It would be fair to say that the initial Labo kits divided Nintendo fans. The company’s cardboard caper seemed, on the one hand, to be utterly, uniquely Nintendo, but also exasperated some gamers who saw Switch as a belated return to ‘proper’ games after a decade of Wii-based whimsy. When Nintendo dropped the news that it was making a long-rumoured move into the VR arena with its fourth Labo Kit, the reaction was similarly mixed. How could Switch possibly offer a decent VR experience with a 720p screen and a few sheets of cardboard? Well, continuing its philosophy of cooking up tasty experiences with very modest ingredients, Nintendo has done a great job with entry-level VR, too.
Let’s get something out of the way, though: if you hated Labo in its previous iteration sans VR, these aren’t the Toy-Con you’re looking for – move along. If, however, the initial sets struck a chord with you, or if they looked intriguing even though you couldn’t bring yourself to pull the trigger, Labo VR Kit (specifically the Starter Kit + Blaster) could be just the ticket to bring you into the fold.
In this review we’ll be concentrating on the Starter Kit – the VR Goggles and the Blaster – although we will also dip into the expansion sets. Labo’s ‘Make, Play, Discover’ mantra permeates the experience, so we’ll address it in that order…
As with previous kits, you punch out the Toy-Con components from cardboard sheets and follow onscreen assembly instructions. Each one comes with a build time estimate – prepare yourself for a lengthy (and curiously calming) construction phase. Instructions are clear, although we’d have welcomed an ‘autoplay’ function; having to constantly use the touchscreen in handheld mode (or hold ‘A’ while docked) is a bit of a nuisance, especially when half the time you’re just folding along predefined creases.
The VR Toy-Con themselves are ingeniously engineered. A variety of light-reflecting stickers, pads, rubber bands, grommets and washers are used in conjunction with the cardboard, and the VR Goggles plug in to each and every one. They’re not the easiest things to store – nor are they indestructible – but they’re comfortable and sturdy enough to withstand heavy use for a good long while.
Upon completing the Goggles (with an onscreen rocket launch providing perhaps the best use of HD rumble on the system), you’re ready to slide the console in and get cracking. A separate cardboard ‘cap’ prevents your Switch from sliding out of its own accord, although it’s held in there pretty tight. The game can be configured to detect when you insert the console (via the brightness sensor) and automatically switch to VR mode - handy.
Now we’ve got the tools, let’s play…
The very first thing that jumps out when entering the virtual realm on Switch is the text; it’s a bit hard to make out and tends to shimmer. Instructions are written on the sides of interactable blocks in nearly all the minigames and at first, it’s tough to parse. After checking to confirm that, yes, the lenses were functioning perfectly and everything was present and correct, we quickly accepted that the screen’s low resolution means that fine detail simply isn’t its strong suit.
The pixel count of Switch’s 720p screen is halved and then some thanks to the circular ‘frame’ dedicated to each eye and a visible grid of pixels produces the expected ‘screen door’ effect (appearing like you’re viewing the world through a mesh). This doesn’t affect gameplay per se, but reading those instructions is occasionally a strain.
64 minigames comprise the VR Plaza, many playable with just the goggles (plus the optional attachable pinwheel that you blow to activate). Tapping the console on the top right edge while in VR mode enables you to cleverly navigate menus without any Joy-Con connected. Some of the games are designed around a specific Toy-Con and are therefore locked until you’ve made the requisite toy, and although you can force unlock everything, fudging controls that require the IR sensor and other inputs makes playing them without the bespoke cardboard highly impractical.
Nearly all the games root you to the spot. Hitting ‘Y’ will usually cycle the camera position, but you’re looking around from a fixed position – a necessary step to avoid motion sickness which works perfectly. Some require both Joy-Con attached to the console while others, such as Shootin’ Hoops, require the use of a detached Joy-Con R. Holding the Goggles with one hand leads to inevitable cramp after a while – Nintendo omitted to supply a head strap in order to get the lowest possible age rating for the kit, but an optional accessory would be most welcome (and in true Labo DIY spirit, we’ve already seen homebrew and third-party solutions crop up).
Whether throwing a ragdoll around a vast open plain, driving an RC car or experimenting with gravity in what looks like an empty swimming pool, you may only play VR Plaza’s novelties once (or crack them out when someone asks to see what this Switch VR business is all about), but they’re sure to raise a grin, especially if this is your first venture into the VR arena. The real ‘meat’ of the Starter Set, though, comes in the form of the bulky Blaster.
Its main game is an on-rails shooter. Riding atop a trundling mini tank, you defend your neighbourhood against an alien invasion. Pressing the backwards-facing trigger button locks on to whatever you’re pointing at; cocking the gun and firing will launch a homing missile. This optional lock-on mechanic can be used to shoot around scenery blocking your aim – buildings or girders, for example. Your projectiles bounce and the act of locking and cocking introduces a satisfying flow to the gameplay, involving you in the action and making it feel more immersive than a simple shooting gallery.
Central to that immersion is the feedback of the Blaster itself; it’s by far the most satisfying Toy-Con to wield and its onscreen equivalent mirrors your analogue input. The physical jolt and noise of each shot means you won’t be playing it in bed as your significant other slumbers, but it adds another layer to the experience. Rotating the attached Joy-Con L 90° flips down a virtual visor that temporarily freezes time, enabling you to pick off pesky enemies in the distance. Each of the three short stages per level tallies your score at the end and beating all six levels enables you to replay any stage at will, with ‘Expert’ versions removing lock-on targeting and time freeze.
If you don’t want to use the goggles, you can simply attach the console (via a separate holder) to the Blaster and play by looking at the screen. What you sacrifice in immersion you gain in resolution and small children can join in the fun without their vision being irreparably scrambled.
The kids will likely want to get involved, too. The chunky alien enemies may as well have stepped out of Splatoon 2 (and the announcement of the Zelda and Mario updates bodes well for a bespoke on-rails tie-in, we’d wager). Bosses are chunkily designed and really get you looking around the virtual environment. Giant enemy crabs have rarely been so satisfying to take down.
Kablasta is the second Blaster activity. You shoot fruit into a pool of hungry hippos to attract them to your score zone. It’s multiplayer-only which involves handing the Blaster to your opponent between shots. It’s a fun little competitive game, although it’s much slighter than the alien-blaster.
As for the other Toy-Con that come in the full kit and caboodle, they’re interesting, but don’t hold a whole lot of interest long term. The Camera is probably the weakest example, as both games that utilise it use almost nothing new, instead recycling assets from the Variety Kit. Whereas something like the classic Pokémon Snap did something truly interesting with its photography mechanics, the Toy-Con Camera is all but limited to pointing and shooting, and not in the carefree fun way of the Blaster.
The Bird fares better, however, and is probably the strongest contender of those found outside the Starter kit. You fly around an island in what starts as a slightly dizzying motion sickness fest, but your brain soon catches up and you’re free to explore the land at your own pace, and in your own way. The objective is to find items to feed to hatchlings, but we found the most joy in just flying around at our own, leisurely pace. It’s not exactly Breath of the Wild, but it’s not trying to be either.
The Elephant is a curious one. The application and accuracy of the ‘controller’ is almost revoltingly accurate. Both games require you to interact with things that you inherently want to look around from different angles, whether to better gauge your depth perception, or to just view something from another side, but this just isn’t an option as you’re rooted to the spot. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but it is certainly a nuisance.
The Wing Pedal at first glance looks like a hangover from the Bird, and the game that accommodates it could quite easily be re-worked to use simply a button input. Having said that, the gust of wind it thrusts at your face every time your foot plunges it down adds a surprisingly effective sense of immersion beyond what the Goggles give you. Whilst jumping on top of balls isn’t necessarily going to be the next Pokémon Silver, it’s a lot more fun than it first appears.
Having played through that little lot (and seen more than our fair share of messages advising us to take a break), it’s time to discover exactly how they all work…
The ‘development team’ from the previous kits returns, so you’ll chat with Prof. Gerry Riggs, Plaise Allatyme and Lerna Lotte though simple Instant Messaging-style screens. The blue ‘Discover’ tab breaks down how the Toy-Con work, highlights cool features and offers instruction and tips for the games with videos to help you get to grips with the basics. You can also learn about various aspects of 3D, depth perception, binocular parallax and the like. While this may be elementary, in our experience the general knowledge of family members regarding this subject is often unbelievably poor – we’ve had oblivious relatives watch entire films in 3D without the required glasses, presumably thinking… well, who knows what they were thinking, but Labo VR is a great opportunity to educate them.
A selection of VR videos are available, though don’t get too excited – Prof. Gerry himself says “This is more of a little bonus feature than anything, so don’t expect too much…” You can pretend you’re feeding deer or swimming with penguins or, most notably, watching the Mario Tennis intro screen in a tantalising Virtual Boy Easter Egg.
The final part of the package is Toy-Con Garage and it’s probably the most exciting. Finding this section unlocks another 24 VR Plaza games, all constructed (as were the previous ones) using the Garage tools and editable from the pause screen. Many of them are delightfully stupid – from cutting hairs off a huge cuboid head to pressing buttons to construct a giant hamburger. Several don’t even use VR, but they showcase the bewildering possibilities of the software; we’ve played far worse full pinball games than ‘Plinky Pinball’. Want to make a basic FPS? How about a racing game? If you’re willing to tinker, there’s a staggering amount of potential. Sharing your creations with friends and family is great, although some sort of online repository would have been incredible – no surprises to find that feature absent, though.
The whole package is topped off with some funky, jaunty music and that trademark dose of Nintendo polish and charm, and we’d say that it does enough to warrant a purchase even if you’re sceptical. However, the updates Nintendo has released for Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are likely to persuade many gamers sitting on the fence to take the plunge on Labo VR.
Arguably the most exciting of the two propositions is exploring Hyrule in VR but, unfortunately, in practice it confirms many of our fears and misgivings. Rotating your head moves the camera around Link and it moves closer as you look towards the sky (just as it does via the right stick) - this constant lurching backwards and forwards gave us a headache almost immediately. Text is illegible at the sides of the screen and you can forget combat scenarios if you want to keep your breakfast down.
The best moments come from seeing the landscape as you glide - warp to the highest spot you've unlocked, crack out your glider and simply admire the kingdom below as you push forward on the stick. It's a pleasant view, but despite being more excited for this initially, a few bespoke VR shrines may have been a better way to integrate the Goggles into Breath of the Wild. It's still not too late, of course.
Odyssey's entirely separate VR mode is far more successful. Accessible from the main menu, you're tasked with finding instruments for nine musicians strewn across three kingdoms. You control Mario from a fixed camera position, immediately eliminating the wooziness that bubbles up in Hyrule, and there's a handy zoom on 'R'. With secrets to find, it's a diverting little extra for a game you almost certainly already own.
The Labo VR Kit isn't perfect. To anybody who took against Labo in its non-VR form, there’s nothing here that’s going to change your mind. To VR veterans coming from other far more powerful platforms, Switch’s simple take on the technology may look laughably simplistic. But to the vast majority of Switch owners that fall outside those brackets, Labo VR is a little wonder and more than worth the asking price for the Starter Set. We’d take a lightweight premium version of the goggles (and we’re sure they’ll be coming from third parties) and we’d absolutely welcome any increase in resolution an upgraded Switch console could provide – if only to make text a little more legible – but Labo VR works brilliantly in the context of a fascinating little toy, providing novel bursts of that tactile Nintendo magic.
Labo VR Kit is a giant, joyous mess of imagination, creativity and potential. From a value-for-money perspective, the Starter Set is an easy recommendation, and even hardened Labo cynics will likely enjoy the Blaster and trying out the Mario and Zelda VR updates (although those updates aren't enough on their own to warrant a purchase). The Starter Kit offers a great taste of the Labo construction experience and access to most of the pick-up-and-play VR Plaza novelties. If the bug really takes you, of course, it’s easy enough to get the expansion sets.
Labo really needs to be explored to be enjoyed – Toy-Con Garage is extremely comprehensive, but isn't the sort of thing you’ll pick up in an afternoon. It’s not without faults, but overall this ‘Nintendo-style solution’ to basic VR is well worth the asking price for anybody with even the tiniest bit of curiosity and brilliantly showcases the versatility of Switch.