Maintaining a healthy degree of scepticism is always a wise policy in life, especially when you're faced with a seemingly endless number of companies trying to tempt you to spend your hard-earned cash. It's a practice we regularly employ in both our personal and professional lives here at Nintendo Life, and it's fair to say that, like a great many other people, we were slightly bemused at the news that Nintendo was embracing Virtual Reality via its cardboard Labo range.
The hardware's not powerful enough. The screen is too low-resolution. Labo's not the right vehicle for this. It's going to look like a joke compared to PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. You have to hold the headset when you're using it.
These were all points that will have been discussed on this site and all over the world; Labo VR certainly 'fits' into Nintendo's way of doing things, but surely it can't provide a solid and enjoyable experience when you consider how much effort has gone into creating other high-tech headsets? What is going to make this any better than those lousy plastic smartphones VR headsets you see in bargain bins all over the world?
This month, we got the chance to find out, as we were lucky enough to go hands-on with the VR kit at Nintendo UK's headquarters. It turns out that a lot of the concerns we had with the concept proved to be largely unfounded, but what's equally surprising is some of the other cool things Nintendo is trying to do with this new Labo kit – some of which aren't connected to VR at all.
Before we get to that though, let's discuss the basics. Yes, this is another Labo offering, and that means a few hours of assembly before you get to the good stuff. For those of you who lived through the Labo Vehicle kit – which took days to fully construct and practically required a house extension to store when not in use – this might be off-putting, but with the exception of the Toy-Con Blaster, these kits are more compact and some of them even come with handy 'fold away' modes for more convenient storage.
The core of the Labo VR experience is the VR Goggles Toy-Con, into which the Switch console is inserted. This acts as a detachable caddy which can be bolted into the other Toy-Con; this modular approach makes it easier to shift between each experience. The VR Goggles can also be used independently for other, small-scale experiences, which is something we'll touch upon shortly.
The meat of the experience is going to be based around the five Toy-Con modules which are present in the full-fat Labo VR kit. Of these, the Blaster is perhaps the most engaging (which is presumably why Nintendo is also selling a cheaper kit which only includes the Blaster, VR Goggles and Game Card); it has a realistic pump-action (complete with a recoil effect) and the games included are deep and enjoyable affairs; one is an on-rails shooter where you're tasked with taking down a horde of blob-like aliens (not to mention fearsome end-of-level-bosses) using standard, homing and 'bullet time' shots, while the second game is a local multiplayer setup, with each player trying to tempt as many hippos as possible by firing a selection of fruit into their gaping mouths.
In typical Nintendo fashion, there's more depth to these games than there might seem at first; in the hippo-catching game, for example, you can hit a tree in the centre of the arena and cause fruit to tumble into the pool, potentially capturing several hippos with a single shot. It's even possible to steal hippos from your rival, leading to some tense matches where the score reverses in a single shot. While the gameplay is different, it reminds us a little of the Fronk-hurling 'Islands' mode in Game & Wario, where similar changes of fortune were possible when you got just the right shot.
What makes this experience all the more appealing is the fact that it's super-easy to pass the headset to the second player; because it's not strapped to your face, there's no awkward or time-consuming fitting process – it's as effortless as passing someone a normal game controller. This is a key point that's worth focusing on; it might be considered a weakness – you're clearly sacrificing immersion here – but on the flip side, you never feel 'chained' to the hardware, as is sometimes the case when playing with other VR headsets, especially those which rely on wired connections. That's curiously liberating.
There's another reason that Nintendo has taken this approach – according to the company, by making Labo VR a 'strap-free' experience, it has been able to get that all-important 'ages 7 and up' rating on the box. Other headsets have been lumbered with higher ratings which, of course, creates a barrier to entry for a sizeable part of its audience, which Nintendo is naturally keen to avoid (a lesson perhaps learned after the 3DS). The company has even included a non-VR mode in this package, where even younger players can simply insert the Switch into the Toy-Con and look at the screen, sans VR Goggles.
What really surprised us is that one of our biggest reservations – the Switch's 720p resolution – proved to be somewhat exaggerated. Sure, the visuals do look a little pixellated (and there's a slight bit of ghosting due to the latency of the LCD panel), but when compared to how blocky some PSVR games appear when playing on a standard, non-Pro PS4 system, it's not anywhere near as big a gulf as you might suspect. Naturally, the geometry seen in your average PSVR game is more complex than anything Labo VR can muster, but Nintendo's cartoon-like approach mitigates this to a degree. While there's naturally no positional tracking, the Switch's Inertial Measurement Unit is more than up to the task of accurately replicating your head movements – both subtle and extreme – within the game; we didn't experience any motion sickness or feelings of detachment. It's also worth mentioning that the 'one size fits all' approach doesn't seem to suffer from any issues with focus; we could see everything clearly within the headset. The somewhat open nature of the VR Goggles design also avoids the lenses fogging up with perspiration, which is nice.
Elsewhere, there are thoughtful design choices that show Nintendo has taken its time with VR. Turning on VR mode is, by default, done with an on-screen command, but you can enable a setting which uses the console's ambient light sensor to detect when it is inserted into the VR Goggles Toy-Con, and have it automatically turn on VR mode. Accessing the menu in each game is a case of double-tapping the top-right corner of the Toy-Con you're using, the vibrations from which are picked up by the Switch's motion sensor. If you need to pause the action at any time, you simply remove the Goggles and press the pause command on the bottom of the screen – which remains accessible because that's where your nose would normally reside. Despite the ramshackle appearance of a cardboard VR headset, it's clear that Nintendo has thought of pretty much everything.
Our hands-on time was mainly focused on the Blaster Toy-Con, but we did get to see some of the other modules in action. The Camera Toy-Con places you in an underwater environment, allowing you to satisfy all those unfulfilled Jacques Cousteau fantasies you've had since you were a kid. The Bird Toy-Con takes place on an island not entirely unlike the one seen in Pilotwings Resort, tasking you with completing missions and generally exploring your surroundings. The Wind Pedal Toy-Con is built around a mini-game where you assume the role of a frog in a circus, and you must leap skywards on floating platforms in order to get the best 'height' score (the pedal creates a gust of wind on your face, giving the impression that you're soaring through the air). Finally, the Elephant Toy-Con features an amazingly deep art package, allowing you to create 3D pictures, as well as solve spatial puzzles involving marble runs and other brain-benders. There's a stunning amount of content on offer here.
Nintendo has even thought out of the box for some VR ideas; a pair of cardboard glasses included in the package might seem like an afterthought, but – thanks to a set of reflective discs and the power of the Joy-Con IR sensor – they allow a second player to 'step into' your world. The IR sensor watches the movement of the reflective discs on the glasses and turns your friend into an entirely different character within the game. It's yet another justification for Nintendo including the IR tech in the Joy-Con; how wrong we were to doubt its potential back in 2017.
However, perhaps the most exciting element of the package is the VR Garage. Not to be confused with the Toy-Con Garage seen in previous Labo kits – which required you to build your own cardboard creations and add interactivity in some way – this is a surprisingly rich programming package which allows you to create game experiences in a wide range of genres – many of which are designed to be playable in VR. You can craft a FPS, a driving game, or even a clone of Super Smash Bros. – in fact, the latter was demonstrated during our hands-on, and while it's clearly a limited reproduction, all of the essential elements were present. Oh, and remember that Othello game that was shown during the Wii U's initial trailer, where two players competed on a single GamePad? There's a soccer-based take on that in Labo VR's Garage.
Labo VR comes with 64 pre-made games in the VR Garage, all of which can be edited by the user. By doing so, you get a taste of how the node-based programming tool works. You can either turn these pre-loaded games into entirely new creations, or you can create 64 of your own examples from scratch. As we said, many of these experiences are totally independent of the VR Goggles, and that's what makes this element of the package so exciting; it's so deep and feature-rich that Nintendo really could easily have spun this off as a stand-alone programming tool. The fact that it shares a common UI bond with the Toy-Con Garage seen previously means Labo addicts will feel right at home, too. The only negative is that Nintendo doesn't plan to allow players to share their creations with others; that would, we're told, mean a higher age rating and could potentially lead to younger Switch owners being exposed to questionable content.
It's fair to say that we entered the Labo VR hands-on session with feelings of trepidation, yet we left it feeling more confident than ever that Nintendo is really onto something here. A lot of thought has clearly gone into ensuring this is a fun and varied experience, and the addition of the VR Garage mode offers an almost limitless amount of entertainment, both with and without the VR Goggles. When you consider that you can get that – as well as the Blaster – for just £35, it's an incredibly tempting entry point for any family that has been toying with the idea of investing in VR. Will it poison the well, as some have feared? We certainly don't think there's any danger of that; in fact, it could prove to be the perfect gateway drug to build a new generation of VR-ready players, and who knows – Nintendo may even use its experience from this package to create a more substantial VR offering in the future.