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 it’ll take you somewhere close to an hour to put them together. As with all Toy-Cons there’s 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, there’s 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 there’s nothing stopping you from adding one yourself. But Labo VR is designed with the idea that you’ll never be using it for extended periods of time and all the games limit your play time to a maximum of 10 minutes (so it’s 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 they’re usually nothing more than largely empty rooms with a few interactive objects the VR effect is immediately impressive. It shouldn’t be, given the Switch’s 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 can’t make out what’s going on or still be impressed by the sense of immersion.
Before you dismiss the VR Plaza games though it’s worth bearing in mind that while they’re 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-Con’s 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. We’re sure it won’t be long at all until someone has made a relatively complex first person game and no doubt many other creations we’re too unimaginative to predict.
The VR Goggles and their software are impressive all on their own, but they’re 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 it’s 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) it’s a very similar pleasure, as you marvel at the ingenuity of the construction and the revelation of what the piece you’ve 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 you’ve finally finished you discover the Blaster’s 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.
There’s 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.
There’s 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. It’s the enjoyment of making the Toy-Cons and understanding how they work, mechanically and in terms of the software, that’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t mind admitting we tried to move out of their way almost every time. Especially when it was a shark.
There’s 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 it’s 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 you’ve 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 Elephant’s games don’t 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.
The important thing is the light sensitive stickers on the ‘face’ and the fact that the trunk/neck is jointed and can be moved around in 3D (thanks, again, to the magic of rubber bands). With two separate Joy-Cons placed in the trunk this creates a surprisingly precise 3D controller. It can slowly lose track of which way is forward, which takes only a second to reset, but in terms of precise manipulation of in-game objects it’s far better than the aging PlayStation Move controllers.
The Marble Run game that comes with Elephant is arguably the most complex of any of the VR titles and is a surprisingly lengthy and involved puzzle game. The idea is to get a marble through a number hoops by moving and manipulating all manner of increasingly complex parts, from chutes and trampolines to conveyor belt-style contraptions. A new concept is added in after each round of puzzles and each time that happens the gameplay element is also added to a level editor where you can create your own puzzles using the Elephant.
The other way to use the Elephant (apart from the handful of extra VR Plaza games that get added for every Toy-Con) is a 3D paint package where you’re working with what looks like coloured insulation foam. As a 3D version of MS Paint it’s good clean fun, but the most impressive thing is simply how precise the controls are, including selecting all the different tools.
Probably the most fun Toy-Con to actually make, this is exactly what it appears to be: a big cardboard bird with flapping wings, with a Joy-Con for a beak. Insert the VR Goggles into its back-end and you can play what could generously be described as a slower, less involved version of Pilotwings.
That would be very generous though as all you’re really doing is flying around picking up food to hatch eggs, and to be honest it’s all a bit slow and boring. The 3D world is quite large though and if you’re new to VR it can still be quite mesmerising.
The most interesting thing about it for us though was how it uses so many different control elements. To fly you literally flap the wings, using little cardboard grips, while tilting your head to turn or aim up and down. But there’s a little extra pinwheel Toy-Con which you can attach and blow on to shoot out a gust of air and encourage other birds to pick up food for you. Plus, if you’ve got enough Joy-Cons to go around, you can use the Wind Pedal to go faster or swim on the water.
The tech is impressive but the game is a bit of bore, although the separate Bird Dash is more fun as it’s a series of point-to-point races around the same world. It can be surprisingly tough too, perhaps to make up for the lack of challenge in the main mode.
The final Toy-Con is one of the most bizarre. It’s basically just an acceleration pedal, but there’s a big flap of cardboard attached to it so that when you use it you get a gust of air – something a theme park ride would no doubt describe as 4D. The Labo software is actually keen to point out that VR doesn’t just mean the goggles themselves but anything that helps to increase the sense of immersion and realism in a game.
The problem with the Wind Pedal though is that its game is very simplistic and all it involves is playing as a frog jumping on the spot, trying to avoid footballs. The better you do the higher and higher he gets, until you’re looking down almost from space. But the game is so basic it’s not very compelling and to be honest the pedal is better used in the Bird games.
That means if you were looking to limit your spend then leaving out the second Expansion Set is the most obvious way to go. But as an overall package we still think the all-in-one set provides excellent value for money. What it says about Nintendo’s future plans for VR, from a technical point of view, we couldn’t say but what it does suggest is that whatever else they do in regards to VR it will be just as unpredictable and imaginative as you’d expect.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £69.99 (all-in-one set), £34.99 (Starter Set), £16.99 each (Expansion Set 1 and 2)
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 12th April 2019
Age Rating: 7
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