Thanks to holiday discounts, many people were able to finally afford a VR headset! However, they’re still expensive and this might leave some players with only a small budget for games to play with it. As someone who went through that a few years ago, I’m here to help! In this guide, we’ll look through several VR games that are fun, easy to get into, and free or no more than $20 USD.
Please note: This article is written from a SteamVR user’s perspective, but many of these games can be found on other platforms with a little searching. Short ‘tech demo experiences’ are mostly being ignored here, in order to focus on games that can fill a meaningful VR session. A few games may be headset-specific, but I will try to mention this where relevant.
Summary: A collection of mini-games in the Aperture Science (Portal series, etc.) universe that show off the basics of VR, backed by a lot of charm and humor.
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/450390/The_Lab/
This should be pretty much every VR player’s first stop. Each game in The Lab is short, but you get enough of them to easily fill an hour or two while learning what your headset is capable of. Things like a bow & arrow set are just the beginning; imagine playing an arcade style spaceship game (like Asteroids and so on) by physically picking up and moving your ship! Some areas also have an adorable robo-dog you can play with, petting it and throwing things for it to go fetch. Each mode is short, but there are enough of them to easily fill an hour or two.
By the time the novelty of The Lab wears off, you’ll have a good grasp of VR’s fundamentals and some pretty fun memories!
Summary: A social space that features a mix of games, ranging from a co-op sci-fi ‘first person shooter’ (fighting against cartoon-style robots), to racing through the desert in dune buggies, paintball, and more. Both co-op and competitive experiences are offered.
Cost: Free to play, offers microtransactions for cosmetic items (avatar costumes, etc.). I strongly advise staying away from the microtransactions, as players can earn enough in-game currency for a decent wardrobe just by playing for a while.
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/471710/Rec_Room/
Rec Room was one of the first VR titles to show off the medium’s potential as a way for people to meet, talk, and play together. At first it only offered experiences made by the official developers, but over time players have been able to create their own highly detailed ‘worlds’ that add entirely new game modes.
The best thing about Rec Room is the sheer variety of things to do. It’s easy to spend hours playing many different co-op quests with friends (including a Castlevania themed adventure built around motion-controlled whips), hanging out in a laser tag arena, seeing what sort of art people create, decorating your dorm room with a mix of props and music players, and more.
My recommendation comes with one important note: Bring friends, and use the in-game smartwatch menu to get around. Rec Room is boring if played alone, and the public community is horrible. The rec center (the ‘public lobby’ for finding games) is filled with people shouting sexist and racist nonsense, and many of them are eager to inappropriately violate your personal space. Stay away from the crowd, and just go with friends; Rec Room is much more fun that way!
Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (H3VR)
Summary: An in-depth VR shooting range that also offers single-player quests, arcade-style experiences, and more.
Cost: $20 USD
At first glance, H3VR would seem like a niche game only meant for gun enthusiasts. Its most basic modes are about visiting a shooting range where you can spawn hundreds of different real-world guns (and a few fictional ones), each with a detailed model and reasonably true-to-life handling; players must manually load them, chamber a round, and cycle the safety before they can use most of these weapons. However, H3VR has a secret: It is one of the most actively updated VR games, and often adds new modes that appeal to a much wider audience.
Despite its subject matter, H3VR is a surprisingly non-violent game. Most of its environments are built around non-living targets, such as playing a giant version of skeeball where hand grenades replace the regular balls. Even the segments with ‘living’ enemies to fight use unrealistic targets, such as giant walking salami that squirt food condiments (not blood) or make silly jokes when shot.
For those interested in the shooting range aspect, there is a lot to enjoy: Virtually every kind of gun you can imagine has at least one representative, ranging from modern-world mainstays like the MP5 to older and more obscure choices such as the Volcanic revolver. All you have to do is walk up to a terminal, click a few buttons, and whatever you asked for will spawn right in front of you. Many weapons even accept scopes, laser sights, and hats (as in tiny headwear). The system can also spawn several non-gun objects, including fireworks!
Outside the range, players can enjoy ‘Take & Hold’ (imagine a scaled down version of Enter the Gungeon), a zombie survival horror experience, a Team Fortress 2 parody, and more. These use the same weapon handling mechanics that the shooting range does, but in-game tutorials do a decent job of teaching newcomers how to play.
One key note: H3VR is a single-player experience. While it does offer extensive mod support, its ‘online play’ is limited to leaderboards. I still highly recommend H3VR, though!
Summary: A utility that attaches to your in-VR wrist to offer instant diagnostics; track battery life, framerate, GPU and CPU temperature, and more without having to leave the game you’re in.
Steam store page: https://store.steampowered.com/app/908520/fpsVR/
Instead of a game, this is a utility to help you keep track of your system status. That may sound boring, but this program makes it vastly easier to troubleshoot things with your headset. Normally, getting diagnostic info requires exiting the game. With fpsVR, you can simply tilt your wrist with a special gesture to create a floating panel in-game that shows this data.
Trying to figure out where you’re hitting a performance bottleneck? fpsVR will give you at least a basic idea of what the problem is. Want to know if your controllers are about to run out of power, without bringing up your headset’s menu? A wrist-flick will get you that info immediately. Some of its advanced settings can even track how often you’ve turned your head and body in real life, which can help with untangling cables.
While VR tech usually works great, nearly everyone is going to have to do at least a little adjustment and troubleshooting; fpsVR will help you solve these problems, and is well worth the $4.
(Hear me out, I’m serious!)
Summary: A series of miniature worlds to visit, where you can experience art, play games, and more. Stay away from the people.
Cost: Free, with optional subscription upgrades for an improved UI (I recommend just staying on the free version).
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/438100/VRChat/
The rumors you have heard about the VRChat community are true, but what’s far less known is that the game is also host to some wonderful and creative experiences. VRChat offers several ‘worlds’ (all built in the Unity engine), letting you walk around and interact with the things in that world. That’s a very broad explanation, but allow me to go into the details of why VRChat is incredible.
Simply put, VRChat has a little bit of everything. Want to go to a casino, without the risk? You can find functional ones and play around with fake money. Care to experience Back to the Future: The Ride (the old theme park attraction)? Someone has made a pretty convincing copy of it in VRChat. The ‘Shader Festival 2019’ demonstrates some amazing artwork done in Unity, while a late 1980s shopping mall can also be visited for a neat trip back in time. Many players have ported famous locations from other video games to VRChat, letting you explore these places and see what your favorite characters saw. Jumping into a low-gravity ball pit with thousands of color-shifting balls swirling around you like a tornado is just plain fun, and another player has ported episode 1 of Doom (1993 ver.) to the platform as well.
All of this can be experienced without having to run into obnoxious people. Simply spawn ‘invite only’ instances of the world you want to visit, and only you and your friends can be in your personal copy of the world. This solves VRChat’s major problem, leaving you to enjoy all the best parts with none of the headache. Don’t let the community’s reputation scare you away, VRChat is definitely worth a try!
Summary: A virtual desktop and movie theater, with support for both social experiences and just watching things by yourself.
Cost: Free, with the option of purchasing 3D-enabled movie rentals.
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/457550/Bigscreen_Beta/
Ever wanted a giant, personal theater like rich people in mansions have? Or something like Norman Jayden’s ARI glasses from Heavy Rain? While not a perfect copy of either idea, BigScreen offers a decent version of both. Once in-game, users can visit a variety of pre-made environments that are suited either for playing games on a virtual version of your desktop, or watching videos. Both take a little bit of playing around with the controls to get working ‘just right’, but it only takes a few minutes and is well worth the effort.
Most theater environments are built for specific ideas. For example, one area is a spaceship that has been refit to have a giant theater screen; the dark lighting and low gravity make it a good pick for sci-fi films. A virtual living room makes a nice way to watch sports, and BigScreen sometimes features major sporting events this way. Several parked cars provide a drive-in theater experience, and other scenes cover a few more theater types.
While you can use BigScreen alone, it also has public viewing areas where people can gather to watch the same show (such as Star Trek) together. This is very much a coin-toss; sometimes you will run into great people who are fun to spend some time with, and other times you will meet jerks who embody the worst of VR on the internet. Fortunately, some viewing areas can be made private so you can watch things with only your friends. Desyncs sometimes occur between viewers, but it works properly more often than not.
Pixel Ripped 1995
Summary: A collection of old-style video games, as played from your virtual perspective of being a child in the year 1995.
Cost: $20 USD.
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1178140/Pixel_Ripped_1995/
Described as a ‘game within a game’, Pixel Ripped 1995 lets players go back in time to when the industry was just about to shift from the 16-bit generation to more 3D-based games. While very ‘lawyer friendly’ in design (the games and systems are parodies of real ones from that time), the atmosphere is recognizable and reasonably authentic; you get to visit a rental store to check out new games, play on demo kiosks, participate in arcade tournaments, chat about implausible game secrets with other kids, and otherwise get a ‘broad strokes’ look at this part of gaming history.
However, there is one twist: Pixel Ripped 1995 offers an answer to the childhood question of ‘what if my video games became real?’. While the player is busy with a 2D platformer, side-scrolling beat-’em-up, or other classic gaming experience, sometimes these events will jump out of the virtual TV screen and into your (equally virtual) living room. This presents an interesting challenge, as sometimes you will have to play the video game itself while simultaneously dealing with ‘virtual real life’ problems such as monsters running around the house.
While not perfect, Pixel Ripped 1995 delivers on its premise. It’s a fun way to revisit gaming culture of the time, and offers some genuinely creative ways to mix classic video games with VR controls. It is strictly a single-player game and its replay value is a little low, but if you’re interested in a unique experience that will offer a few hours of fun then this is definitely one to check out.
Moondust: Knuckles Tech Demos (Index/Knuckles only)
Summary: A set of brief games meant to show off individual finger controls on a Knuckles set. It might work with other controllers but is not officially supported.
Steam store link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/887260/Moondust_Knuckles_Tech_Demos/
This one breaks my ‘no short tech demos’ rule for the list, but is included as an ‘honorable mention.’ Moondust is hardware-specific, yet a great way to see how finger tracking adds to the VR experience. Each mini-game is set on the moon, and shows off one thing that second-generation or later VR controllers do that older models (such as Vive wands) can’t match. If you’re brand new to VR and think you might have a supported controller, try Moondust out real quick to get the basic idea of what your new toys can do!
Some Final Thoughts
There are also a ton of fun VR mods for older games. I don’t recommend them as a first-time experience for a new VR user since they need a lot of work to get going, but they are out there. Doom (1993 version) works in VR, as does Risk of Rain 2, and enthusiasts continue to build ways to enjoy other desktop games in proper VR all the time. Many of these deserve an article all their own and are outside the scope of this guide, but once you’re familiar with your headset I definitely recommend revisiting these classics.
Ultimately, the games in this list are just a starting point. As an emerging medium, VR has a lot to offer and it would be impossible to list every interesting game or utility. Once you know what you like, it’s easy to branch out and find more specialized experiences. Until then, your new headset cost enough money as it is; the titles featured here can help you get started in a budget-friendly way!