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Downtown LA's Massive Immersive VR Theme Park Might Just Blow Your Mind

A player in the Hologate at Two Bit Circus. (Courtesy of Two Bit Circus)
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You're standing on a raft, drifting through a swamp with three of your best buds but this is no moonlit pleasure cruise. Red orbs blossom like flowers and spit fire at you. Gorillas bare their glowing, violet teeth. With one hand, you fire a Gatling gun mounted to the rail. With the other, you try to extinguish the flames licking at the side of your vessel. Behind you, your BFF, a shotgun in each hand, fires at fins circling in the murky waters below. If you survive, you can order a cocktail from a robot bartender. You'll need refreshment before you blast through an abandoned mineshaft in search of treasure, pilot a starship to a distant planet and rumble around a futuristic city in a souped-up battle tank.

These adventures, heavy on narrative and teamwork, are only a few of the immersive experiences at Two Bit Circus, a 37,000-square-foot, indoor theme park slated to open in downtown L.A. on September 7.

The Lost City immersive experience at Two Bit Circus in downtown L.A. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

Founded in 2012 by Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, the company and its flagship "micro-amusement park" exist at the intersection of technology and whimsy. Two Bit Circus is known for a variety of amusements including a giant ball-in-a-maze game that requires people on teeter-totters to operate, a gunner turret simulator, a laser maze and Hexacade, a six-person arcade console. A few years ago, they built an "escape room" at their space in The Brewery's art colony. Unlike similar games, however, the goal wasn't to escape, but to cooperatively pilot a spaceship.

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"Eric and I have always loved getting people playing together. We started to see an opportunity for a bigger venue, where you could go and have a reason to come back," Bushnell says.

Seated virtual reality stations at Two Bit Circus. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

Two Bit Circus is kind of like Dave & Busters or XLanes -- if they'd grown up reading Scott Pilgrim graphic novels then taken a heroic dose of hallucinogens. The Arts District theme park is both the flagship for the brand and a petri dish where Bushnell and Gradman can test new ways to play. It's not only a platform for their games, it's a showcase for other developers. The opening roster includes content from Starbreeze VR, escape game company SCRAP and Killer Queen Arcade, among others. Two Bit Circus is the kind of place where you'll get a peek into the future of entertainment -- and you might just get into a snowball fight in the dead of summer.

The mezzanine at Two Bit Circus in downtown L.A. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

For Bushnell, gaming is in his blood. His father, Nolan Bushnell, co-founded Atari with Ted Dabney in 1972 and later founded Chuck E. Cheese. Bushnell, 39, is a an engineer who used to perform as a circus clown.

Gradman, 37, has a background in computer programming and robotics engineering. He also worked as a touring circus performer, training as a clown, aerialist, acrobat and fire dancer.

The two bonded at a MindshareLA meetup back in 2008. Two years later, they worked on the delightfully destructive Rube Goldberg machine featured in OK GO's "This Too Shall Pass" video.

Gaming tables at Two Bit Circus in downtown L.A. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

Two Bit Circus is divided into five zones to make it easier to navigate the games and experiences.

The Midway, where the games recall a county fair, is the most accessible. Big Top Balloon Party requires players to lob balls at a screen to match colors, kind of like a tactile Candy Crush. Demolition Zone lets guests swing a physical "wrecking ball" at a digital tower.

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Nearby, in the Arcane Arcade zone, classic games like Ms. Pac-Man, Street Fighter II and pinball exist alongside ones invented by Two Bit and other developers. Some are played on "Skidoos," platforms that Gradman says are "the longest arcade game you'll ever see, with nine feet of total gameplay." Standing at a Skidoo, you can use a trackball to fling waffles around obstacles in the cute Wiffle Waffle or escape fast-approaching mines in Danger Danger. Every Skidoo can run a variety of games, making it easy to rotate content and see what does or doesn't resonate with users.

Skidoo platforms at Two Bit Circus. (Courtesy of Two Bit Circus)

"Maybe we're playing a third party developer or a student's game," Gradman says. "If it does well -- and we're capturing data about how every game in this place performs -- then it's going to start spreading to nearby Skidoos."

You'll find the lion's share of Two Bit's virtual reality offerings in the Arena. They include single-player stations and the four-player Hologate, where you can toss snowballs at other players or team up with them to battle robots. Want a little less adrenaline and a little more relaxation? In the VR cabanas, which you can rent by the hour, you'll be able to karaoke and play more than 20 games, from cow milking simulators to first-person zombie shooters. There's also the popular indie game Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, in which one person dons a headset and can see a ticking bomb while everyone else tries to disarm it.

Seated virtual reality stations at Two Bit Circus. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

There are also four seated virtual reality stations, where players can choose between roller coaster and flight simulators or roll around in a tank in a VR version of the classic Atari game Battlezone, which Two Bit also has. The movie theater-style chairs are equipped to provide haptic feedback. They swivel with the action and vibrate to simulate motion or impact.

Just outside the Arena Zone, you can navigate Asterion VR's ModulMaze. There are no cords so you'll walk, untethered, through a physical maze that corresponds with what you see and hear on your headset.

Then there are the Story Rooms, the three most immersive games in the park. Space Squad In Space is a 30-minute game where four to six players work together to repair their spaceship or face certain doom. Lost City begins in a mine as two to eight players players figure out how to access the secret temple hidden within. In The Raft, four players defend their raft against an onslaught of demons.

Club 01 serves as a high-tech interactive theater. The room accommodates 96 players, each one sitting at a table equipped with touchscreens. A variety of programs run on the tablets including trivia, puzzles and a wine tasting experience where participants check off what notes they've tasted after each sip.

"We try to take the idea of the game show and make it interactive again," Gradman says. "Everybody who comes here gets to play. Everyone here is playing both with the people at their table and [everyone else in the room]."

Robot bartender Gearmo prepares to mix a cocktail at Two Bit Circus. (Photo by Juliet Bennett Rylah for LAist)

Curious guests may find several smaller interactive elements around the park. A bubble gum machine dispenses clues to hidden areas while a payphone will only dial out if you can locate the correct number. Bushnell hopes Two Bit Circus will also serve as a platform for immersive theater and alternative reality game creators, too.

"With immersive theater, there is no Pantages," he says. "Immersive theater is all over the place. It's in restaurants, it's overlaid downtown. We have white space areas, secret rooms, secret closets and secret hallways that can be used as activation spaces."

A cocktail at Two Bit Circus. (Courtesy of Two Bit Circus)

When all the monster-fighting and puzzle-solving makes you hungry, you can eat "farm-to-circus" fare like baked corn dogs, truffle fries and ice cream sandwiches. There's also a full bar where drinks often involve fire, dry ice and liquid nitrogen. At a second, smaller bar, a robot named Gearmo beeps and boops while shaking up signature cocktails. You might want to eat and drink at one of the ground-floor picnic tables or in the mezzanine lounge where the shelves are stocked with board games.

Burgers, fries and tater tots at Two Bit Circus. (Courtesy of Two Bit Circus)

"What we really want is to create this community-minded space so that people can just come together," Two Bit Circus president Kim Schaefer, who previously served as CEO of Great Wolf Lodge, says. "If you want to grab a drink and play a board game for three hours, great. That makes us very happy, because we know you can come in here a hundred times and have a hundred different experiences."

Two Bit Circus is located at 634 Mateo St. in the Arts District area of downtown Los Angeles. Starting September 7, hours are Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. After 9 p.m., the venue is 21+. No cover or reservations required for general admission; reservation information for select experiences can be found here. If you can't wait until September, Sneak Peek tickets are available for August 27-30 for $25. That price includes a Players Card loaded with a $50 gaming credit that doesn't expire.

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