MekaMon is a fun combination of ‘real-life,’ AR gaming despite some quirks

Like gaming? Like robots? Like Battlebots?Then you’ll love the spider-like MekaMon from Reach Robotics — IF you’re willing to tackle a somewhat long learning curve.

Described as the world’s first real-life gaming robot,” it’s available at Apple.com and MekaMon.com for $299.95 (in white and black models), as well as in Apple stores throughout the U.S. and UK. You control it via a free downloadable app for your iPhone (or Android phone).

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Each robot weighs approximately 2.2 pounds, measures 11.8 x 11.8 x 5.9 inches, and has a removable, rechargeable battery. The battery ships with a small amount of power and fully charges in 15-20 minutes. Charging from empty takes about 50 minutes. Once charged, the battery’s LED will turn green.

Setting up the Mek takes several minutes. In fact, when I was calibrating the robot, the process took so long that I thought there was a glitch. Not so. It was just slooooow.

You also have to scan your Mek with your iPhone’s camera to “pair” them. However, I frequently had to rescan my robot, which was a bit aggravating.

The MekaMon uses the iPhone’s camera and infrared sensors for precision game-play, although it took an ol’ coot like me a lot of practice to get the “precision” part down pat (but your mileage may vary). Robots connect to each other via infrared signals and players’ phones connect to each other over Bluetooth. This allows you to go into battle against other folks in Mek vs. Mek battles or participate in AR combat against intelligent augmented reality enemies.

You choose whether to play in the real world or augmented reality. Once the battle begins, the MekaMon scrambles about and uses objects in a room such as tables, chairs, and cats (though my felines didn’t appreciate that) to block or hide from attackers. 

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You can customize your robot to fit your own playing style. The robots are upgradable and customizable with detachable legs, shields, and weapons. Well, they will be customizable when such extras become available at the MekaMon store. 

You can customize your Meka’s parameters in the DropZone section of the app, which also offers tutorials (and you should watch ‘em) to help you learn to use your Mek. You can adjust the height, step length, gait, and speed of your robot. You can also create real life challenges such as obstacle courses and use DropZone to turn and operate your Mek.

However, you outfit it, the MekaMon is surprisingly nimble. It has three degrees of freedom per each of its four legs, resulting in fluid movement. Heck, the robot can even climb small steps, flip onto its back, and be adjusted for different floor types (carpet, type, etc.). MekaMon’s story is set in 2076 and follows Earth after an alien invasion. A single-player campaign tests players through a series of challenges that let them earn upgrades. Multi-player options include traditional combat between robots, as well as games like Tug of War and Last Man Standing.

There are three combat modes you can participate in. Battle Mode is a one-on-one MekaMon battle in a real-time CCG battle arena. It mixes real-time tactical warfare with the strategy and depth of collectable card games. You can customize your battle strategies with digital play cards that provide you with specific abilities. Of course, this means your opponent must also have a Mek.

If not, try AR Mode, which pits you against AI enemies in a king-of-the-hill training simulation. You and your robot face off against waves of virtual foes. The Meka reacts to every hit and attack in “real life.”

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Arcade Mode offers a roster of fun arcade-style classics (with more to be added in the future). This places your MekaMon at the helm of classic gameplay.

What’s more, MekaMon offers full compatibility with Apple’s Swift Playgrounds coding app. With Swift Playgrounds, you can learn and implement fundamental coding concepts to control the robot’s startup, shutdown and movement capabilities, custom reactionary animations and more. So the robot is not only fun, but also educational.

There are some gotchas with the MekaMon, but most of the ones that irked me could/should be fixed with software/firmware upgrades. However, overall, the robotic system is a fun combination of “real world” and AR gaming.\ Apple World Today Rating (out of 5 stars): ★★★★