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MARS is a light gun system made in 2019 by PDP for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. Similarly as the systems shown in the episodes 96 and 127 a camera films a video display and pays attention to an infrared laser to determine the location of the shot. What sets MARS apart from the competition is that their laser is lit all the time which allows the camera to track the gun even when it isn't firing.
The camera is called "IR Station". Sadly these are not generic and are console specific. The label on the bottom clearly identifies the camera but they also can be told apart from a distance: The Xbox One version has a USB micro B socket, whereas the PlayStation 4 version has the USB cable permanently attached. The vertical angle of the unit can be adjusted by pivoting the head. The unit stands relatively stable as for its rubber feat, but because the camera is light the user has to watch were to put the cable to avoid dragging the camera.
The gun is called "Lightcon". Its design reminds me a lot of the Videotraf by Mera Elwro. Apart from the pump action front the gun solely has two buttons: One below the back sight and a white button at the right hand side. The trigger uses a proper micro switch and feels very nice. The plastic is sturdy and the whole gun is pleasant to hold. The sight picture is sharp and clear. Personally I would have appreciated a better button placement, or more buttons which could be mapped to the same functions as an alternative. In my opinion the pump action is fun but is a tremendous handicap to competitive play. I would enjoy the controller so much more with a reload button at the heel or the handle. A connector for a reload foot pedal would also have been appreciated. The controller I have got doesn't have the laser beam centered correctly with the sights, which is very unfortunate considering the three games which are out so far don't offer a gun calibration feature. This is especially a bummer considering that similar systems such as Project Ares which originated already in 2015 of course do offer such a calibration feature. Not that Ares really requires such a gun calibration, as most proper laser guns offer screws which allow the user to properly zero the gun. Even the gun I have built myself for episode 126 can be properly zeroed. Frankly it is very odd to me that PDP went with neither an adjustable zero position nor a gun calibration software tool. It leaves me with a considerable offset in the games and makes for instance Big Buck Hunter Arcade unplayable without an on screen reticle.
The gun is powered by two AA cells. The power consumption is tremendous as for the always on laser and the wireless communication. It baffles me that there is no optional way to play wired. I guess this or a rechargeable battery was considered at some stage as the heel of the gun shows a filled cut out. The attachable wrist strap is a great introduction to what I consider the systems weakest spot: In the gun is an accelerometer and two of the games have forced on motion controls. These motion controls are sadly often not properly detected which frustrated me a lot.
The player puts the camera in front of the display. On the camera calibration screen a red circle is displayed. The player than moves and pivots the camera until the red circle is in the middle of the stage upon which a fusion animation is shown and the actual calibration is triggered. It is my suggestion to not place the camera right in front of the TV but to put it next to the TV with an angle. What PDP never told in its pitiful marketing blurbs is that it's difficult to track laser lights at a glossy surface such as a LCD screen. That's why all other laser tracking systems recommend the usage of projectors and recommend using a non reflective coating, a foil or a sleeve when playing on a TV. MARS suffers of two problems on a LCD TV: First, as a considerable amount of the light is reflected the laser spot on the TV is very week. Second, the light source might be reflected into the camera when positioned straight in front of the TV and then appears as a second dot, which messes with the tracking a lot.
The accuracy of the tracking is bad because of the not accounted for laser to sights offset. The precision isn't very good during fast movements of the gun or if the camera is placed in a way which allows it to pick up glare from the gun. The lag of the tracking is very high. With my 260 FPS camera I measured it to be between 132 ms at best and 220 ms at worst, with an average of 181 ms. The reason behind the large variance in my measurements is another problem: The position of the gun is just tracked and updated at 15 FPS. This means for a 60 FPS game that the curser will just move every fourth frame. The 181 ms latency of the MARS is very high in comparison to the 35 ms latency of a good IR reference light based system like the Philips Peacekeeper or the Nintendo Wii. My guess to explain the slow refresh rate of the MARS on screen reticle is that the IR Station uses the flashing pattern of the laser to know the identity of a given gun, as the system is designed to allow up to four players at once. That way the camera would have to consider multiple frames, rather than reacting to a single frame.
The performance of the MARS is decent if it is considered to be a 100 USD novelty toy. What leaves a sour taste in the mouth is the tremendous discrepancy of the marketing blurbs and the actual capabilities of the system. PDP said that the MARS's accuracy was superior to the one of raster based CRT guns and in another post described the accuracy as "unprecedented" and "unmatched". Even if PDP wasn't so impudent to compare the accuracy to raster based guns, the accuracy of the MARS is a far cry from pinpoint accurate. Apart from being absolutely wrong the bold statement "unlike other old light gun MARS smoothly tracks your movement" is laughable. Every light gun system capable of movement tracking I know is faster than 15 FPS. Or worded differently the MARS system is the most choppy light gun in existence. I will go on to discuss the terrible marketing of the MARS in the end of the video, but first I want to introduce the available launch games.
My personal favorite is Voyage of the dead. It feels a lot like a classic on rails shooter and is a lot of fun. The game is quite flawed though by its steep difficulty. The game is as unforgiving as a mid nineties light gun game, without their good level design and balance. This paired with bad accuracy and precision and a gun which frequently looses the wireless connection to the IR Station makes for a frustrating experience. The progress of the main campaign can't be saved and the game has to be beaten in a single run. As of making this video just 0.5 % of owners were able to beat this game. One would hope that they at least enjoyed themselves playing the included mini games. But also here the percentage of people who have beaten these is below 1 %. Personally I am not sure to whom this game should have appealed. Veterans will be put off by the on screen reticle, the barely working motion controls and the sloppy pace while novice player aren't used to such unforgiving difficulty.
Qubit's Quest is the game I would recommend to a child or novice light gun player. In it an on screen character has to be protected from hazards. The game is much like the home version of Laser Ghost, Crossbow or Guillermo Tell. It is a fine game and offers fun mini games besides the main mode.
Big Buck Hunter is a famous Arcade franchise which spawned many great games. With "Big Buck Hunter Arcade" the series got a MARS compatible version. In the game the player has to shoot three male animals of some sort while avoiding to shoot female animals. In the process any number of critters of predators may be shot for bonus points. This game suffers a lot from the MARS's limited performance. Playing the game without an on screen reticle is unpleasant because of the bad accuracy. Turing the reticle on doesn't exactly solve the problem either because of the fast pace of Big Buck Hunter games. For these the lag of the MARS is just too big. Blaming the game is always easy to do but let's assume for a moment that I placed second in an international Big Buck Hunter Pro competition and set several world records in this game. The only thing going for Big Buck Hunter Arcade is that it isn't censored, which is a relief. The Sure Shot HD Big Buck Hunter game lacked the female hunting guides. I can not recommend this MARS game. To fans of the Big Buck Hunter series I would recommend the Sure Shot HD game, the Jakks Pacific Plug and Play version thereof or even the PC renditions of the very first three games instead.
Personally I like the PDP MARS light gun system. For many applications it is decent enough. If games were designed that take the present limitations into account a bright future lies upon us. One could think that I am disappointed after waiting for the system for what felt like an eternity. MARS was announces for March 2019 as an Xbox One exclusive. This turned into spring in general and then became July. The date was then shifted to October and finally to November. Sadly by the date of release the preorder of many people was cancelled by PDP or Amazon. Mine was cancelled too which took the free extra gun away from me and delayed delivery by 1.5 extra months. But luckily the sheer ignorance of PDP's marketing department strangled my expectations down to a crouch and I am not disappointed at all. You see PDP was the company behind the famous light gun distributor Pelican and thus one would wish they knew a thing or two about light guns. But they don't as they skillfully showed on their website and on social media. They claimed that Pong console guns, such as the Videotraf, were operating in a raster based manner, which they don't and that they were just compatible to CRTs, while they work with any kind of light in general. It was also implied that the NES Zapper operated in a raster based manner, while generally it didn't and just two obscure unlicensed games partly attempted to do so. PDP implied that light guns were an afterthought to gaming whereas they were part of console gaming since the very start, more than a decade prior to the Nintendo Entertainment System. PDP denied the existence of the IR reference light based guns such as the Nintendo Wii and pretended they have invented the laser light based tracking which is in all reality firmly established since the mid eighties.
People criticized the lag and other problems since PAX 2019. Instead of lying about it to sell more units in my opinion PDP should be very clear about the capabilities of MARS and should help people to make the best out of it because there is a lot of fun to be had.