Like millions of other kids around the world, after seeing the original trilogy, R2-D2 instantly became my favorite Star Wars character. He seemed like the perfect sidekick, but the real Artoo was from a galaxy far, far away from mine, and the toy versions of the little droid were always lifeless clones of the character I adored. Thirty years later there’s still part of me that wants an R2-D2 to call my own, and I think I’ve finally found him.
A couple of years ago, Sphero parlayed its expertise in making remote control toy balls to bring Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ BB-8 to life, and the toy went on to become such a massive hit that the company was able to expand its robotic offerings beyond just rolling balls. Earlier this year Sphero released a remarkably animated toy version of Pixar’s Cars’ Lightning McQueen, and now, just as the The Last Jedi hype machine is powering up, Sphero has revealed one of the most entertaining Star Wars toys I’ve ever played with.
Standing just shy of seven-inches tall, there are certainly a few Star Wars fans who will lament that Sphero’s R2-D2 isn’t a life-size recreation of the droid. But I much prefer having a miniature version of Artoo that can wander around my desk all day, and I suspect I’m not alone. I barely have enough room in my home for a robot vacuum to move around, and at $180 Sphero’s R2-D2 sits at the upper limit of what I’m willing to spend on a toy robot. Yep, there’s no way to sugar coat it, R2-D2 is even pricier than the expensive BB-8 toy was, but Sphero seems to have put a lot of work into making its Artoo as screen-accurate as possible.
R2-D2 matches the scale of Sphero’s BB-8, and its new BB-9E toy, so sitting side-by-side they’ll appear to be the same relative size as the characters in the movies. But inside R2-D2 there are four motors used to bring the toy to life; one for turning his dome head, one in each foot allowing him to drive around, and one that powers Artoo’s shoulders and retractable third leg.
Instead of wheels, you’ll find a tank tread mechanism under each of R2-D2's feet that provide better traction on surfaces such as carpeting or uneven floors, but under Artoo’s third foot I was surprised to find nothing but a smooth plastic skid plate. I would have assumed this would limit the toy’s mobility, but driving him around on wooden plank floors and a rug, it was just the opposite. R2-D2 could easily transition between different surfaces, and the lack of a wheel on the third leg made it much easier for him to quickly corner, turn, and even spin in place.
The toy is very maneuverable, and I found Sphero’s R2-D2 much easier to drive than the company’s previous robots, including BB-8 and Lightning McQueen. That’s partly because it’s always easy to tell which direction R2-D2 is pointed, but also partly thanks to improvements with the controls on Sphero’s smartphone app. The virtual joystick now automatically centers itself wherever you place your finger on screen, so if you happen to reposition it without knowing it, you’ll still be in complete control.
Would I still prefer a dedicated controller? Yes, they just feel more natural to use when your eyes are looking elsewhere, but Sphero’s app does facilitate additional features including fun animations, and extra control modes like being able to draw physical on-screen paths for him to follow. The app also allows R2-D2 to watch and react to Star Wars movies like The Force Awakens and Rogue One. If you’re having a hard time convincing someone to watch your favorite movie for the thousandth time, R2-D2 will always be happy to.
But while driving R2-D2 is a lot of fun, it’s the details and lifelike movements of this toy that will guarantee a permanent spot for the little droid on your desk. Sphero’s Artoo is even more detailed than some figures that don’t move at all.
On R2-D2's spinning dome head you’ll find all of the blinking lights, sensors, and glowing panels as you’d find on the movie version. Sphero went so far as to actually study the droid’s movements in the various Star Wars films, going frame by frame to ensure its version of R2-D2 looked and moved exactly like the robotic prop and CG versions do.
Hands down the toy’s best feature is its ability to retract its third leg so R2-D2 can stand on two feet. Not only does the transition happen just like you remember it from the movies, but through the app you can also trigger pre-programmed animations that include R2-D2 excitedly wobbling back and forth on his two feet, or falling over helplessly after getting shocked by Jawas. It was enough to make a 40-year-old blogger giggle like a ten-year-old, but tell anyone and I’ll deny it.
Even the microUSB charging cable Sphero has included with R2-D2 is copper-colored so that it matches the power couplings attached to Artoo’s feet. It’s a tiny feature, sure, but those all add up to make it a lot easier to justify spending $180 on a Star Wars toy.
I only had about half-an-hour to play with R2-D2 ahead of its big reveal today, but even that was long enough to leave me broken hearted when I had to say goodbye to him. One day I might be foolish enough to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a full-scale R2-D2 replica, but for now Sphero’s Artoo is probably exactly what the six-year-old version of me wanted decades ago.