The State of the Samsung Gear VR: The best games, media, and experiences

The Samsung Gear VR has sold more than five million units as of 2017, placing it above and beyond the known sales for the more expensive VR headsets. If you have a relatively modern Samsung phone (Galaxy S6 or later) it’s one of the lowest barriers to entry in the VR market. Though it doesn't quite compare with the experience of donning a 1080Ti-powered Vive headset, the Gear VR is more than capable of delivering compelling VR experiences.

And with several years of ecosystem development supporting the Gear VR, there’s some very exciting stuff going on with the platform. More ambitious applications and games are coming to the Gear/Oculus market every day, and there’s never been a better time for Galaxy owners to experience wire-free virtual reality.

Whether you already have one that’s gathering dust or are looking to pick one of the newest models up for $129, here are some of the most exciting experiences on the Gear VR. 

Gaming

VR games! The idea alone is already exciting, right? 

This is the reason I suspect most people buy the Gear VR (it was for me) and the variety of games available has continued to increase. Given the limitations of the technology and the relatively rudimentary controller games on the Gear VR tend to be a simpler than their powerful PC counterparts, but there are some really special gameplay experiences available nonetheless.

Gunjack - $4.99

Gunjack is a spin off from the EVE Online franchise, though gameplay is quite different from its galactic fiscal policy focused counterpart.

There’s no negotiating here, instead you’ll be stepping into a heavily armed turret and blasting wave after wave of attacking pirates. It can be played with only the Gear trackpad (the controls on the side of the headset itself) which is impressive, though using the controller is certainly preferable.

What really stands out with Gunjack is the graphics. This Unreal 4 powered game sets the bar for what mobile VR experiences can look like, and though the gameplay is fairly simple, there’s no denying that Gunjack impresses. It’s great for showing off the power of your Gear VR to skeptical friends.

Land’s End - $2.99

Land’s End is THE puzzle experience on the Gear VR. This isn’t a huge surprise given the pedigree of the developers. USTWO’s previous game, Monument Valley, was a hugely successful mobile puzzle game, and rightfully lauded for its unique aesthetic and brain-bending puzzles. You can expect more of the same here, only in VR, so all the more awesome.

Land’s End puts you in a dreamlike landscape, where your gaze guides you through puzzles. It’s difficult to describe, but the marriage of great world building, clever puzzles, and the deep immersion provided by VR makes this a puzzle experience like no other. It doesn’t need any kind of controller, which is great for people new to VR or video games in general. Show this one to your parents! 

Smash Hit - $2.99

Smash Hit is a simple but addictive game. Gameplay consists of moving through lovely levels on rails and firing metallic balls at glass. That’s...pretty much it. It sounds simple, and it is, but the primal satisfaction of breaking glass couples well with the soothing visuals and music, and makes this an almost hypnotic experience.

This is a game that anyone can pick up and play, and between the dopamine-generating gameplay and the elegant execution, it’s an easy recommendation. Especially for those who don’t have a lot of video game experience.

Ascension VR - $9.99

Ascension VR is a virtual card game, like Magic:The Gathering or Hearthstone but a bit simpler. It’s got all of the strategy, depth, and cool art you’d expect, with the added addition of immersion into the playing field. Using a digital avatar that tracks your head movements and speech, you can share strategies or just goof off with whoever you’re playing with via online multiplayer. It feels like you’re actually in the world, as opposed to simply putting down digital cards.

There’s also a single player mode for those of us who play games to get away from people. Ascension isn’t cheap, but if you’re into Hearthstone or games like it, this is an awesome new way to play.

VR Karts: Sprint - $4.99

Every wanted to play Mario Kart in VR? Well this is not that, but it’s pretty dang close. Using your Gear VR headset and a controller you can embark on a legit go kart experience, filled with all the cartoony tracks, drifts, and power ups you’d expect from a kart racer.

You can play with your friends, and though right now it’s a little difficult to connect, when you do manage to join the same game it’s quite entertaining. It’s not as speedy or frantic as Mario Kart, but it’s certainly worth a try.

A gamepad is required to play this game, so make sure to pick one up if you don't have one

Minecraft: Gear VR Edition - $6.99

Minecraft is also available for the Gear VR. It works just fine. You probably already know how you feel about Minecraft one way or the other, so I’ll leave it at that.

Video

VR video is quickly growing in popularity as an experimental medium, and there is quite a bit of interesting video content available in the Oculus/Samsung store. From live concerts to short films that surround you entirely, VR could very well be the future of video presentation.

NextVR - Free

NextVR wants to make you feel like you’re attending live events like concerts and games without having to leave your home.

They have some fairly impressive partnerships like the NBA, and quite a few venues on board. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be center court during a NBA game, this could be a great way to do that without spending tons of cash.

NextVR has also partnered with a few broadcast companies like NBC, bringing some VR content from some of their biggest shows. It’s free, so there’s no reason not to test it out.

Netflix - Free (With Subscription)

The Netflix app is an obvious choice. The app emulates a movie-size screen set in the wall of a comfy apartment. It’s a pretty neat way to stream video, and it plays some interesting tricks on your brain to convince it that you’re watching Parks and Rec on a giant screen, not your phone. I can’t imagine watching Netflix like this regularly, but it’s fun to experiment with once in a while, and it is free providing you have a Netflix subscription.

Skybox Video Player - Free

There are a few options for free VR video players, but in our experience, Skybox was the best. It’s intuitive to use, and automatically identifies video files so you can watch everything from a GIF to a 360 degree video without having to specify. It plays video on a giant movie screen, so you can have your own cinematic experience whenever you want. Being able to carry a giant movie theater with you is pretty flippin awesome.

But the coolest thing about Skybox is that you can stream videos from your PC using AirScreen, as long as it’s connected to the same wireless network. This frees up a ton of space on your phone, not to mention eliminating download and transfer time.

Skybox is definitely my new go-to VR video player.

Stand Alone Video

For individual video content, there’s a plethora of high quality VR offerings available.  I found GONE to be of particular interest. This interactive video experience tracks the disappearance of a little girl over the course of several free episodes, and you interact by finding clues. It’s an interesting mix of video and interaction; it's not quite a videogame but much more than a movie.

There’s tons of mixed-medium content like this all over the Oculus market. It’s worth exploring, especially because a lot of the video content is free.

Experiences

There’s much more to VR than just games and video. Creative utilization of VR tech is at the heart of innovation in this industry, and the Gear VR is no exception. Here’s just a few examples of other things you can do with your phone.

Paint - $4.99

For those of you with access to a Vive or Oculus Rift, you might have tried Tilt Brush. It’s a program that allows you to create 3D art in virtual space, and it’s a special experience.

Paint VR is Tilt Brush’s baby brother. It still allows you to create in 3D space, and save and share your creations, it just has less robust options and more limitations. For you creatives out there, this is an easy recommendation.

AltSpace VR - Free

AltSpace VR is a virtual hang spot. It reminds me of Second Life, and while I wouldn’t consider that a ringing endorsement, it is neat to be able to meet up with virtual people in a VR environment. You can talk, send each other messages, or just look around the elaborate digital spaces.

It’s somewhat rudimentary in appearance, but it’s also free, and surprisingly extensive.

Guided Meditation VR - Free

This is sort of an odd one. It’s a robust experimental meditation aid. You can select from a variety of remarkably well rendered environments, soothing music, and professional meditation coaches to bring you enlightenment or whatever. Though it feels a bit silly to try and meditate with a giant headset on at first, Guided Meditation VR is a great example of outside-the-box ideas that are being explored in this newish medium.

The fact it's free is certainly attractive, though there are in-app purchases.

Horror

Virtual reality is the future of horror. Even the cheesiest jump scares are substantially more effective in VR, and if you like scary things then the Gear VR is a treasure trove. In addition to all of the cinematic tie-ins that are fun (including IT and Alien) and individual videos, there are also quite a few excellent games.

The Hospital: Allison’s Diary is a particular stand out, and will only cost you $2.99. It’s an almost console quality horror game that involves exploring an abandoned hospital with a flashlight. Needless to say a lot of horrible things occur, and frankly it’s terrifying. If you like being scared, this one should give you just what you’re looking for.

The Gear VR store has an entire section dedicated to horror, which is a testament to how popular the genre is on this piece of hardware.

The Competition 

When it comes to VR, there are a few different tiers. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PSVR are the current top tier, with the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream headset making up the second tier. The Google Daydream is the only real direct competition for the Gear VR, and though both devices and experiences share a lot in common, there’s one distinct advantage the Gear VR has over Daydream. At least for now.

First, let's talk about the similarities. Both work with fairly high-end phones: the Galaxy line for Samsung (starting with the S6), and the Pixel line for Google, in addition to a few other handsets from other manufacturers. Both come with a simple controller for pointing and clicking, though the Gear VR also has a trackpad on the headset you can use instead. The Google Daydream immediately shipped with a controller, whereas the Gear VR added one later in the headset’s life cycle.

There are some slight differences in aesthetics and experience, but the most important difference between the two is the software.

Put simply, the Samsung Gear VR has more. It’s been around longer, and though both App stores share some of the same games and experiences, the GearVR has a larger selection overall.

That being said, both headsets are awesome, so it really just depends on what kind of phone you have.

The State of the Gear

Considering the very low barrier to entry (assuming you already have a Samsung smartphone), the Gear is an awesome way to experience VR without spending an arm and a leg.

And the software selection is growing every day. There are more awesome VR experiences in the Gear VR Oculus store than you can shake a virtual stick at, and though it’s still got a long way to go to compete with the Vives and Rift headsets of the world, it’s dominating its lower price point and makes a wonderful introduction to the power of virtual reality. 

I’m looking forward to watching the platform grow as more and more powerful phones and new headsets are released. In the meantime, it’s back to the land of pixels and plenty for me.