The Mekamon fighting robot is a fighting-bot for the 21st century. Gone is the need for fighting robots to actually hit each other – now they can attack each other in augmented reality. It also means you can play with a single fighting robot, fighting off a hoard of digital assailants.
The robot itself is brilliantly designed, and the app you use to control the Mekamon is clearly well thought-out, with comic book-style sections that explain the (slightly Independence Day Resurgence-like) mythology around the Mekamon bots which is very satisfying.
Mekamon is available now, directly from Mekamon and from Apple, and costs $299.95 (£299.95, around AU$535).
If you’ve never heard of Reach Robotics, the company behind the Mekamon, it’s for a good reason – this is its first creation. As part of Apple’s move into AR it’s really pushing the Mekamon robot, featuring it in the official Apple Store, which has undoubtedly given the little fighting bot a bigger audience than it would otherwise have had.
But is it deserving of the audience it’s getting? We’ve spent some time with two of the fighting-bots, and these are our thoughts so far.
There’s no two ways about it: the Mekamon robots are cool. They’re clearly designed to sit in the visual world of Ghost in the Shell, Metal Gear Solid, and Gundam Wing.
With random Japanese lettering, numbers, letters, and ‘DANGER’ signs adorning plastic that’s sculpted into industrial shapes, with cogs and panels, the Mekamon looks like exactly what you’d dream up as a fighting robot if you’d been watching a lot of Manga.
But don’t let the fact that it’s plastic make you think it’s flimsy. These things are sturdy – so sturdy in fact that during one battle, my opponent Gerald tried to make his flee the room to escape defeat and managed to open a fire door using its robotic arms. You can see the full video of our (epic) battle below:
There are removable elements, including ‘training shields’ and guns. These can be clipped on to the robot, and are more than just aesthetic adornments – they actually affect how the Mekamon performs in battle.
There are two different models of the Mekamon: the Mekacademy and the Delta Unit. In terms of build they’re exactly the same, save for color differences. The Delta unit has a black body and black legs, while the Mekacademy unit has a white body, with white legs and blue hinges.
And those hinges are all-important. There are three hinges on each leg, giving the Mekamon a great range of movement, and Reach Robotics has really taken advantage of that. The movements of the Mekamon are so muscular that you truly think there’s life in the little bot.
If you've got pets, make sure they're not around when your Mekamon starts flexing its muscles – our dog got seriously freaked out. If they don't like your Roomba, they're going to hate this.
There’s one attack in your arsenal called a ‘leg shot, which means your enemy has its movement hampered, and watching the Mekamon limp its way through the next stage of the battle is deeply satisfying.
There are two ways to play with the Mekamon robots: in a virtual world with the AR app, and battling one-on-one with another Mekamon. In our experience, the real-life battles are the far more enjoyable of the options, but both are let down by a less-than-perfect AR interface.
Don’t get us wrong – pointing your iPad at the Mekamon and seeing a base for you to defend ‘magically’ appearing next to it is seriously cool. But when you fire at the aliens attacking the base, seeing them getting hit is somehow a less visceral experience, even though on-screen you see animations of cannons firing from the Mekamon, and electrical sparks coming off the blue orb on top of the body.
It does feel a bit like the app is a work in progress. There are still sections that are marked ‘coming soon’, and there’s a lot of screen real estate in the app that’s currently empty. On top of that, we found that the Mekamon would frequently fire in the wrong direction, or get confused about which direction you wanted it to travel in.
Once you move past basic directional controls, you get on to the system for attack and defence, which is complicated. Each attack or defence move has a whole range of information connected to it, including how much damage (or benefit) it does to you, and to your opponent, and how much it heats up your Mekamon – overheating your Mekamon causes it to shut down, leaving it vulnerable to attack.
If you've ever played Final Fantasy and been put off by the fact that battle feels more like a menu screen than a battle, you're going to find that here too.
However, if that's something you enjoy (and a lot of people do), what is initially off-putting quickly gives these battling bots their value, as they have a complex, strategic control system, meaning you can’t just button-bash your way to victory.
The arcade game available on the app isn't quite fun enough, as the robot is a little too slow to turn, and it really suffers in comparison to a connected toy like the Sphero Mini that has brilliant app integrations and is loads of fun straight out of the box.
There's something strange about controlling a robot on the screen, like trying to play pin the tail on the donkey while looking in the mirror. It's a similar sensation to if you've ever flown a drone; you need to disconnect what you think of as forward, and remember it's the robot's 'forward' you're moving towards.
The batteries on the Mekamon are surprisingly lost-lasting, giving you well over an hour of play on a single charge. The battery packs are removable, and come with an AC adapter that plugs into the wall.
We let our Mekamons completely drain of battery, and they took an hour and ten minutes to fully charge. You can do a quick charge for 15-20 minutes if you just want a quick play. We never found ourselves using the Mekamons to the point of running out of battery, which says more about how fun they are to use than how long the battery lasts.
The Mekamon fighting robot is a seriously cool toy, and if we were given one as a gift we’d be over the moon. That said, if we’d paid almost $300 for one, we would be disappointed.
The robot itself is brilliantly designed, it’s robust, and the battery life is impressive. The problem comes with the app. Given that the Mekamon is being sold as an AR toy, the AR element isn't quite as accomplished as the physical robot.
The software can be improved over time with updates, so it’s better that the problem lies here rather than with the robot itself – but for the price it's just not good enough. The games aren't actually fun to play, and the graphics leave something to be desired.
The Mekamon is at its most satisfying if you’ve got two that can fight each other, but that will mean shelling out close to $600 for the pleasure. We were disappointed, as the Mekamon has such promise, but it's not quite there yet.
- Want to se what other toys are out there? Best toys 2017: smart toys for kids of all ages