Above all of Nintendo Labo VR’s other shortcomings, arguably the biggest one is its lack of “Nintendo magic.”
Virtual reality has already emerged as a multi-million-selling gaming genre, complete with beautiful, immersive and unique experiences that range from gigantic HTC Vive rooms to cramped PlayStation VR stations. When Nintendo enters a new control paradigm, it usually outshines the recent competition with a hardware innovation, a reveal in game design, or a brilliant combination of the two.
But Nintendo Labo VR, the company’s first serious VR product, is paralyzed by the nagging sense that the “VR-on-Switch” solution is actually getting in the way of the fun. The players are constantly encouraged to from of VR, whether it’s long cardboard build times, tiny VR experiences, or the massive load of a 720p Switch screen filtered through a pair of glass lenses.
The result is a usable take on VR, and I don’t blame any Switch fan for seeing and biting the $40 starting price. That’s as cheap a jaunt into “legitimate” VR as you’ll find (assuming you’ve already got $300 worth of fun out of a Nintendo Switch in non-VR ways). But that’s not a big caveat to hit on a Nintendo experience. Labo VR is a rare case of the big N actively fighting and losing to its own hardware when delivering anything close to magical.
Labo VR revolves around a simple headset made of cardboard and plastic, the size of an adult shoe. This box, which takes about 40 minutes to build from folded cardboard, accepts a Nintendo Switch console in a long, thin slot. (We’ve written about Labo’s basic concept of building your own controllers before, and this is Nintendo’s fourth attempt at the cardboard concept. If you’re unfamiliar, read my review of the 2018 Labo Robot Kit.)
As a switch runs Labo VR’s software, the light sensor can recognize that the hardware is smoothly inserted into a cardboard box (flanked with “soft” strips of tape), after which the 720p screen starts spinning in “VR mode” – which means that a rectangular image is now split into two ovals. (If it doesn’t switch automatically, you can tap a “two ovals” logo on the screen with your finger.)
These images are translated through a pair of glass lenses and the resulting experience is a lot like Google Cardboard. Hold the box against your face with a starting weight of 423 g/14.9 oz, press the plastic face against your nose and move your head around – although you should only do this in a stationary or rotating chair. As a VR system with three degrees of freedom (3DOF), Labo VR accurately translates the rotation of your head to make it seem like you’re doing the same thing in a virtual world, with two moving, stereoscopic images that allow you to sense depth. But this illusion will break if you stand up or step in a certain direction. Your virtual self is effectively stuck on a tripod.
Unlike Google Cardboard or Samsung GearVR, however, Labo VR’s lenses interpret a different set of pixels. Go all the way back to 2015, say, to GearVR’s first formal consumer launch, and you’ll find that the “minimal” phone was the Samsung Galaxy S5, equipped with a 5.1″ (129.5mm) “Super AMOLED” – display with a resolution of 2560 × 1440 pixels.The Nintendo Switch, on the other hand, stretches fewer pixels (1280 × 720) over a larger 6.2″ (157.5 mm) LCD screen.
The worthlessness of the Switch as a VR screen is therefore not only due to the pixel resolution. OLED panels have long been favored by VR headset makers, due to their “true” blacks, which are easier to see in a VR headset. Many of these OLED panels may have “low persistence” modes enabled, which reduces obvious blurring effects. However, the Switch’s LCD panel doesn’t have “quick-switching” capabilities to help with its obvious, annoying blur. Worse, because the Switch’s panel is so large, the effective VR display — those ovals — has to be smaller to translate into glass panels that are the right shape and size for the human eye.
That last issue becomes most apparent when tricking a Nintendo Switch into running in “2D” mode while plugged into the Labo VR headset. You’ll get dizzy almost immediately if you look at this with both eyes open, but if you close one eye and try this out, you’ll immediately notice a lot more pixel fidelity being fed into each eye. All that is to say: a 720p panel is weak enough for VR, but the Switch effectively runs on a lower resolution than that to run Labo VR.
Far from Wii Sports
Most of Labo VR’s experiences are designed to get around the blur issues, meaning they’re short, they’re slow, and they’re constantly trying to take players out of the fun.
Building just that standard headset will give you access to 32 VR minigames. Less than half of these do anything meaningful with your VR perspective. Some revolve around a Mario-esque avatar that you control with Joy-Cons (attached to the Labo VR headset, as you have to hold the whole thing with two hands). You run and jump while controlling a frozen camera with your head’s perspective, but only a few of these challenges offer a meaningful reason to look around – mostly to find and activate items and platforms in your hidden visual periphery.
Other ‘sports’ minigames do the same thing with a frozen perspective, only to add a single floating hand to the formula – you only hold the headset with one hand, then use your other to launch a Joy-Con as if it were a real hand-tracked controller. Spoiler: It’s not. By default, a standard Joy-Con only works in 3DOF detection mode, and that weakness becomes apparent when these games ask you to mimic a golf putter, basketball shot, or boomerang throw. The mix of the inaccuracy of these moves and a clunky one-handed headset grip make these minigames downright criminal for Nintendo (especially for the company that practically invented motion-controlled sports games).
The exceptions in this “basic” minigame section are a solid pinball machine, a soccer version of 3D Pong, and a soccer goalkeeper challenge. But all of these challenges are terribly short, and if you beat them all, they reset so you have to play the same short challenge over and over. These highlights would have benefited from arcade-style remixes with each completion.