a four player game where you spin oversized colorful balls in order to control virtual versions of said balls, trying to knock everyone else out of a ring, and pumping giant levers to power your miniature train in a four-man race.

Then it was time to move on to the maze and story room. The maze consisted of an actual, physical maze, with semi-transparent walls… the trick was, you’d be navigating it while in VR. With a Vive wand in hand, visitors step into the Minotaur’s Maze, or square off against the Raving Rabbids in this mixed-reality shooter. The walls and turns with the VR game correlate with the physical maze, but in VR you’ll be shooting enemies, usually skeletons or Rabbids, dodging guillotines, and even riding elevators to lower levels. Minotaur’s Maze can be played on easy or difficult settings, but fair warning: the difficult mode has quite a few virtual spiders, so enter at your own risk.

The story room turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Space Squad in Space (yes, that is the actual name of the experience) features not virtual reality, but the bridge of a retro-future spaceship, complete with working buttons, trackball controllers, LED panels, and a sassy talking brain. This sarcastic, tongue-and-cheek experience requires observation and communication from all four to six players, and a lack of teamwork will mean game over. It was incredibly fun, incredibly frustrating, and had every single person in the group yelling orders, shouting questions, and groaning in frustration. I honestly can’t think of a better way to ruin a friendship, especially if you and your friends have an affinity for cheesy sci-fi television shows.

While these sections occupied the majority of my time at Two Bit Circus, there was still much more to see. From photo ops to private, karaoke-style VR rooms to Club 01, a tech-enhanced stage show where the entire audience is part of the show, there’s a lot of area to wander. I did go out of my way to spend some quality time at The Arcade, which features a huge collection of retro styled but future tech games. I found myself quite smitten by the air hockey table, where up to four players use physical strikers to direct a digital puck.

I had an amazing time at Two Bit Circus, and am already making plans to go back with different friends in order to hit up different attractions. You can learn more about the space and the various attractions at the Two Bit Circus website, and if you act quickly, you can use this link to score $50 worth of bits (the official currency within the circus) for $25. Head on over here for more information on location, hours of operation, and to sign up for the newsletter.

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