Nintendo's Answer to VR is Obtuse in the Most Nintendo of Ways

By Laura Kate Dale on at

When the idea of Nintendo releasing a handheld HD home console first started to surface in 2016, the prospect of it supporting VR was one of the most exciting prospects for me. The HTC Vive required a large amount of floor space to properly utilise, and the PSVR was an expensive optional add-on which was limiting the amount of software support it saw. As such, the idea of a cheap plastic shell for the Switch that could turn it into a VR headset seemed like it would really fit a niche in the market.

The way I imagined Switch VR working was that you'd strap it to your head like a Samsung Gear VR. You'd already have two motion controllers ready to use, and you'd have no need for cables tethering you to a console.  It'd be a perfect fit – but I probably should have been more prepared for Nintendo to completely buck those expectations in that unique way it consistently seems to manage.

Nintendo's answer to VR on the Switch – at least for the time being – is the Labo VR Kit. Like previous Labo sets, it's a cardboard construction kits, sold alongside software that explains step by step how to build creations which are then powered by the console. Past examples have included a steering wheel and pedal which can be used to play Mario Kart, a Piano which plays notes when the keys are pressed, and even a wearable robot suit used to control a game about smashing down buildings. These kits are fun to build, and the end results are pretty sturdy and mechanically complex. They're fascinating cardboard oddities which are really relaxing to build – but they'll probably clog up your home once you've had your fun with them.

The Labo VR kit comes in two different configurations: one with the full collection of buildable gadgets, and one simply featuring the base headset and blaster creation. We reviewed the version with the complete collection, so bear in mind versions are available without many of these creations.

The core experience of playing VR games on Switch actually exceeded some of my expectations, but it features some design choices simply not made for me, and exposes in the process some ways Nintendo could have tailored this more to a core gamer crowd.

The main unit of Labo VR is a Google Cardboard-style box, into the front of which a plastic headrest and pair of lenses is fitted. Considering the headset doesn't feature any adjustable controls to tweak things, like lens position or snugness to the face, it works surprisingly well. I had feared that a 720P screen would simply not be high enough resolution to support VR, and while it's definitely a noticeable step down from PlayStation VR, it's still high enough quality to get lost in the experience. The sense of 3D depth to the world is believable, and at least in the bundled software it's a pretty decent way to experience VR. We've yet to have a chance to try out upcoming patches for big budget games, like the one adding VR support to Breath of the Wild, but the bundled software at least holds up well in VR.

Considering the headset doesn't have a light or camera to recentre the player's forward location, I experienced surprisingly little drift while rotating around my virtual space. However, as a result of that lack of a camera, the Switch can't tell how deep into a scene your hands are in most circumstances. You can get Labo VR to detect depth, but only with a specific peripheral in the more expensive set, and it's an odd solution – more on that later.

There is one noticeable downside to the main unit, however: it doesn't feature any kind of headstrap. I get it; Nintendo wants its answer to VR to be something social, lacking in isolation, that's easy to share and requires minimal setup. It doesn't want players shutting themselves away for hours and hours in a virtual world by themselves; Nintendo wants its VR experience to be passed around by family, sharing the experience with minimal fuss. Still, that design choice comes with its own drawbacks.

The Switch itself isn't a terribly light device, and to hold it incredibly close to your eyes using just one hand is uncomfortable after a while. The arm positioning, the weight; it's simply not fun to have to hold that all with one hand, Additionally, needing to hold the console with one hand means you only have one hand free with which to hold a Joy-Con. While some games in the built-in software collection work fine with one upright Joy-Con, some games – like Breath of the Wild – will require both Joy-Cons (or at least both hands). The only option, then, is to attach your Joy-Cons to your Switch – which, reminder, is right up in front of your eyes – and control the game with your hands either side of your face. It's uncomfortable, it's not fun, and the fact this is how we are meant to play upcoming VR experiences like Breath of the Wild honestly makes me less excited for those ideas.

It is absolutely not as fun as Mario makes it look. His nose clearly makes it easier to hold up to his eyes.

As the headset is made of cardboard, I have seriously considered creating a makeshift headstrap. I think you could probably easily make some slots and run elastic through them, but I'm not confident that the cardboard will be strong enough to hold the weight. Do I want to risk messing with its structural integrity in ways not recommended by Nintendo? As the Switch itself sits inside this headset, I'm not sure I want to risk creating something which might risk me dropping and breaking my beloved console. Still, if one of you wants to come up with a reliable fix for this, please let me know all about it.

While the Labo VR clearly isn't designed to be played for hours at a time, solo with both hands on a controller, the tech on show certainly does work as a proof of concept which Nintendo could elaborate on. If a few months from now we saw Nintendo release a Switch VR Pro, just a cheap plastic casing with a headstrap, freeing my hands to rest in a comfortable position, I truly do believe Nintendo could have a reasonable competitor in the VR space for core gamers, even if this right now is not it.

In terms of the software included on Labo VR's game cartridge, there's a reasonable amount if you own the full peripheral collection, but there's considerably less to do if you only have the base set and blaster. The most interesting bits of software in the quite beefy bundle require specific peripherals to function, which we'll get to in a bit, which makes it a real shame that people diving into the cheaper bundle will miss out.

For players with the £35 starter kit, you'll be able to play a series of games about a small platforming robot, some driving demos, some demos about controlling a UFO in 3D space, play with some ragdoll physics sets, experience a chaotic physics room in which time can be slowed down, and mess around with some VR sports experiences. None of these are particularly in depth, but they're all cute, easily understood experiences which would serve well as an introduction to virtual reality technology. There's also a series of VR videos to watch, but weirdly they're all only 180 degree environments, with a huge black void behind the player. These videos are sometimes entertaining, but sometimes really, really weird. There's one where, without explanation, Mario silently reaches inside your mouth. It made me weirdly uncomfortable.

The main gaming experiences that make use of the blaster peripheral are on-rails or stationary shooters, where players pull back a cardboard section of the gun under the barrel to load a shot, and press a button to fire while looking through the scope of the gun. The system tracks movement well, the gun functions are reliable and satisfying, and it really does a decent job of emulating the appeal of light gun shooters. While the software for the blaster is more robust than the demos for the standalone headset, it still doesn't offer much more than a couple of hours of fun. I'd love to see support for a full length on-rails shooter for this peripheral.

The full VR kit is twice the price at £70, but comes with numerous other cardboard accessories to be built. The first of which is a camera, which is probably one of the more satisfying accessories from a purely tactile perspective. The camera features a lens, which produces a pleasant clicking sound as it's rotated, and is operated by pressing a physical button on one of the Joy-Cons as a shutter. The size makes it more comfortable to hold, the reliability of button controls is comforting, and it functions exactly as you might imagine it would. In terms of software, there's a couple of photography minigames where you look around an environment to take photos to fulfill specific challenges, as well as a couple of games where you control other aspects of the world by turning the lens, like slowing time or rotating a canon.

Next up is the Labo VR elephant, and it's simultaneously the coolest and the weirdest part of the Labo VR Kit. It's perhaps the most Nintendo solution I have ever seen to a problem.

The Labo elephant peripheral is one of the largest and most comfortable peripherals in the collection to use. There's a handle which the player holds under their face with one hand, with the other hand at the end of a flexible trunk. Due to the positions of the two Joy-Cons in different parts of the trunk, the Switch is able to work out the angle of the trunk, and therefore the depth of your hand in 3D space. It's a weird solution, but it does the job well without needing cameras. There's no denying how ridiculous it looks though, particularly when playing games which do not require you to be an elephant.

In terms of software for the elephant face peripheral, by far the coolest experience on offer is the 3D painting tool. Very similar to Tilt Brush, an early piece of software for the HTC Vive, it allows you to paint in thin air in a 3D space, creating 3D models with depth, and create artwork with layers which can be seen from differing angles. While the Labo software lacks the ability to circle around your creation and see it in 360 degree glory, it's still one of the most interesting things in this collection. Painting in 3D space will never not be cool to me.

Beyond that, there's also a game where you help lead a marble to a goal by rotating and repositioning platforms in a 3D space; another where you control a little toy ship in the air, dodging attacks and firing at aliens; and a little assault course where you have to cut strings in specific directions. They're all really fun little experiences, but the creative freedom given by the art program by far gives it the most legs within the collection.

It's worth noting that once you've been able to move your hands in a 3D space this way, it's very hard to go back to simply controlling things on a 2D plane. While I'm glad Labo VR supports this in some fashion, it really does make some of the other experiences in the collection less impressive by comparison.

Lastly, we have to talk about the bird whose arse I spent several hours staring into. Yes, this is part of Labo, and yes, it's both weird and kind of great. The final Labo peripheral is essentially a cardboard bird. You stare up its arse to see the screen, squeeze some small sections to make the wings flap, tilt your face and fly around. It's simple, requires little explanation, and it provides a really sweet, relaxing experience. Once again, it's a great way to introduce VR to someone who knows little about games or the virtual reality medium.

You also have the option of creating a foot pedal which can be pressed to blow a gust of upward air – both in the game and physically. It's a low tech solution, but there is something oddly magical of feeling your in-game situation mirrored by real world sensations. It's a silly little gimmick, but a really cute one.

There's a bunch of other small bits of software in the Labo VR collection, but most are fairly small, inconsequential experiences which ultimately didn't feel worth getting in depth about. It is also important to note that there is an option to play these games in a non-VR mode, with the Switch instead inserted into a screen holder without lenses. It's clearly not the intended way to experience these games and it does somewhat defeat the point of the bundle, it's a nice option for those who VR doesn't work for.

One area of Labo which I will likely come back to more than any other is the Labo VR garage, which allows for the development of custom VR software. Where previous Labo kits have used their simple visual input and output nodes system to create simple 2D experiences and novelties, Labo VR, and in particular its support of 3D depth via the elephant accessory, opens up come really cool, if a little complex, options for aspiring developers wanting to play around with VR game concepts in a quick to implement fashion. It's easy to place geometric shapes into 3D space to create level designs, as well as concepts which require 3D awareness and motion controls to complete. I spent several hours with the software, and while I'm certainly no expert on game development, I was able to create a platforming game with the earlier mentioned robot character, but one where the player occasionally has to throw a ball into a gap to impact the world and allow the robot to progress. I took two existing concepts I had seen explored in Labo VR's base software, and combined them into something new and creative without much prior development experience.

I don't know how much I'll manage to make in there, but as a beginner's tool for experimenting with VR game design, it's a real marvel, and something I think could be used to really impressive effect. Now, if only there was a way to share these creations with friends, that would be fantastic. What gives me hope for the longevity of this VR garage is that a whopping 60+ of the games in Labo VR were made using this Labo VR toolset, and while most of them are small simple experiences like the previously mentioned space ship shooter you control with the elephant trunk or the UFO crane game for the base headset, they give a really strong sense of what this toolkit is capable of if you sink some proper time into it. Right now I'm trying to make a fighting game, where you simultaneously control two fighters, one on a stage in front of the player and one on a stage behind, trying to keep both alive at once by glancing back and forth. The fact I can even work out how to start making that is a testament to this toolkit.

By skipping to 5:08 in the below trailer, you can see a selection of videos from the VR Plaza. Every game in that plaza was made using the VR Garage, which should help give a sense of the top end options the toolkit offers.

In many ways, the Labo VR Kit is exactly what we've come to expect from Nintendo Labo over the last year. It's fun and easy to put together, and the software is fascinating –  but ultimately, it's lacking in long term appeal. Still, the game creation options within it paired with the Switch's unique abilities offers some really fun options for those eager to mess around with making games in a very visual way.

While the initial software included with Labo VR is a bit bare bones, the promise of future VR content for first party Nintendo games is pretty exciting. I'd love to play Mario Kart and Smash Bros Ultimate in VR. And for this to have legs, I'd really like to see third party games which already have VR support on other platforms, like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, get updates to support Labo VR.

While it's ultimately a bit cumbersome to hold, and it certainly doesn't hold a candle to PSVR or Vive in terms of its technology, it's a pretty cheap and easy way to experiment with VR, and a great proof of concept that Nintendo really could step in and fill a gap in the VR market. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I'd be much more likely to play Breath of the Wild in VR a few weeks from now if I had a plastic version of this with a headstrap so I could rest my arms.