Nintendo has had a bad history with virtual reality. The Virtual Boy remains one of the most infamous failures in video game history, so it’s not surprising that it took over two decades for the company to jump back into VR. This time, however, instead of a cramped tabletop device, Nintendo has taken its Labo cardboard construction system and made a remarkably clever VR headset comparable with Google Cardboard. We tried Labo VR at a preview event and were impressed by what we saw.
VR Viewer Toy-Con
The Labo VR Kit is built around the VR viewer, a Google Cardboard-like shell for the Nintendo Switch tablet. Like phone-based VR devices, the Labo VR viewer uses lenses to separate two distorted images displayed on the inserted Switch’s screen. The lenses correct the distortions to show a stereoscopic image to whoever is holding the viewer to their face.
There’s no headband or harness to hold the viewer in place; you need to keep it pressed against your face yourself. Fortunately, even though it’s mostly cardboard, the plastic housing for the lenses features a curved nose rest, and feels fairly comfortable to use.
The viewer attaches to various Toy-Cons to provide different control systems using the inserted Joy-Cons. The Labo VR Toy-Cons include the Bird, Blaster, Camera, Elephant, and Wind Pedal (which doesn’t attach to the viewer, but can work in conjunction with it for certain Labo VR games).
The Camera is one of the simplest and most direct Labo VR Toy-Cons. It’s a cardboard box that fits over the front of the VR viewer, with a round tube in the front to serve as the lens and hold the right Joy-Con with its infrared camera pointing outward. The left Joy-Con slides into the right side of the box, letting the L button work as the shutter. Holding the Camera and VR viewer to your face feels like holding a real camera to your face, and twisting the lens tube with your left hand lets you zoom in and out while you snap pictures with your right hand. It’s remarkably intuitive, even if the two games meant to work with it seem strangely limited.
One Camera game sends you underwater to take photos of fish. You can find different fish, frame them, and snap away to get points. A pair of cardboard glasses with reflective tape on them even lets a friend appear in the game as a diver, thanks to the right Joy-Con’s infrared camera. It looks pretty, but seems quite simple. The other main Camera game, which I didn’t play at the event, has you spying on a strange creature in his diorama-like home, figuring out how to shoot him in different situations.
The Camera strikes me as another opportunity to reach back into Nintendo nostalgia. The Toy-Con is perfect for a VR version of Pokemon Snap, the Nintendo 64 classic that had you taking pictures of different Pokemon. Pokemon Snap was eventually released on the Wii U virtual console, but never received a sequel.
Bird and Wind Pedal Toy-Cons
Bird is a cardboard bird with two handles under the wings. When you squeeze the handles, the wings flap and the bird’s head bobs forward. A Joy-Con slides into the bird’s head and senses when you make the bird flap its wings, which is the core function of the Labo VR’s flying game. You ride in a bird-shaped flying machine and cruise around a wide gaming area. Flapping makes the bird fly higher, and turning your head left and right turns it.
You can get a boost in the game by inserting the other Joy-Con into the Wind Pedal Toy-Con. It’s a foot pedal similar to the accelerator in the Labo Vehicle Kit, with a large, shovel-shaped cardboard panel on the top. When you press down on the pedal, the panel flips up, fanning air at your face. Doing this launches you faster and harder than when you just squeeze the bird, providing an immersive gust of wind in the process. It’s an ideal microcosm of Labo’s design philosophy itself: clever, but goofy.
The Wind Pedal also works with its own game, where you play a frog that must jump to bounce on balls thrown at you. As you successfully jump on the balls, you leap higher and higher. It’s another fun instance in which the simple act of blowing a gust of wind in your face makes an action in VR seem more immersive.
The Blaster is a cardboard bazooka with a pistol grip and a pump-action handle. Pulling the pump handle back cocks a piece of cardboard held in place by a rubber band, and pulling the thumb trigger on the grip sends the piece shooting forward in the barrel to create a loud “shunk” noise accompanied by the tactile feedback of firing (no projectile is actually launched by the Toy-Con). The large tube design with a thumb trigger evokes the Super Scope, the Super NES light gun accessory.
It’s used to play a shooting game where you blast aliens invading a city. Bright, colorful, cartoon bug-like aliens appear on ledges, jumping at you, riding carts and crates, and generally being menacing as you move down a fixed path. Cocking the blaster and firing launches a projectile that destroys any alien or crate it hits, with the ensuing explosion damaging and dislodging nearby aliens and crates. By flipping a handle near the top of the Blaster down, you can temporarily pause time to attack multiple aliens at once.
The Blaster-based game feels like a simple shooting gallery, but the Toy-Con’s design invites a lot of nostalgic potential. A VR version of Link’s Crossbow Training, the game included with the Wii Zapper, would be welcome on Labo VR. While the Super Scope wasn’t nearly the success the NES Zapper was, VR versions of Yoshi’s Safari and Battle Clash from the SNES would also be great to play with the Blaster.
The Elephant Toy-Con is perhaps the strangest, and also the most technically advanced from a VR perspective. It’s an elephant mask with a two-section trunk. The left Joy-Con fits in the middle section of the trunk, while the right Joy-Con fits in the end of the trunk, pointing at the back and connecting to a handle. It’s a silly-looking device, but it does something ingenious: It provides a space-tracking, six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) control system in Labo VR. The right Joy-Con’s infrared camera tracks the position of reflective circles on the mask, while the motion sensors on both Joy-Cons triangulate with each other and the camera information to determine where the right Joy-Con is physically located in three-dimensional space. It’s a clever way to provide 6DOF control without any external sensors, similar to the FinchShift controls we saw at CES.
Labo VR has two main games for use with the Elephant. One is a three-dimensional painting program that lets you draw anywhere in 3D space. It’s similar to many VR painting and sculpting programs we’ve seen on VR systems with 6DOF controls, like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. You can use different colors and brush sizes to draw floating shapes, then surround them with different effects like fire, flowers, and various types of lighting. The handle of the trunk feels like a spraypaint can, with a trigger that freely draws in the air.
The other game mode is a three-dimensional marble puzzle, where you need to place different objects to guide a marble to a goal. I didn’t play this, but it similarly uses the Elephant handle to align and set obstacles and tools. In both cases, the 6DOF control, even for just one hand (two-handed 6DOF like on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift would require two pairs of Joy-Cons), feels accurate and intuitive.
A New, Game-Making Toy-Con Garage
Besides the Toy-Con-specific game modes, Labo VR has 64 different mini games that can work with Toy-Cons or just the VR viewer with Joy-Cons attached to the sides of the Switch. These are much simpler games than the more elaborate experiences the different Toy-Cons can provide, like a basic platformer where you avoid red blocks, or a pinball game where the ZL and ZR buttons control the flippers. However, they hint at the most complicated and promising part of the software.
Toy-Con Garage is getting a massive overhaul for Labo VR. While the programming interface in the previous Labo versions was simply a method to devise interactive experiences with your own cardboard Toy-Cons by programming how they behave based on certain actions, the Toy-Con Garage in Labo VR is a full game development space.
Instead of simply making the touch screen and Joy-Cons fly up and vibrate, you can now place objects in 3D space inside the software, and program how they behave. Every object can have its own attributes, like a controllable doll you can move with the left analog stick, or a glowing block that destroys that doll and resets its position, or a flipper that jumps up when you pull a trigger.
That’s where the true potential of the 64 mini games in Labo VR can be seen. Each of those games was made in Toy-Con Garage, and you can open them up yourself to see how they work. It doesn’t just give you a blank slate to make your games, it lets you look under the hood of the simpler games already there to show you exactly what’s going on. It’s a remarkably promising concept.
Unfortunately, like previous Labo versions, Labo VR won’t have an online component, and you won’t be able to share your Toy-Con Garage creations or download games from others to play with. It’s a missed opportunity in what looks to be an otherwise brilliant system.
Loads of Labo Potential
The Nintendo Labo VR Kit appears to be an impressive way to bring VR to Nintendo. It’s more Google Cardboard than Virtual Boy, and we’re excited to see how it turns out.
Labo VR ships April 12 and will be available in a full Nintendo Labo VR Kit for $ 79.99 with all of the cardboard Toy-Cons described above, or as a $ 39.99 Labo VR Kit Starter Set + Blaster that includes just the VR viewer and Blaster, with two optional $ 19.99 Labo VR Expansion Sets with the Elephant and Camera Toy-Cons (Expansion Set 1) or the Bird and Wind Pedal Toy-Cons (Expansion Set 2). Check back soon for a full review of the entire system.
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