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Breath of the Wild in VR is an ugly, uncomfortable experience

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Super Mario Odyssey fares slightly better

Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the most engrossing games I’ve ever played. In the shift to an open-world structure, Nintendo gave players an unparalleled amount of freedom to explore the fantasy realm of Hyrule to the point that, even two years after launch, it’s easy to lose myself in the game for hours. Unfortunately, that experience doesn’t hold up in virtual reality. Through the lens of a Labo VR headset, Breath of the Wild transforms from a breathtaking adventure into an ugly, uncomfortable chore.

Nintendo made its first proper foray into VR earlier this month with its latest Labo kit, the company’s line of cardboard DIY accessories for the Switch. While Nintendo’s tablet is technically underpowered compared to other VR devices, I was surprised by how well it worked. Labo VR featured an array of bite-sized virtual reality experiences that were specifically designed around the hardware’s many limitations. In a lot of ways, it was an ideal intro to VR, with playful experiences that showed the promise of the medium without overwhelming players.

Today, the company has added VR support to two of its highest profile games, Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Both games offer different levels of support; Odyssey features a handful of new VR-exclusive levels, while the entirety of Breath of the Wild is playable through the new cardboard goggles. If the initial batch of Labo VR experiences showed the potential for the platform, today’s Zelda and Mario updates show its limitations.

Setting up Breath of the Wild to work with the headset is easy enough. After a quick update, there’s a new menu option that lets you select the VR mode. From there, you slide the Switch into the goggles and then snap a Joy-Con controller on either side. As you may have surmised from some of the early images released by Nintendo, playing this way is incredibly awkward. Since the Labo VR headset doesn’t have a head strap, you’re holding the entire contraption up to your face the entire time you’re playing. It’s a light device, so it’s not exactly tiring to play this way, but it’s far from comfortable.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The game itself remains largely unchanged in the shift to VR. The controls are identical, and aside from a few UI tweaks that limit the information on-screen, pretty much everything else is the same. But the game doesn’t look the same. In VR, Breath of the Wild turns into a jaggy, ugly mess. The game chugs along, which can be nauseating, and the once-beautiful realm has a cheap, unfinished quality to it. Labo VR showed that the hardware was capable of pulling off simpler-looking experiences just fine, but a large open-world game like this doesn’t work at all.

It also doesn’t feel very immersive. Since no changes have been made to the game itself, Breath of the Wild in VR isn’t a true virtual reality experience; it feels more like you’re holding the game very close to your face to play a third-person action game, which, of course, is exactly what you’re doing. The default control scheme has a fixed camera, but you can also utilize a disappointingly limited motion controlled option as well. Instead of giving you free-rein to look around, this basically gives you a limited range around Link to scan the world. It almost always made me nauseous.

It’s not like I was expecting something on par with high-end virtual reality experiences here, but the disappointing thing about Breath of the Wild in VR is that no aspect of the game feels improved by virtual reality. It’s not fun to play, but it’s also not very interesting to just look around, given the visual and camera limitations. Even as a gimmick you try out once, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey fares slightly better. Instead of making the whole game playable in VR, Nintendo has created four new stages that are designed specifically to work in the medium. They’re sort of like smaller versions of existing worlds from the main game. You control Mario as before, and there are lots of coins to collect, but the main goal in each stage is to find a trio of hidden instruments and return them to their rightful owners. It’s all pretty simple stuff that requires a bit of exploration and problem-solving.

The small scale and cute levels give it something of a diorama feel, like you’re peering into these tiny worlds. Unfortunately, the visual and control issues hamper what is otherwise a neat little add-on. You play from a relatively fixed perspective while Mario runs around you, and you can click the right stick to center back on him at any point. But Mario can go pretty far away from you, and the blurry graphics make it tough to discern what he’s actually doing and what’s around him. It’s also just awkward to move around since you have your hands cramped around your face; in a game about precision movement like Mario, this sucks out much of the fun.

Of course, both of these are free updates, so you should keep your expectations in check. I wouldn’t recommend going out and buying a Labo VR kit strictly to play Zelda. But even with those lowered expectations, I still came away very disappointed with the experience. Labo VR showed that Nintendo could find creative ways around the limitations of the Switch for VR, but these new experiences show the opposite. It takes a lot to wreck a game as brilliant as Breath of the Wild, but this manages to do just that.