Nintendo's VR solution is cheap, simple and made of cardboard - but it's still more fun out of the box than its bank-breaking rivals.
It doesn't really matter if it's the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation headsets, the truth is that the world of virtual reality is often a bit of a faff. There's loads of messing around with cables and cross-over boxes and extra peripherals - and while the games are often decent, I haven't really been sufficiently blown away by any of the triple-A VR experiences to really make all the messing about worthwhile. Both high-end PC headsets and the PSVR are attractive to use, but most of the time just thinking about the mess around to set up and then break them back down afterwards makes me leave them in the office cupboard.
Nintendo was never going to take the same approach to VR, obviously, and so we have their entry in the world of VR via Nintendo Labo - the cardboard-based accessory kit for Switch. Cardboard-based VR isn't a completely new concept, of course - Google has previously released Google Cardboard as a VR solution for their phones - but the approach here is very much in line with Nintendo's fun-driven MO. It's a brilliant execution of the idea.
Nintendo's Labo VR Kit (that's Toy-Con kit 4, for those counting) has a variety of different modes and accessories, enabled by the simple, cardboard-based nature of the Labo setup. Same as always, you'll be buying a package with the software which will include the necessary cardboard, and the software will intuitively guide you through the building process with Lego-like instructions.
This is part of the fun with Labo, really - building the tools to play yourself. As well as a headset, there's a range of different games, with the various applications for this VR set demonstrated across a range of mini-games - 64 in total - making this a pretty wide-ranging and large package. The trailer introducing the Labo VR Kit is over seven minutes long, and it doesn't dawdle in introducing things - there's just a lot to do.
This application honestly feels like a little stroke of genius, using the portable aspect of the Switch to push the headset close to your face - though how the Switch's handheld resolution fares in this format remains to be seen. The implications are obvious from there - as well as a basic headset, you could make a giant gun where the VR unit acts as the sights, or a camera with the Switch screen as your viewfinder. Both of these are among the options right now at launch, but one can easily imagine the various constructs that Nintendo are now able to cheaply release, offering very specific VR control schemes for different software. You'll definitely look like a bit of an idiot holding a mad cardboard construct up to your face, but let's be fair - that's universally true of all VR, no matter how slick and high-tech the headset looks.
Right now, Labo VR essentially comes in two packages. The first is the VR Starter Set, which includes the basic VR goggles for getting the Switch up close and personal to your face and the previously mentioned blaster accessory. That's $40/£35. Alternatively you can pick up the complete VR Kit for $80/£75, which includes the camera, elephant, bird and pedal toy-con designs as well as the camera and goggles. Both include the Labo Toy Con 4 software required to launch into these new VR experiences.
Many of the 64 mini games on offer are relatively silly and inconsequential, though there's a few that stand out and are worth returning to multiple times. The camera is brilliant, giving you an intuitive camera-shaped hunk of cardboard to heft up to your face, with the gyro sensors of the Switch and its Joy-Con controllers used to sense your movement. You're dropped into an underwater scene and tasked with taking photos of the wildlife there, twisting the lens to zoom and snap pictures. It feels intuitive and fun, but it also immediately calls to mind how amazing a Pokemon Snap game could be with this control method.
The strangest of the VR toy-con accessories is the 'elephant', a multi-jointed device that when held to the face alongside the VR unit somewhat resembles an elephant's trunk, thus the name. This is used for a little puzzle game but also for drawing in 3D space - an area of the package you could easily sink many, many hours into. Sometimes toy-cons are used alone, but others can combine together. You can use the bird and pedal style ones in tandem for some mini-games for instance - and the use of the blaster is obvious. They all work well, though mileage on each game varies - but as with past Nintendo mini game compilation releases there's a decent enough hit rate that there's a few you'll want to return to.
It's worth keeping in mind that each toy-con has its associated build, of course, and these vary. The goggles are easy to put together, for instance, but the blaster is going to require a couple of free hours and some patience - but that is really part of the fun. It may just be following instructions, but as with Lego (and regular readers will know I'm a bit of a Lego fan) the challenge of the build is part of the package and a rewarding experience.
Also intriguing is the planned support for existing games. Nintendo has been pretty good about this so far, cramming Labo steering wheel support into Mario Kart 8, but the potential for the goggles is particularly exciting, with VR versions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey on the way in the coming weeks.
The obvious question with the Switch and any VR solution is performance. Obviously you have to know what you're getting into; this isn't a high end headset, nor is it a high end console. The results are surprisingly crisp and clear however, with problems mainly emerging for objects in the distance which will make Breath of the Wild an interesting, straining test for the setup in a few weeks. It's one of those experiences that will probably be best when its shortcomings are designed around, and that's the case for all of the mini games included in the set now on sale.
At either £35 for the basic stuff or £75 for the complete kit this obviously isn't quite as cheap as Google Cardboard, but the level of utility available with the Labo tools also far outstrips that. It's closer, in fact, to what you can achieve with the PlayStation's VR offering - but Nintendo's dedication to pure fun over all else realism or immersion be damned works in its favor, making for a far more worthwhile experience out of the box. In many ways comparing Labo to something like the PS VR, HTC Vive or Oculus Rift is obviously unfair - they're worlds apart - but it'd be remiss not to mention just how solid a proposition Labo VR is in terms of fun and value for money.
Perhaps why Labo VR fits so well is because outside of a few fringe cases video games are yet to really find the true, most useful and natural use for VR. At best it's an impressive tech demo of what might be the future. At worst it's an expensive gimmick that you show off to friends but usually leave sitting in a cupboard. Labo VR fits in with that, however, reading the current terrain around VR perfectly: it's cheap enough to be more of an impulse buy that doesn't need to become a staple of your gaming life to justify the price. This is VR that isn't afraid to be a gimmick and has a price to match, which is great. Plus, when the gimmick wears off the cardboard headset is compostable! I'm only half joking about that last bit, as well.
Labo VR isn't likely to set the world of VR on fire, but as a cheap VR option that's a family friendly way to explore this growing area of gaming this new Toy-Con kit feels like a clever, worthwhile addition to the Switch's weird and wonderful cardboard world. It may also very well be the first time Labo has truly made sense to me. It's classic Nintendo ingenuity, with classic Nintendo results: just pure fun.