Update: In early 2019, Reach Robotics released a major update for the Mekamon app and firmware that added several new game modes, plus various enhancements. We've updated this review accordingly.
Mekamon is a spider-like robot designed to battle others of its kind, or virtual enemies in augmented reality via a smartphone app. Think Pokémon in real life and you’re most of the way there.
Mekamon V2 is available in white, black, and a fetching new grey camo pattern. The camo is exclusive to Apple Stores, but all robots are compatible with both Android and iOS. It’s also backward compatible, so V2 bots can battle their V1 counterparts without any trouble. Mekamon’s creator, UK-based Reach Robotics, says it intends to continue supporting its older models, so you don’t need to worry about your bot becoming obsolete when V3 struts into stores.
The robot itself looks very similar to its predecessor, with four limbs (each with three joints), detachable armor plates, and a pair of removable ‘guns’ atop its torso. The main difference is its head, which now has a 'face' panel to show which direction it's facing, and glows different colors to indicate its mood.
If you lose a battle or remove a piece of the robot’s equipment, it turns red and stomps angrily just to make sure there’s no confusion about its displeasure. Clip the accessory back on, or emerge from battle victorious, and it will glow green while bobbing with enthusiasm.
The original Mekamon was solidly built, and its predecessor is even more robust – which is just as well, as some of its ‘death’ animations involve the machine stiffening and toppling over on its back. In fact, animations have been improved across the board (and enhanced even further in the recent firmware update) giving Mekamon V2 more personality (and sass) than its predecessor. You can even create your own movements – more on that in a moment.
When you first load the Mekamon app, you’ll be presented with a short comic-book style video summarizing some new lore, followed by a menu featuring three options: Play, Create and Discover.
Discover mode was still a work in progress, Mekamon V2 was first released, but following the latest app update, it's now home to some interesting mockups of magazine articles based around the robot's lore, including how it reached Earth. It's fun stuff, and looks great.
When you launch Create mode, you’ll find two sections: MekaMotion and MekaCode. The latter is currently unavailable, but will hopefully be unlocked soon. When complete, it will let users create programs for their robots using blocks of pre-written code. This will be particularly useful for kids learning to code, and for schools that have invested in a Mekamon for teaching, or received one as a donation (education is a key priority for Reach Robotics’ founder Silas Adekunle).
Another new addition is Mekamotion, which lets you download and create new animations for your Mekamon. In this mode, you can gently position the robot’s legs like a clay stop-motion figure, then use the app to ‘capture’ each pose as a frame of animation. When ‘unlocked’ for animation (individually or in groups), the legs take on a kind of waxy flexibility, allowing you to bend them gently and then remaining in their new position until changed manually. Frames can be copied and pasted if you want to repeat a motion.
Sometimes you’ll have to support the Mekamon’s body to achieve a particular effect, and it feels like the process might be easier if the legs were a little stiffer (sometimes the machine sags a little after being posed), but it’s a novel idea that works well on the whole. To get an idea of what’s possible, there’s a selection of pre-made animations to download, including twerking, a dab, and enthusiastic tail-wagging to make just a few.
Play and fight
Following the early 2019 update, selecting Play mode gives you four options: Freedrive, Battle, Meteoroids and Lore.
Freedrive lets you get a feel for operating the robot, and provides various options for tinkering with its movement, including speed, step height and more. Mekamon V2 moves faster than its predecessor, and there’s far less latency between you operating the controls and the robot responding.
One of the biggest differences for Mekamon V2 is that the robot no longer requires a specially marked map to orient itself. Just set it down (it works fine on hard floors and carpets) and it’s ready to use immediately in Create or Freedrive mode.
Selecting Battle gives you a further four options: Skirmish, AR Skirmish, AR Freeplay and AR Survival. The first of these is a multiplayer experience that allows you to pit Mekamon against each other, while the others have you fighting virtual enemies. These can be either AI, or the avatars of other players (or pilots, as they're known in the game).
AR Freeplay allows you to customize virtually every aspect of the forthcoming fight, including the number of enemies you'll face, their durability and skill, the abilities of your allies (if any), and even the amount of AR scenery. You can even choose to play a 'low gravity' match, or compete against the clock.
Before starting a battle, you’ll need to spend a moment walking around with your phone to map out a battlefield. As you move, the floor will be covered with a pattern of squares on your phone’s screen, showing the area where the fight can take place. It’s not perfect, and can be foxed by objects like low tables, but it’s much more convenient than the mat and generally works well.
Before entering battle, you’ll be prompted to choose a loadout. Each of these involves a different configuration of shields and guns, and comes with different properties, such as speed and types of attack.
Following the recent firmware update, not all loadouts are available to begin with; to access more, you must unlock them by winning matches,
The robot is steered using two on-screen ‘joysticks’ – one controlling its movement (forward, backward, left or right) and the other changing the direction in which it faces. It’s best to start by standing directly behind the robot, but the movement soon feels natural.
To attack, ensure your Mekamon is facing its enemy (real or virtual) then tap the right-hand control. Be careful, though – fire too often in rapid succession and your Mekamon will ‘overheat’, necessitating a cooldown period before you can resume battle.
If you fancy something lighter, the Meteoroids game is a fun take on the classic Asteroids arcade title. This was fun with Mekamon V1, but the need for a special mat meant it was tricky to manoeuver your robot without snagging it. The addition of markerless VR for V2 gives you more freedom to dodge incoming rocks, making the game much more entertaining.
Mekamon V2 is great fun, and although it's lacking some features at present, most of those are software-based and will be added with future app updates. There's great potential here to get kids interested in coding, and sharing their own creations.
Although it certainly isn't cheap, it's impressive that Reach Robotics has managed to knock down the starting price from the first robot's initial tag of $299.95 (£299.95, around AU$535). The commitment to backwards compatibility is also reassuring.
Mekamon is stocked at Mekamon.com and at Apple Stores throughout the US and UK, so if you're not sure whether to invest you can head over and try one out on the shop floor. Just don't blame us if you're still there making the robot twerk when it's time for the staff to lock up for the night.