The road goes on forever into the distance, grey-black through a world of brown under a blue sky holding a sun that beats relentlessly down. There’s nobody traveling the pavement but a single empty bus that’s seen better days, with steering that drags slightly to the right and an engine that refuses to top 45mph. It’s an eight hour trip from Tucson to Las Vegas and when complete the next shift starts immediately for the drive back. There are no curves to make driving interesting, no passengers to watch, and nothing to do but correct for the steering problem and wish the bus came with a turbo-boost. But hey, it’s a living!
Desert Bus was a minigame on the Sega CD collection Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. The publisher went under after the game was completed, but bootlegged copies got it out to people. The Sega CD didn’t have anything in the way of DRM, so it wasn’t hard to play, and it got even easier once PCs had decent emulators. While the Desert Bus minigame was more curiosity than reason to visit a shady site for an .iso download, the Desert Bus for Hope event popularized the idea of the game beyond any reasonable measure. Players would drive endlessly through the mind-numbing tedium as a marathon charity event for Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play, back and forth between Tucson and Las Vegas in real-time eight hour journeys each way. That kind of dedication deserves a reward of some kind aside from the generous donations of its viewers and that reward is the free Desert Bus VR.
Desert Bus VR is a remake of the Sega CD original, a little prettier with some new effects, but the same game at heart. Drive in a straight line, try not to drift off the road and if you do there’s a free tow-truck ride back to Tucson that, of course, also happens in real time. It’s a long, tedious, exhausting trip, but Desert Bus VR brings a few new features that can help make it a bit more bearable. To begin with, it’s important to note that the VR in the title is a suggestion rather than a requirement. Loading up the game brings a menu that lets you choose on-screen or VR mode, whichever you’d prefer. On-screen is more like the original version and you won’t be wanting to claw your eyes out after hours in a headset, while VR is much easier if you use the analog touch controllers.
You can look around the bus freely in both versions, and there are a few toys to play with such as the horn and the door-opener. Start to drift off course and the new rumble strips on either side of the road alert you things are going wrong, giving plenty of warning for a course correction. It’s not a lot, but even a few small toys and an alert help when you’re losing enthusiasm in the middle of an eight hour shift.
The game begins at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, with a work kiosk in front of you and a handful of options to play with. There are two punch cards to choose from, one of which starts your driving shift instantly and sets you on the long road ahead while the other lets you join someone else’s trip sitting in the back of their bus. The bus interior looks great, but after five minutes you’ve seen all the scenery there is. Tons of scrubby weeds, a few cacti and the occasional broken wooden sign are the only points of interest outside the bus, and you sit there in the long expanse of Nothing correcting the steering and wishing the yellow broken line would scroll by just a bit faster.
There’s an interview with Penn Jillette playing on the radio that gives a history of the game, but that’s only entertaining for a short while and after it’s over the radio turns into something like a numbers station except with street names. Even a few cars coming the other way would liven up the trip, but it’s just you, a bus and a long, perfectly straight road. On the plus side the sun moves across the sky now, letting nighttime come more naturally than the insta-dark of the original version if you can hold on that long. Personally I got thirty minutes in before having enough, but the whole point of Desert Bus is to be a tedium-simulator so that’s actually a plus, and my admiration for the people who play this game for charity went up another notch.
While most of the additions add just enough stimulus to counterpoint how incredibly boring the trip is, there’s one new addition in the VR mode that seems like it could break the game. You can play with a standard gamepad on the screen or in VR, and while the analog stick is functional it still acts like a d-pad turning the wheel all the way or not at all. Part of the challenge of the original was managing this the entire trip as you balanced against the bus’ drift to the right and that’s recreated perfectly unless you play in VR. Using the touch controllers you can grab the steering wheel, settle your arm into a comfortable position, and just drive straight forever. Holding the triggers for acceleration with one hand and the steering wheel with the other gets tiring after a while, but it’s still much easier than the near-constant course corrections the game was designed around. Much less importantly, it also kind of bugs me that the timer counts up more slowly than the odometer, which shouldn’t happen at 45mph.
Desert Bus VR is deeply tedious but that’s the whole point. It’s not a game meant to be played seriously but rather for a charity event, which changes the rules significantly. The old Sega CD version won’t be going anywhere, but this looks nicer, the ability to have friends along adds a fun social aspect and those can help make for better charity streams and hopefully bigger donations. Plus, if you just want to get a taste of the trip, the price tag of Free is a great incentive to put in a bit of time behind the wheel. Desert Bus VR is a fantastic upgrade to one of the strangest success stories in the history of gaming and one that should help raise a nice chunk of change for a worthy cause.