Labo VR: Nintendo’s cardboard attempt at VR is surprising and disappointing alike
When Nintendo revealed their Labo cardboard toys for the Switch, many shook their heads at a loss, while others praised this creative spirit. When it came out, many were happily surprised. The kits are a lot of fun to assemble, but they offer little replay value. The fact that Nintendo is offering a VR set for this brand specifically shouldn’t surprise anyone. What surprised me, however, was that the Japanese giants obviously hadn’t learned anything from the Virtual Boy debacle. Because in 1995, Nintendo already had VR goggles. They were such a flop that the entire project was scrapped after just a year. From an ecological recycling-based point of view, Labo is headed for the bin. In reality, however, Labo’s fate isn’t so dire.
A surprisingly fun first impression
The scepticism directed at Labo VR isn’t unfounded. The Switch has a 1280 × 720 pixel display. Any budget smartphone has a higher resolution. This only becomes a problem when the Switch display is used for VR: here, two images must be displayed at the same time. In this mode, the Switch only delivers a 640 × 720 pixel image per eye. The last time I played with resolutions this low was 20 years ago on my Nintendo 64. There's another hurdle. VR requires a lot of power. Frame rates between 90 and 120 Hertz are also recommended. The Switch only manages 60.
With these anchors, I settled down for my first few mini-games. The large Toy-Con set includes four handicraft kits in addition to the VR goggles themselves. An elephant, a camera, a bird with a wind pedal and a blaster. The starter set contains only VR goggles and the blaster. The assembly is still the best part. The interactive manual is simply ingenious and extremely intuitive. The mini-games, which can be played with their respective constructions, are very entertaining, as proven in earlier sets. Their fun, but you’ve seen it all after you’ve played them once or twice.
However, the VR experience is convincing. The simple graphic style and the quiet gameplay ensured I never got sick. Still, I was able to detect every little smudge and stain on my Switch very accurately.
One problem is the weight of the Switch. For every game, you put it into the VR attachment and then into one of the four kits. In order to play, you have to hold the whole contraption in front of your face. No headband, nothing. If even I get heavy arms after a few minutes, kids must be going through torture after a while. Unless they're BamBam from the Flintstones. The user experience strongly reminds me of the Virtual Boy. The headset on that monstrosity was also way too heavy. So heavy in fact, that it had support legs so you could place it on a table.
Zelda and Mario: nothing to see here – except for pixels.
There’s another aspect that reminds me of the Virtual Boy. The picture quality in the VR modes for Super Mario Odyssey or Zelda Breath of the Wild. Don't worry, the games are in colour and not a hellish laser-pointer crimson. Still, that’s only a small improvement.
Both games have been adapted for Labo VR with free updates, and «Super Mario Odyssey» received additional mini-games where you have to find missing instruments. You control the camera with your head and the controllers mounted on the Labo VR glasses control Mario. It’s just as uncomfortable as you’re imagining it. What’s more, the game looks terribly pixelated in VR. And unlike «Astro Bot» for PSVR, a prime example on how 3D jump 'n' run games can work in VR, «Super Mario Odyssey» offers no added value.
«Zelda Breath of the Wild» doesn't deliver any mini-games, but it can be played completely in VR. But believe me, you don't want to do that. On the one hand, the resolution is still absolute garbage. Our colleagues over at [Digital Foundry] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfU0DyhiyP4) measured 480p in the middle of the screen. Link’s face is so crushed, he looks like he never made it through the final boss fight with Ganon. The framerate plummets to 20 fps every so often. In addition, there’s no real head tracking. If you, like me, played without motion sensors, nothing would happen when you moved your head. It does mean one thing will happen: you’ll be sick. The worst thing about VR is the dissonance between your movements and what’s happening in-game. If you activate motion control to aim, it won't get any better. Your head movements do control the camera, but not in the way you think. It doesn't rotate with you. Instead it floats up and down, making you feel even worse.
So all that motion crap does more harm than good. Either way, VR mode doesn't do much. Zelda does look a bit more real, but the washed-out look and the bad framerate absolutely ruin your experience. On top of that, I didn't feel like holding that heavy cardboard contraption in front of my face after only five minutes. A bad sign for an 80-hour game.
My verdict: Better and worse than expected
Labo VR has several factors. On the one hand there is the proven and ingenious handicraft experience. It’s great fun, assembling those unusual constructions. The corresponding mini-games are also entertaining and work surprisingly well in VR. In this aspect, Nintendo punishes all premature critics who were convinced that VR would fail on the Switch.
However, as soon as you start «Super Mario Odyssey» and especially «Zelda Breath of the Wild», everything changes. Both titles look like they're running on a 20-year-old tube screen. And while «Super Mario Odyssey» still delivers a few half-baked mini-games, «Zelda Breath of the Wild» is unplayable in every respect. The resolution and frame rate are terrible and without headtracking you won't get a real VR experience. Simply unacceptable, Nintendo.
I advise you to stick to the games included in the set and the fun assembling process. Because that is and will remain the highlight of Labo.