A thrill a minute
With a roller coaster rattling overhead, the constant yelps of people riding a mechanical half-pipe and the sound of digitally rendered zombies being blasted with lasers, it's easy to forget that I'm standing in Dubai Mall. The shopping centre's signs have borne the words "Sega Republic"for months, some adorned with the gaming company's famous blue hedgehog, Sonic. But until last weekend, they led nowhere.
Tucked away next to the mall's newly opened 10-screen cinema complex, Sega Republic is a curious hybrid of indoor theme park, games arcade and forgotten fairground. At one moment it's 2009 and I'm sitting in a full-sized rally car, mounted on hydraulics, playing the latest racing game. The next, it is the 1960s and I'm shooting rubber ducks off a conveyor belt with a water pistol, hoping to win enough tokens for a cuddly toy.
And it's not just a bizarre mix of hi- and lo-tech that makes Sega Republic so curious. The 7,060 square metre indoor theme park, with its two floors and five zones, feels like a place that has been invented to satisfy even the shortest attention span. Where else can you step off a roller coaster with your legs still quivering, and immediately mount a rock-climbing wall, or walk into a room where you are pelted with ping-pong balls from a hole in the wall?
"It's like the Trocadero in London's West End, but bigger," says John Bridges, a British holidaymaker in Dubai. "It's mad, we are enjoying it. It's unusual to find all this in a mall, but we've been to Dubai before so it's sort of what you expect." On opening day Sega Republic saw both its floors surging with people and queues forming for some attractions. The visitors included families with children, young people and diehard gamers of all nationalities, plus a few shoppers who looked like they got lost on the way to the cinema.
The park has 150 attractions and nine main rides, the most impressive of which is the snowboarding simulator Halfpipe Canyon. The huge metal frame aims to recreate the rush of throttling up and down a seven-metre incline at speeds of up to 40km/h. Thrillseekers are strapped into the machine's two giant pendulums, which swing up and down along a curved metal girder. There is also a competitive element, which sees the riders attempting to rack-up a winning score by pivoting their feet at speed while being swung through the air. It is good to have something to concentrate on, because although exhilarating, the attraction can also be slightly nauseating. There is also the option of being strapped into one of the huge swinging objects with a friend, for those of a more cautious disposition.
Another one of the attraction's set pieces is Spin Gear, a roller coaster with carriages that rotate as they move around the track. Hugging the building's rafters, the ride makes clever use of the tight space available. However, anyone expecting the scale of an outdoor theme-park ride will probably be disappointed. Being inside a mall undoubtedly limits Spin Gear's size, but it also adds a slightly surreal quality to the experience. As the carriage jolts around the track at what feels like breakneck speed, passengers can see the faces of the Sega Republic's visitors just below. That nervous feeling that you might fly off the track is made slightly worse by the sight of families with shopping bags, queuing for drinks in the firing line underneath.
Whether being buckled into a roller coaster, or taking a simulator ride through dense jungle, it is easy to find yourself wondering what many of these attractions have to do with computer games. The answer is nothing, but the park's organisers seem to have decreed that all mildly rigorous forms of captive enjoyment are welcome. However, here are some attractions that combine the white-knuckle aspect of theme-park rides with the latest that video game technology has to offer.
The park's busiest area is Speed Zone, probably set up with the knowledge that hardcore gamers are often also avid petrol heads. Its most peculiar attraction is Storm-G, a racing game for which players are strapped into giant "rockets", facing a screen. Not only do the rockets mimic the side-to-side roll of the futuristic bobsleigh race on screen, but they even spin through 360 degrees, at times leaving players dangling upside down while still competing in the race. That's why staff members constantly remind visitors not to chew gum.
For those who prefer their racing to be a little more down-to-earth, Initial D4 Limited allows you to test your driving skills from the seat of an actual car. Sitting in one of the vehicles is a bit like getting into your own car, until you notice the huge display screen fixed to the front of the bonnet. The steering wheel and pedals feel genuine enough, though, so do the jolts from beneath the car, created by a network of hydraulic pumps, recreating the feel of the game's rough terrain.
"We came because my daughter was excited about the games, but there's quite a lot for people of different ages to do," says Reema Kiwan, from Jordan, as her young children tap keys, tug joysticks and spin wheels. "I would not be interested in the roller coaster, but I like the rally cars. I might go on the rocket one next time without the kids." Sega Republic's younger visitors will inevitably be drawn to the Redemption Zone - so named because tokens can be won and redeemed for prizes there. This is the part of Sega Republic that offers the greatest contrast to the high-end games and rides on offer. In fact, with Skee-Ball machines, electronic dartboards, water shooters, whack-a-moles and toy-grabbing cranes, many of the zone's diversions look like they have been salvaged from a 30-year-old amusement park.
Even those without a competitive side, or any interest in video games at all, could probably stay entertained at Sega Republic. There are photo booths, and even karaoke rooms where friends hang out and sing. But for maximum enjoyment, it is best to have at least a passing interest in the world of gaming. Sport-related amusements also feature highly among the park's best attractions, with many of the world's most popular games given a unique technological boost. There's virtual golf, where tiny cameras capture a player's swing and plot the path of a ball on a huge screen. Then there's cue-ball bowling - a bizarre mix of pool and 10-pin bowling.
The zone's most unmissable attraction however is a virtual table-tennis match. On entering the perspex-walled room, players are given the choice of "easy" or "hard" - the latter leads to an almost machine-gun-like volley of balls from a wall-mounted dispenser. Be warned; hitting the balls back over the net is made particularly difficult by strays ricocheting off the plastic walls. Although Sega Republic has distractions both large and small, that have nothing to do with computer games, the busiest draws are undoubtedly the arcade machines. From multiplayer racing games to first-person shooters, an outlet can be found for almost any urge to play. Among the most popular is House of the Dead 4, a game in which players take on hordes of undead attackers with the aid of automatic weapons. With groans, roars and bursts of gunfire blasting from the machines for hours, it is difficult not to get sucked into its apocalyptic world and to remember that this only a game, after all.
As well as being a somewhat unusual place, Sega Republic's payment system is a little confusing. Visitors can pay Dh100 for a Power Pass to enter the park and have free rein of the main rides - the arcade machines and smaller attractions are not included, however. The other option is to pay Dh10 to enter and shell out for each attraction separately. The nine main rides cost Dh20-25 each, while the arcades are about Dh8. Put simply, buy the Power Pass if you want to stay all day and use at least four of the large rides, but be warned, you will be shelling out for the arcades either way. Otherwise, just get the basic entry and pay for each machine.
"The comparison here is to Magic Planet at Mall of the Emirates. Some of the games there only cost Dh3 and here it's more like Dh8," says Mark Chappell, a Dubai resident originally from the UK. "They have more of the actual arcade games there, whereas this is more of a theme park. I'm not so interested in the rides, I'm more into the games. The Dh100 pass sounds reasonable if you like the big rides, but you would need to spend the whole day to get your money's worth and that's a bit of a commitment."
Sega Republic succeeds at being an arcade that can be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. However, it might be difficult for anyone other than the most avid player to spend more than a few hours there, before all the bleeping, whooshing and yelling begins to take its toll. It is a place with two settings: extreme and very extreme, and there really is nowhere to hide.