For the last few years, it’s seemed like every major tech and gaming company has experimented with virtual reality to some degree, including Sony, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, HTC, Valve, and plenty more. Nintendo, meanwhile, has been conspicuously absent. (And no, the ill-fated Virtual Boy from the mid-’90s doesn’t count.)
Not only has the company stayed away from VR, but its most prominent figures have seemed apprehensive about the medium. “When I see people play virtual reality, it makes me worry, just as for example if a parent were to see their kid playing virtual reality, it would probably make them worry,” game design legend Shigeru Miyamoto told Time back in 2017, just before the Switch launched.
That’s why it was so surprising when Nintendo abruptly announced a VR headset last month. Of course, this being Nintendo, it’s not just any pair of virtual reality goggles. This is a company that likes to go its own way, and its first proper foray into VR is no different. Instead of the chunky black headsets that have become synonymous with VR, thanks to the likes of Oculus and HTC, Nintendo is releasing a device that’s made of cardboard that you have to build yourself as part of the company’s Labo line of DIY accessories for the Switch.
Much like Google’s Cardboard VR headset, Nintendo’s system is not your typical virtual reality experience. Whereas most VR to date has been about immersing you in a virtual world, tricking your brain into thinking you’re in space or underwater, the $79.99 Labo VR offers comparably bite-sized experiences. They’re playful and silly — one has you shooting fruit into the mouths of hungry hippos; in another, you’re helping a frog leap over juggling balls — but they also serve as an excellent introduction to the medium.
Think of it like VR arcade in your living room (some assembly required).
If you’re unfamiliar with Labo, the concept is pretty simple and distinctly Nintendo. It’s hard to imagine a product like this coming from any other major video game company. First launched last year, Labo is a line of accessories that can transform the Switch into a range of different interactive objects. One turns the tablet into a piano, another lets you dress up and control a rampaging robot on-screen. The twist is that you have to build each accessory yourself. Labo’s tagline is “make, play, discover,” and it’s very apt. You construct something, you play around with it, and you learn about how it actually works and potentially design your own accessories and games.
When it comes to the “make” portion, the VR kit is virtually identical to past Labo sets. In the main kit, you get a range of things to build: a camera, a giant blaster, a bird, an elephant, a wind-blowing foot pedal, and the goggles themselves, along with a few smaller additions like a pinwheel and a snorkel. (You can also grab a $39.99 starter set that just includes the goggles and blaster, with additional kits sold separately.) When you open the box, you’re greeted by a stack of unassuming cardboard sheets and bag filled with elastic bands and stickers.
As with the original Labo kits, assembling the VR accessories is a surprisingly fun, albeit time-consuming, process. There’s lots of folding and rolling cardboard, and some of the kits can get pretty complex; the inside of the blaster, for instance, has lots of fiddly bits that need to fit together just right. Yet, I’ve never found myself confused while building any Labo kit, and it’s all because of the interactive instruction manual. Not only can you follow step-by-step instructions on the Switch’s screen, but you can also rotate the image to make sure you’re doing everything just right. And every piece is labeled to make it really easy to follow.
It’s also a great communal experience. You can put the instructions up on your TV, and a group can build together, which is perfect for parents and children. My six-year-old can’t build these kits on her own, but things are laid out in such a way that she can still help in a significant way. It’s a testament to Nintendo’s design skills that spending two hours rolling up bits of cardboard to make a toy gun can be a fun group activity. Once you’re done, the pieces are all fairly solid, considering their DIY origins.
Building is just one step, though. Part of the mission statement for Labo is to be fun and educational. The platform has even made its way into schools. Assembling a twisted elephant’s trunk gives you an idea of how it’s put together, but the “discover” section of the software teaches you how it actually works. It’s essentially a series of lessons, each playing out as a conversation between a goofy group of characters, that detail the inner workings of each Labo accessory. At some point, you’ll probably wonder how a cardboard camera can zoom in and out on-screen, and here, you can actually figure it out. There are even sections on how to repair and decorate your creations.
Like past Labo kits, there are some clever uses of real-world materials at play here. The blaster’s trigger can fire because the Switch’s IR camera sees a reflective sticker inside of its barrel, while the tablet’s brightness sensor allows it to automatically detect when you slide the screen into the VR goggles. As I said in my review of the original Labo set last year, these lessons turn technology from something magical and opaque into something tangible and real. In an age of phones and computers that you can’t even open, this feels especially important. Things go a step further with the garage tool, where you can use rudimentary coding to design games and then build accessories to support them. We even managed to create a guitar and play “Rainbow Connection.”
All of this has been true of every Labo kit to date, and it remains true of the virtual reality version. It strikes a pleasing balance between being fun and informative. You’re not going to become a master coder from Labo, but it might instill in you the desire to dig deeper into how and why things work.
What makes the Labo VR kit different is the “play” aspect.
As cool as things like the Labo piano and fishing rod were, they, unfortunately, didn’t have a lot of lasting appeal. In most cases, they were more like digital toys than games, the kind of thing that’s fun for a few days before the novelty wears off. Nintendo remedied this with the vehicle kit that launched in September, which features a much more robust game that’s married to the core Labo experience. That trend continues with Labo VR. Here’s a brief rundown of the experiences included:
Camera: The camera is perhaps the most natural of the VR accessories. You slot the goggles into the cardboard contraption and then use it pretty much like you would a normal camera. There’s a lens that you twist to zoom in or out and an easily accessible shoulder button for snapping pics. There are two main games that accompany the camera. The first has you exploring a picturesque ocean locale, the other is the home of a strange creature named Fuzzball. At first, there doesn’t seem much to do, but each world is filled with secrets, and the object of the game is essentially to figure out how to uncover those secrets and then take a photo of it. And there are a lot of things to find. When you first start playing, you’re greeted with a long, empty photo roll just waiting to be filled up.
Elephant: This is where things start to get weird. To play these games, you hold an elephant mask to your face, and use the trunk to manipulate objects in 3D spaces. In the “marble run” puzzle game, for instance, you have to reach out and move metal plates and ramps with your hand in order to guide a rolling ball to the level’s exit. It works surprisingly well, though, naturally, it’s not as robust or accurate as other modern VR controllers. The same is true of the doodle mode, which is like a simplified Tilt Brush, letting you draw and paint in 3D space. Since your hands are restricted somewhat by the elephant’s trunk, it can be awkward to create large-scale artworks, but as a proof-of-concept, it works well enough.
Bird: The main mode for the bird accessory is a surprisingly open world where you can fly around fairly freely. Controlling the bird is simple: you hold the goggles to your face and then squeeze two triggers on either side to make it flap its wings. That’s it. Aside from opening a map to see where you are, the only real way to interact with the world is to fly. The core of the game is flying around and finding eggs. They’ll hatch when you approach and then ask you to gather a set amount of something, usually food, before they’ll grow and start flying alongside you. It can be a bit tedious, but the actual sense of movement is thrilling.
Pedal: The pedal differs from all of the other accessories because it’s separate from the goggles that you hold up to your face. Instead, it’s like a drum pedal with a giant fan on it, and you slot a Joy-Con controller inside to track when you step on it. The main game has you controlling a frog. When objects get close, you step on the pedal to jump over them. Time it right, and you clear the obstacle. The side benefit is a cool gust of wind in your face each time you jump. Not only does this add a surprisingly immersive element to the game, but for people who get sick or dizzy in VR, the breeze is very welcome and refreshing.
Blaster: The blaster is the most traditional game-like accessory. It’s a thick, heavy cardboard gun that you cock with one hand and fire with the other. Using nothing more than a few elastic bands, the blaster gives a very satisfying thunk when you pull the trigger. There are two main game modes. The first is an on-rails, arcade shooter where you move through environments shooting cute pink aliens. It’s all very simple, but as arcade game developers discovered back in the ‘90s, even a basic shooter is a lot more fun with something resembling a real gun in your hand. I especially enjoyed the massive boss creatures, which give a good sense of scale. There’s also a two-player game where you and another person take turns shooting watermelons and grapes at hippos in a pool. It’s silly fun, but it’s also a bit strange as a multiplayer experience. Because all of the action takes place on the Switch screen that’s pressed up against your face, you can’t actually watch your opponent take their turn.
Those are just the big ones. There’s also a “VR plaza” that offers more than 60 much smaller experiences that vary in quality quite a bit. Most feel like simple tech demos compared to the more fully fleshed-out main games.
Now, there are obvious technical limitations for Labo VR, things that will be immediately noticeable if you’ve spent much time with other virtual reality devices. Compared to a PS4 or a decent gaming PC, the Switch is an underpowered device, meaning the games all look fairly simple and low-res. You’ll see lots of jagged edges and a few blurry objects as you play. Similarly, the Joy-Con controllers aren’t as accurate or intuitive as other VR controllers, which is noticeable when you do something like paint a 3D picture. There are also some drawbacks that are unique to Labo. Holding a tablet and giant cardboard contraption to your face can get tiring after a while, especially since there are no straps or mounts to ease the strain. I especially felt a slight pain in my arms after heated bouts of firing the blaster.
Yet, for the most part, these aren’t major issues because most of the Labo VR games have been designed around these potential problems. They’re games that are meant to be played in very short bursts: instead of immersing you in a world, they ask you to drop in and hang out for a bit. The shooter levels all last just a few minutes, and even something like the free-roaming bird mode encourages you to stop and take a break every five minutes or so.
In this way, Labo VR is perhaps the ideal first step into VR, particularly for younger players. It’s approachable, simple to set up, and it gets around many of the issues that can make VR difficult for people. Aside from flying as a bird, you aren’t really controlling your movement in any games, which can alleviate nausea. If you do feel sick, it’s easy to jump right out of the game: you just pull the goggles away from your face. There are no straps or cords to deal with. (As someone who is prone to feeling nauseated in VR, I had no issues at all with the Labo kit.)
As it stands, Nintendo’s first foray into VR works well, which is more than I expected, given the strange accessories and the underpowered nature of the Switch. The big question, though, is what comes next. Labo VR is great for playing short arcade games in five-minute bursts, but with full support for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the way, it’s hard to see how holding a tablet to your face could be comfortable and enjoyable for long sessions with involved and engrossing action games. (We’ll have more on VR support for Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey when it goes live on April 25th.)
It may have taken a while, but Nintendo’s take on modern VR is perhaps the perfect complement to the Switch itself. With its tablet / console hybrid, Nintendo went in a completely different direction than its competitors, and the same could be said of Labo VR. It’s not virtual reality as you’ve come to know it — and that’s what makes it so interesting.
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