Nintendo’s long-rumoured foray into virtual reality with Labo: VR Kit has set some heads spinning with dreams of high-end experiences featuring all manner of Nintendo franchises. Imagine Mario Kart VR on Switch! they say. What about Animal Crossing VR! Where’s Metroid Prime Trilogy VR-astered?! Okay, we made up that last one, but we’re sure the idea must be on a forum somewhere.
We’ve already taken a look at the pros and the cons of Nintendo’s upcoming toe-dip into the world of VR, and while the company wisely kept the announcement low-key – releasing a press release with very little fanfare – the lack of game footage or simulated screenshots gives enthusiastic fans a blank canvas on which to scrawl their imaginings based on the more advanced VR experiences available elsewhere.
It’s only natural to compare what we’ve seen to concepts we’re already familiar with, but unlike the initial Labo offerings, those ‘VR’ initials conjure up some serious expectations that risk being hopelessly dashed by the end product. Nintendo repeatedly said that Labo was aimed ‘at kids and kids at heart’, but that didn’t stop some of us being disappointed. It's right there in the press release title – 'shareable, simple VR gaming experiences' – but despite all the warning signs, it seems that once again people are setting themselves up for disappointment when Labo VR doesn’t measure up to expectations, ignoring what the cardboard oddity really is.
It's an introduction to VR for kids; a 'taster', plain and simple. If there was any doubt from the promo art and the stated intentions of the Labo product line, a video from a VR developer that we reported on just yesterday highlights the Goggles’ fixed (and relatively narrow) Inter Pupillary Distance, meaning it’s designed for smaller heads. That’s not to say that us ‘kids at heart’ can’t enjoy it (the cranially-gifted of us notwithstanding), but we aren't the target demographic; never have been, never will be.
All that said, there’s still plenty of scope for this kit to entertain, just so long as we consider its context and technical limitations. For one thing, the graphics and art design of the games will have to account for a mightily reduced resolution. That’s not to say Nintendo can’t work with restrictions – the company’s experience handling stereoscopic 3D at low resolutions on 3DS will be invaluable – but dividing the Switch’s 720p screen between two eyeballs means you’ll be going up close and personal with those pixels. The result needn’t be ‘ugly’, but any decent workaround will involve some creative artistic choices. Latency presents another significant hurdle that must be negotiated if this is to function well. Nintendo has form in tailoring software to work around hardware limitations, and we’d hope the company has learnt from the VR boom of the past few years, and from its own past mistakes.
We shouldn’t expect too much from controls, either. While the Joy-Con gyros are adequate for general rotation and aiming, they’re easily confused and require manual resets – something we’ve been used to since the Wii days with Skyward Sword. The lack of positional tracking means ‘look to aim’ mechanics are likely to be Labo VR’s meat-and-potatoes input; again, not a problem in itself, but it limits the potential number of gameplay applications.
We’d wager that neither our patience or the strapless cardboard of the Toy-Con itself is going to withstand prolonged periods pressed to our sweaty brows; anyone getting their hopes up for an immersive Mario Kart or Skyrim VR patch is asking for trouble – we should be thinking Wii Play rather than Wii Sports.
While everything until now may read like we’re sending Debbie Downer to the Labo VR launch party (on the contrary – we’re still convinced there’s loads of potential for delightful experiences), we’re just keen to keep our expectations in check. There’s arguably no better company in the industry to make this work with the kit’s inherent restrictions. With details still thin on the ground, it’s fascinating to speculate as to what the kits could have in store.
Looking at the revealed VR Toy-Con, their various forms (and the images surrounding them) give us some clues about what to expect. The Blaster is blindingly obvious, the missile on the promo poster indicating that – shock! – you’ll be shooting projectiles with it. The fish swimming around the boy brandishing the Camera suggest a little underwater photography is on the menu (we can imagine plunging into the ocean in a cage and gaining points by snapping the various forms of marine life). The planet and stars surrounding the kid with the Goggles indicate there’s a little stargazing on the horizon, too. So far, so predictable.
More interestingly, the Elephant Toy-Con is surrounded with lines from a coloured pencil, suggesting a little more creativity will be required than scanning the night sky for the Big Dipper. And in addition to permitting a close veterinary examination of a cardboard seagull’s cloaca, we speculate that the Bird Toy-Con may have you joining a flock of birds, perhaps flapping your wings (using those moving bits on the sides?) to gain height or stay in formation. The Wind Pedal comes bundled with the Bird in the Expansion Sets and presumably works in conjunction with it, although exactly how is anyone’s guess at this juncture.
So, what else might the Labo VR experience entail? Here are a few ideas we believe are workable given the limitations of the tech and Nintendo’s past experiments...
A Safari ‘Snap’-Type Game
Before we even noticed the fish swimming around in the photo and read about the “colourful in-game ocean” we’ll visit with the Camera, snapping pictures of animals seemed like an absolute no-brainer. Of course, Pokémon Snap immediately springs to mind, but although we’re certain Pokémon would get a lot of people buying the VR Kit, everyone and their Arcanine has been catching (and indeed ‘snapping’) great looking Pocket Monsters in Pokémon Go for a while, and we’re not certain a Labo-based Pokémon experience could meet fans’ expectations. The base gameplay loop of observing an environment and photographing things is a solid one, though, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see something along those lines – perhaps with an ornithological bent? (That’s birdwatching, people.)
Wii Play-Style Minigames
We mentioned Wii Play above, and the more we think about it, the more its breezy brand of minigame seems like a sensible fit for Labo VR. Imagine a Whack-a-Mole style affair (holding and aiming with one hand, swinging a Joy-Con in the other) or some kind of shielding or ‘deflection’ game (using, say, an umbrella to deflect projectiles into targets). Or why not some sort of Battleships variant involving looking through periscopes to target?
Wii Play (or Your First Step To Wii, as it was known in Japan) no doubt got a far wider audience than it otherwise might have as a Wii Remote pack-in (indeed, it’s the seventeenth best-selling game of all time), but we still recall having some fun with it. No, Find Mii, Fishing, Pose Mii and Billiards were hardly groundbreaking, but they were more engaging than we expected, perhaps due to our extremely low expectations. One game, in particular, that would seem to be a shoo-in for Labo VR…
A Shooting Range
Yes, yes, the Toy-Con Blaster is something of a giveaway. The PR blurb informs us we’ll “fend off an alien invasion” with it and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a VR interpretation of the Duck Hunt-style Wii Play Shooting Range game. Although we doubt Nintendo would use actual Duck Hunt, a lo-fi pixel aesthetic might be a good way to side-step some of the graphical issues we mentioned earlier. Nintendo is nothing if not adept at embracing and recycling ideas and franchises in different contexts. If Switch isn’t capable of rendering fully realised and detailed 3D environments (in VR), why not tap into that rich vein of nostalgia?
Once again, though, we’re looking at it from the perspective of a 30-something gamer with Nintendo nostalgia; we're not the target audience. Although the Blaster evokes memories of the Super Scope from the SNES days, we probably won’t be jumping on Yoshi’s back and firing at hordes of Koopa Troopas a la Yoshi’s Safari. Mind you, being forced to hold the console to our face at least ensures we’ll feel like Cyclops firing laser beams from our eyes (Cyclops the X-Man, that is, not the giants of Greek mythology).
Local Multiplayer Games
According to the press release, Nintendo’s lack of headstrap for the various Toy-Con is “to help encourage social gameplay”. Therefore, we imagine the ‘headset’ will be passed around between players, perhaps using audio to get everybody in the room involved. Maligned as 1-2 Switch might be for launching as a full-priced game rather than a pack-in title, it had some fun ideas that could be expanded upon with Labo VR.
Gameplay possibilities are multiplied when you get another Switch involved. We’ve seen some limited interactions between two consoles already in things like Toad’s Rec Room in Super Mario Party, but having two people able to share a VR space (albeit in a limited, non-positional way) opens up further opportunities. One player could ‘ping’ targets for their partner to shoot, for example. Tower defence, anyone?
While VR ‘ports’ or ‘patches’ for existing games seem to be extremely unlikely, there’s nothing to stop the developers of Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes from patching in a Labo VR option allowing the bomb diffuser to use the Labo Goggles as their team describes how to disarm the device. We doubt, however, that there’ll be much crossover with non-Labo software or IP. Of course, there’s one Nintendo series that manages to marry myriad simple ideas into a chaotic-yet-coherent whole…
A WarioWare-style Microgame Montage
The WarioWare microgame series is a perfect example of how very limited controls can produce compelling, quickfire gameplay that works fantastically in a social context. If there’s any existing series suited to Labo VR, surely it’s this one.
In reality, we doubt Nintendo would tie any of its existing characters to the VR concept, beyond a cheeky Easter Egg or two. The trademark pandemonium of the WarioWare games would have to be carefully balanced in VR to avoid any adverse effects, but Nintendo knows better than most the pitfalls of the platform from previous experience. We’d hope that any kinks have been ironed out over Labo’s long development (many of these VR Toy-Con were glimpsed in Labo’s initial reveal trailer), but let’s finally address the elephant in the room that isn’t a Toy-Con…
A Virtual Boy Collection
While the other ideas on this list seem relatively plausible, we admit that this last one is probably wishful thinking on our part. What kid these days has even heard of the Virtual Boy? While most Nintendo fans are familiar with the company’s ill-fated VR experiment from the mid-‘90s, not all have had the opportunity to actually play the thing. The fact that the system and its games simply aren’t very good does little to diminish its allure – the console wasn’t even released in Europe, giving it a 64DD-esque air of mystery.
Labo VR offers the perfect opportunity for Nintendo to provide a curated collection of the system’s library. Difficulties may arise due to a lack of control options, although the PR blurb mentions a ‘Screen Holder’ and a ‘Safety Cap’. We’ve yet to see any pics, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the former is a stand for the Goggles.
For many older gamers, simply having access to that infamous console’s library would be enough to warrant a purchase. Can you imagine the custom Virtual Boy Toy-Con being designed by fans across the globe at this very moment?
Those are just a few possible ways we think Labo VR might manifest. It brings to mind the short-lived Wii Street U channel which offered Google Streetview through the GamePad, or the 360° films of Wii U Panorama View giving you the chance to fly amongst a flock of geese, tour London on a double-decker bus or check out the cherry blossoms in Kyoto from the comfort of your sofa. We recall using up some idle Nintendo Points/Coins on them and they were diverting enough – nothing like the highly immersive experiences offered by high-end VR headsets from HTC or Oculus, but amusing little curios nonetheless.
In fact, speaking of curios that most gamers probably tried once and never bothered with again, Labo VR has us thinking of the 3DS Augmented Reality games. While for some that might be a more depressing comparison than even Wii Play, that is probably the level we should be setting our expectations. In and of themselves, we got a good hour or two of fun out of those cards with the fishing and archery games. We’d imagine Labo VR will have more longevity than that, but we doubt we’ll be sitting down for multiple hour sessions a year from now.
Perhaps we’re being overly pessimistic. Maybe we’ll be blown away by some incredible technical feat enabling Switch to overcome its technical shortcomings in the VR space, but we think it’s important to temper our enthusiasm with the realities of the hardware. Overall, short experiences must be the focus – the tech restrictions make anything else unrealistic.
Fortunately, that focus aligns with Nintendo’s mission statement to bring entertainment to everyone, and this basic approach to VR offers new social experiences rather than isolating gamers from each other private virtual worlds. We'll just have to keep reminding ourselves it's not for us.
Are we being too pessimistic about the technical shortcomings of Labo VR? Do you think Nintendo will surprise us with a more involved, in-depth experience to get our old, cold hearts beating faster? Let us know your thoughts.