Its made of cardboard and literally held together by rubber bands but Nintendos attempt at virtual reality is more impressive than youd think.
If theres one thing weve learnt from the last few years of playing VR games its that rising up out of virtual water, and looking out across the surface of an imaginary ocean, is one of the most jaw-dropping visual experiences in modern gaming. Flying, even if its not in a game of any great complexity, becomes a literal dream come true in VR and staring down from a great height at the virtual world below is enough to induce real vertigo, if only for a moment.
Despite what you might imagine, when you hear that Nintendos VR goggles are made out of cardboard, this latest Nintendo Labo kit is able to replicate all those sensations and more, in what sounds like it should be a laughing stock but is actually a thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly engrossing mix of VR, handicraft, and edutainment.
If youre not familiar with Labo you can find our reviews of the first two kits here and the third, which allows you to create a variety of custom controllers for the Switch, here. The basic idea though is that you build Toy-Cons out of cardboard, folding them together like origami, and inserting Joy-Cons into them in order to give them functionality, from a fully working piano to a surprisingly precise joystick.
Being made of cardboard may make them sound like some sort of cheap novelty but theyre actually extremely robust and the ingenuity in how theyre built, and how they function with the software, is hugely impressive. Theyre primarily aimed at kids but in the best possible way, as not only are they encouraged to customise them with paint and stickers but also to learn how they work – learning real science and programming lessons along the way.
There are several different ways to buy Labo VR, depending on the initial outlay youre happy with, with the £34.99 Starter Set including the goggles and the Blaster Toy-Con, which looks something like a tank cannon. There are five main Toy-Cons, plus a few smaller ones, and to get them all costs £69.99. Or you can just get the Starter Set and then buy one of two expansions later for £16.99 each.
As with all our Labo reviews we wont be offering a score here, but we will look at each of the main Toy-Cons, and their related software, in turn. Its also worth noting that Nintendo will, later this month, be adding VR support to Super Mario Odyssey, with brand new VR mini-games, and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild – with the ability to play the whole game in VR. Neither has yet been demonstrated publicly though, so its unclear exactly how theyre going to work.
Cardboard VR headsets are not, of course, a new concept and on a basic level Labo VR has plenty in common with Google Cardboard and the rest. The construction is more complex and sturdy with Nintendo Labo though and itll take you somewhere close to an hour to put them together. As with all Toy-Cons theres no glue involved but there are a couple of plastic eyelets and the lenses themselves. These come in a sort of plastic tub that forms the centre of the goggles, with the Switch console screen sliding in in front of them.
Importantly, theres no head strap tying the goggles to your head – not least because that allows for a PEGI age rating of 7, instead of the 12 Nintendo would otherwise be stuck with – although theres nothing stopping you from adding one yourself. But Labo VR is designed with the idea that youll never be using it for extended periods of time and all the games limit your play time to a maximum of 10 minutes (so its going to be interesting to see how Nintendo handle Breath Of The Wild).
Although each of the Toy-Cons comes with at least one related game the VR Goggles themselves can be used on their own with the VR Plaza of 64 mini-games. These are your first experience of VR with the Switch and although theyre usually nothing more than largely empty rooms with a few interactive objects the VR effect is immediately impressive. It shouldnt be, given the Switchs low resolution and the fact that the lenses have to magnify the image, but head-tracking works perfectly using the Switch console alone.
It really does feel like a slightly lower resolution version of the PlayStation VR, which considering that has a price tag of £260 and the Labo VR goggles are £35 on their own is quite an achievement. Things can get very blurry with more graphically complex games, notably the Ocean Camera game, but never enough that you cant make out whats going on or still be impressed by the sense of immersion.
Before you dismiss the VR Plaza games though its worth bearing in mind that while theyre very simple tech demos their real purpose is to encourage the use of the Toy-Con Garage. This is an option within all Nintendo Labo kits, that lets you change the way the Toy-Cons work using a visual programming tool of surprising complexity. The first Garage works with the Switch in 2D, in the usual manner, to do things like creating a virtual guitar or a target game with a cardboard cut-out tied to a Joy-Con (because you can control the rumble you can cause it to fall down when you aim the other Joy-Cons IR sensor at it).
The normal Toy-Con Garage is extremely flexible on its own, and a useful educational tool for kids, but the new Toy-Con Garage VR option is what all the VR Plaza games were made in. So while you might initially scoff at the pointless driving game with no goals, or the various simplistic shooting galleries, they can be turned into proper games themselves, with in-built examples including platformers, pinball games, Breakout clones, and even fighting games. Were sure it wont be long at all until someone has made a relatively complex first person game and no doubt many other creations were too unimaginative to predict.
The VR Goggles and their software are impressive all on their own, but theyre a very simple construction by Toy-Con standards. The Blaster though takes at least three hours to build and involves nine separate sheets of cardboard. That makes it by far the biggest VR Toy-Con and yet its bundled with the Starter Set, which considering it also has one of the most involved games makes the whole thing extremely good value for money.
Building the Blaster, and in fact all the Toy-Cons, is not the chore it may sound like and if you enjoy making Lego sets with your kids (or on your own) its a very similar pleasure, as you marvel at the ingenuity of the construction and the revelation of what the piece youve been building for the last half hour is actually for. This is augmented by some very detailed, and charmingly written, on-screen animations that give step-by-step instructions on how exactly to build the Toy-Con.
Once youve finally finished you discover the Blasters main game is an on-the-rails lightgun shooter, where one Joy-Con is shoved down the barrel of the Blaster to allow for surprisingly precise aiming and the other one (along with some rubber bands) used to detect when you use the shotgun-like pump action effect to charge a shot. As with all the Toy-Cons the VR goggles themselves slot into the back of the Blaster – although there is a simple cardboard adapter that lets you play any of the games in 2D.
With some fun boss battles, an optional slow motion effect that lets you target multiple enemies, and a simple physics engine the game is genuinely fun and has some clever surprises during its multiple levels. Enemies can come at you from any angle, requiring you to constantly look around to spot them, and the graphics are more complex than most of the other VR games.
Theres also a completely separate multiplayer game inspired by Hungry Hungry Hippos, where you take it in turns with another player to shoot fruit into hippos mouths in order to get more over to your side of a pool than your opponent.
Theres little longevity to either game, or any indeed any of pre-made VR titles, but they were never going to be the primary reason for buying the kits. Its the enjoyment of making the Toy-Cons and understanding how they work, mechanically and in terms of the software, thats the real draw. And as long as you realise that going in, the Starter Set is a fantastic experience for both kids and their parents.
Even at £70 for the all-in-one set, that contains every Toy-Con and extra, it still seems remarkably good value for money, simply based on how long it takes to see everything – let alone once you get into customising it all. But whether you get it separately or in the box with everything else the Camera is the simplest of the other Toy-Cons, taking less than an hour to build. Despite that its one of our favourites and the little clicks it makes as you turn round the cardboard lens is one of the most satisfying sounds in existence.
It comes with two games, with the Ocean Camera one being similar to Ocean Descent in PlayStation VR Worlds. The graphics are much simpler, and its not as long, but the sense of immersion is still very impressive as you dive down from the surface into the briny depths. As the various fish swim around you they act surprisingly realistically and when they get up close we dont mind admitting we tried to move out of their way almost every time. Especially when it was a shark.
Theres actual gameplay too as you try to take a picture of everything, including hidden secrets, and difficult to organise combination shots (you have some fish food to tempt them into position). Despite the often blurry visuals its all very immersive and, as we said, realising you can break the surface and look around topside is properly impressive.
The House Camera game unlocks later (many of the games and menu options only unlock after youve built a specific Toy-Con or read a tutorial) and works along the same principles but in the Tamagotchi style house from the original Nintendo Labo Variety Kit. This is much less engaging than the fish, although it may charm any kids that took to the original version.
All of the different Toy-Cons are essentially bespoke controllers for different kinds of VR experiences, and despite what you might think the Elephants games dont have anything to do with… elephants. A fact the software itself acknowledges when it points out that with just a few adjustments and a spot of paint you can make it look like a flamingo instead.
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