When VR gaming became a thing, I had two big questions.
Number one: will it make me want to throw up my lunch? Sadly the answer has been yes on more than one occasion. And two, how long is it going to be before Nintendo, inventor of the Virtual Boy way back in the ‘90s, gets involved?
Well, the House of Mario has indeed now thrown its red cap into the ring, but perhaps not in the way people expected. Ninty’s gleefully inventive cardboard Labo sets have seen the Japanese giant return to its toy-making roots with sometimes brilliants results, but the VR sets are probably most exciting so far - for both the target market of kids, and the parents who’ll inevitably end up putting in a shift during the long process of assembling the different Toy-Con peripherals.
You have a choice of either the Starter Set of VR goggles and the Blaster accessory, or the £70 VR Kit as supplied for this review, which includes six Toy-Con creations, each with its own set of minigames. These may be entry-level experiences, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the level of creativity on show.
No scissors or glue are required, so as long as you have a Nintendo Switch, a pair of its deceptively tech-loaded Joy-Cons, and a degree of patience, you’re good to go.
Setup: Card work
Open the latest Labo box and you’ll be greeted with an intimidatingly towering pile of multi-coloured cardboard sheets, some stickers, bags of elastic bands and plastic bolts, and a game cartridge. Pop it in and you’ll be taken to a menu screen with three options: Make, Play and Discover.
Make contains step-by-step animated instructions for each Toy-Con that are as slick and comprehensive (sometimes a bit too comprehensive) as you’d expect from Nintendo. They’re also interactive, allowing you to spin the on-screen models to make sure you’re getting it exactly right. Confusing flatpack manuals these are mercifully not. To keep the kids entertained, some of the pieces are given names or personalities, and you’ll frequently be congratulated for completing a stage. It’s nice.
Which is just as well, because building the entire set is going to eat up a lot of your time. The VR Goggles, which you’ll take on first, have their own special lenses to create the virtual reality effect, and can take up anything from 30 minutes to an hour to assemble. It rarely gets more complicated than tearing and folding, but be sure to pay attention so you don’t mess up a stage and have to undo your work. At least mistakes are reversible, and returning to a previous instruction is as easy as dragging the corner of the screen.
Build time increases as the kits get more intricate, with the Blaster - definitely Labo VR’s showpiece - estimated at a frankly ridiculous three hours. I built all of them myself, but I can imagine the attention spans of little ones beginning to wane after a while. If you’re planning on buying a set for the kids, it’s probably worth stretching the building out over a couple of weekends, else you’ll no doubt find yourself surrounded by savaged cardboard and very much alone.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the kits aren’t designed to be disassembled when you’re finished with them, so if you buy the larger set you’ll want to clear out a box to keep them in.
Peripherals and games: Virtual toy
They might be time-consuming to build, but each finished Labo VR Toy-Con is something of a marvel. Working out how each piece slots into place and helps form surprisingly complex mechanisms will delight small kids as much as it did this big one.
The Goggles will be familiar to to anyone who’s messed around with Google Cardboard in the past, only the smartphone has been swapped for a Switch. It’s so well designed that you don’t need to be nervous about sliding the console in and out, but Nintendo's decision not to include a head strap is a strange one. You have to hold the goggles to your face at all times, which is awkward and quickly leads to an achy arm.
Once you’ve built the headset and slotted the Switch into place (simply tap the icon in the bottom corner of the screen to switch to VR mode) you’ll unlock VR Plaza, a collection of 64 quickfire tech demos that showcase what Labo VR can do. You might be driving a car around a small track, using a Joy-Con to throw a boomerang or a basketball, or just messing around with zero gravity.
They’re all enjoyable for a few minutes, but the real fun starts when you slide the VR Goggles into one of the other peripherals. The Bird accessory is one of the best. A Joy-Con is attached to its headpiece, and you squeeze a pair of levers to make its wings flap. The accompanying minigame sees you become a bird on an egg-collecting mission. As you soar across the island, your head movements control the bird’s direction, while the wings are used to fly higher. It’s relaxing and ever-so-slightly nauseating in equal measure.
The fully operable Wind Pedal is the only accessory that doesn’t go on your face. In Hop Dodge, you press it with your foot to make an in-game frog leap into the air to avoid oncoming juggling balls. Each time you jam the pedal you get a fresh blast of air in your face, which makes it feel a bit 4D. Strangely satisfying.
Less entertaining is the game played with the Camera Toy-Con. You’re tasked with snapping various fish underwater and given a score at the end. It’s not that the camera isn’t an ingenious contraption, with its twistable zoom lens - it’s just not particularly fun to use.
While it’s slightly disappointing that the wonderfully designed Elephant Toy-Con doesn’t allow you to trample on poachers or even see yourself as a virtual Nelly in-game, its two games are both well-made and fun to play.
The first, Marble Run, is a straightforward puzzler that has you moving ramps in order to guide a falling marble to a target. The depth-sensing capabilities of the Joy-Con make it incredibly rewarding to reach out and grab objects in the game, and I imagine for first time VRers under the age of 12 it’ll be nothing short of revelatory. Then there’s the aptly named Doodle, which lets you draw in a 3D space using the elephant’s drunk as your paintbrush. I won’t tell you what I drew first, because you already know.
And finally we have the Blaster, Labo VR’s most obviously video game-y peripheral. You put the entire thing up to your face, with elastic bands allowing the gun to be cocked. Pull the trigger and the Blaster emits a glorious thwack.
The games are decent too. Most of them are short-and-sweet on-rails shooters where you have to pick off blobbish pink aliens in various locations. You even get a multiplayer game of sorts, where you and another player take turns to shoot different fruits into the open mouths of greedy hippos. It’s a novel idea, even if pass the massive cardboard headset gun is a bit more awkward than traditional pass the pad.
While playing these games there’s a good chance you’ll be scratching your head as to how the Switch hardware is able to perform such VR wizardry, and that’s what the Discover section is for. Here, you can talk to a multitude of charming know-it-alls who explain, for example, how the Elephant uses a combination of IR stickers and the Joy-Cons gyropscopes to accurately depict the movement of the trunk on screen. Or how the Blaster knows when you’ve pressed the trigger. It’s all aimed at inquisitive kids, but the section is well worth a browse regardless of age.
Performance: All a blur
The fairly brief and basic nature of Labo VR’s offerings mean you probably won’t spend long enough with any of them to really be put off by the technical shortcomings. But that doesn’t mean they’re not immediately obvious.
The Switch’s display isn’t the most high-res as it is, so when you stick it right in front of your eyes it obviously struggles to create immersive virtual worlds. Turn your head in any game and you’ll encounter some pretty nasty blur, while textures are generally devoid of any detail, and the screen door effect, whereby you can see the space between individual pixels, is very noticeable.
This is all easy to forgive though. Labo VR isn’t supposed to be competing with the PlayStation VRs and Oculus Rift’s of this world. It’s a toy first and foremost, and one that’ll almost certainly get kids excited about the possibilities of virtual reality. And thanks to the stupidly talented Joy-Cons, the tracking that is possible in the games is executed magnificently.
Motion sickness continues to be an issue in VR right across the board, so if you’re letting youngsters have a go you should be mindful of it. I didn’t encounter too many stomach drops though, and it helps that you can very easily get our head out of there. The game will constantly encourage you to take breaks too.
Nintendo Labo: VR Kit verdict
Labo VR shows Nintendo is interested in virtual reality again, something gamers should be very happy about.
Labo VR is definitely on the primitive end of the scale, but that’s fine. It’s primarily aimed at 9-year-olds who want to pretend they’re an elephant and are yet to have their minds blown by stepping into a 3D virtual space for the first time. Judge it on that basis and Nintendo’s latest cardboard side project is a big success, even if replay value is lacking.
The Blaster in particular is easily as fun to use as any similar VR peripheral I’ve come across, and I’ve love to see some more games support it.
If you’ve been waiting to give Labo a try, the VR kit is the pick of the bunch.