Mekamon review

Piloting Mekamon's robot gladiator is just as much as fun as it sounds

It’s hard to keep up with all the new robot toys hitting the market these days, but occasionally something comes out that really grabs your attention. Something like Reach RoboticsMekamon ($300). When I first saw this crazy, four-legged spider-thing, I got excited. It looks like something out of a video game or an anime or a Transformer movie that isn’t awful. It looks, in other words, awesome. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, either. Apple featured it in its stores recently, and it’s hard to deny this distinctly otherworldly bot isn’t impressive to behold.

Some Patience Required

When it arrived, I tore the sucker out of the box, slapped the big battery in, and then proceeded to suffer through the usual delays that prevent instant gratification with toys these days. First, there’s the app that needs to be downloaded. In my case, it didn’t work quite right on my Samsung tablet, so I had to re-download it on my phone.

Controlling Mekamon is like taking charge of a newborn mechanical alien.

After a successful install, it was on to… a firmware update. Every robot ever needs firmware updates, despite the fact that it’s something you never see them do in movies. Oh, and the battery, which regrettably uses a proprietary cable (as opposed to, say, a standard USB cord), also needed a charge. All in all, getting this thing up and running was a bit frustrating, and anti-climactic.

Four Legs For Action

But then, with the battery charged and re-slapped back into the Mekamon’s butt, those four legs started dancing to life — I was immediately entranced. Mekamon has a lot going on, even by today’s toy robot standards. It has “augmented reality” games and can battle other Mekamon(s?), should you happen to know another nerd who likes shelling out several hundred dollars for weird toys. The app also has an absurd level of minutiae for customizing every aspect of the stance, gait, height, and steps of the robot. In other words, options I’ll probably never really quite understand the importance of.

None of that mattered in the face of watching this ridiculous contraption move. A lot of companies tout the idea of toys with personality (Sphero’s pretty good at it with its Star Wars droids), but Mekamon just overflows with a weirdly and sincerely delightful sense of earnest. The robot has an array of canned reactions — everything from shooting pretend guns and lunging forward, to acting excited or scared, or lifting its leg to pretend urinate (a huge hit with the kids). Most of these movements are somehow adorable. Even its death sequence is hilarious to watch.

Twitch and go

Controlling Mekamon directly, via touch controls on a phone, is a lot like suddenly taking charge of a newborn mechanical alien. It lumbers along in an arachnid way, scaring cats, mesmerizing children (and their fathers), and occasionally overturning after getting caught up on the messes of blankets and toys that are part of its new landscape.

The mix of a real world toy and virtual opponents is an interesting gimmick, but seldom seems like anything more.

You can adjust Mekamon’s legs and body height on the fly, to help the bot maneuver better — but most kids aren’t likely to mess with that stuff. Being an adult, I did mess with the tuning, and it opened a world of maneuverability. It can even climb steps, though honestly, my attempts have been less than successful. However skilled a pilot you may be, it’s sheer fun to make it go up, down, and all around.

The Mekamon, when idle, tends to twitch as if nervous, which adds to its personality, and the illusion that it’s more than a simple toy. My ten-year-old has decided Mekamon would make an ideal monster for a movie, and she’s absolutely right. If this thing were 50 feet tall, it would be horrifying. The body fits heavily in my hand, and it’s just big enough to be impressive, without taking up too much space.

Augmented Reality

There’s not any kind of automatic mode for the Mekamon to venture out and explore on its own, and it also lacks any kind of onboard camera, which is unfortunate (especially for the price). I also can’t say I’m a fan of the clumsy phone-based AR, where you watch the screen (with the camera pointed at the robot) and pretend to pilot the robot around virtual obstacles. Mekamon has a lot of that. It’s gamified AR, though, so you can (virtually) upgrade your robot, much like Anki does with the cars in its Overdrive set.

Mekamon review

Mekamon comes with a take on the classic Asteroids theme, where you move Mekamon around to aim and shoot at falling space rocks that bombard your screen. Another mode has you defend a virtual base against waves of robotic invaders. The mix of a real world toy and virtual opponents is an interesting gimmick, but seldom seems like anything more. The video game portion of these activities is very oldschool and primitive, and I never got into the habit of watching a real object moving through the filter of my phone screen.

Make Mine Mekamon

There’s supposed to be a game built around Mekamon, but the robot’s $300 price, and awkward AR app, stopped me from enjoying it. What I did love was watching Mekamon move, seeing where I can make it go, and enjoying the absurd sci-fi spectacle of the thing. Mekamon excels as a remote-controlled robot, pairing customization with ease-of-use. If you feel the need to have a mechanical creature you can completely control, this is the coolest toy of the year.

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