With Nintendo’s most recent release in its LABO range of innovative self-build peripherals-and-games packages, the main draw for many is seeing how Nintendo handle their latest sideways step into the VR space. Earlier experiments like 1995’s Virtual Boyand their partnership with Namco for 2017’s Mario Kart VRarcade cabinet have enticing glimpses of what Nintendo could do if they turned their focus to Virtual Reality in a bigger consumer release.
Any kind of convincing VR seemed off the cards for the modestly-specced Nintendo Switch home console. But then last August, modders stumbled onto a ‘VR screen mode’ embedded in the system software. And when Nintendo subsequently announced LABO set 4 would be the ‘VR Kit’, just four weeks ahead of it hitting store shelves, the response across news sites and forums was fascinating. Nintendo fans didn’t know whether to be delighted or dismayed. Considering the Switch runs a built-in 720p screen (a resolution that falls notably short of DK1 or Google Cardboard), how could the humble handheld configuration of the device possibly provide two-eyes-worth of comfortable VR? Could it possibly pull off the unthinkable, to immerse Switch owners in that trademark Nintendo Magic in Virtual Reality?
In the name of science (of course) I pre-ordered on day one; there was a mix of faith in Nintendo and fear that this might end up as a train wreck. From a technical point of view this was unlikely to give a comfortable experience – the price point and reach within the userbase could see a lot of new VR users taking their first taste of VR from a poisoned well. On the other hand, it was sure to be a fascinating trip, and I couldn’t wait to see where Nintendo took us and where it all ended up.
The results are both as great as you could hope for – clever, charming, delightfully immersive and cleverly comfortable thanks to the Toy-Con cardboard peripherals – but also as disappointing as you might have feared – simple minigames and short-form gameplay, with the VR system proving uncomfortable for extended use.
Sadly, the shortcomings become most clearly obvious with the VR Kit’s showpiece compatibility with Nintendo’s two biggest selling franchise entries – Super Mario Odysseyand Zelda : Breath of the Wild.Experiencing these games in VR is the big-ticket draw here – but sadly neither offers a great experience. Played with joy-con sticks and buttons sticking out the sides of the headset is already an uncomfortable compromise, but both titles suffer from other challenges.
Mario’s gameplay has been changed to fixed viewpoints and postcard-sized samplers of a few levels – a fixed camera is more comfortable than a scrolling one would be, but the low resolution means Mario doesn’t have to walk far to become an impressionistic blob of pixels, so the core gameplay gets quite compromised as a result. At least it runs at a steady 60fps, so comfort is fine, except for all the squinting and an over-reliance on a zoomed ‘binoculars’ mode that can eat away at the user’s comfort level over time. Content-wise, though, this feels like sample content at best. It’s Mario in VR, but it’s not really Mario in VR enough.
Zelda’s implementation is about as basic as you would fear – the update pretty much turns on a dual-rendering VR mode and lets the game take the hit in terms of draw distance and frame rate. Breath of the Wild has always had a soft-locked frame rate hovering around 30fps; in VR this can dip as low as 15fps and view distances and textures have been restricted as well. The full game can theoretically be played in VR, but it’s hard being able to imagine anyone wanting to stick this out for more than a few minutes. This might be a terrible, damaging first-touch experience for some VR users; the plus point here is that LABO users who have the VR kit to use this will already have a strong counterpoint to what VR could be like on Switch. The LABO VR Kit itself is exemplary in many ways.
What Nintendo have achieved in the core VR Kit itself, using some sheets of cardboard and amazing design ingenuity to counter and parry all the technical challenges their VR solution faces is, perhaps, a very relevant and contemporary lesson for the industry. With the humblest of tools Nintendo put on a very impressive showcase of what VR can achieve. Robbed of high-spec graphics and binaural spatial sound, Nintendo have smartly subbed in plenty of clever creative twists with the peripherals the player is asked to build and applied a generous dose of their customary game-design magic to take this VR experience in many unusual and unexplored directions. Seasoned VR Veterans value unique and fresh immersive experiences more highly than anything. Seeing something new in VR is still as powerful as always. It was personally delightful to find that Nintendo could make a box of cardboard cut-outs and rubber bands over-deliverin terms of immersing and engaging the player, while demonstrating a sound understanding of how to mitigate against the inherent comfort challenges they were facing through smart physical and digital design. The Cardboard peripherals are a clever, cost-effective answer to both these challenges, and that users get to self-build them and understand the science behind them makes them cleverly self-manageable for the user and only adds to the player’s willingness to engage and explore.
What became quickly obvious with the LABO VR Kit itself is that, counter to Zelda and Mario’s blunders in coming to VR, Nintendo have not only been paying attention to all the current learnings around VR comfort and creating an immersive user experience, but they’ve got hugely creative approaches to the limitations of the medium. Not just in terms of working with a limited tech-spec, but more importantly in working with the interface, and with player expectations. And as you’ll probably know if you know me at all, I firmly believe that expectations are the most important element of any user experience.
LABO VR can put a smile on your face because it knows that when you’re twizzling a cardboard camera lens or flapping the wings of a cardboard duck held up to your face, it’s only what that adds to the experience within the virtual world that’s important. It’s so chock-full of little cool things you’ve never done before in VR (and mostly things you’ve never even thoughtof doing in VR before) that it feels almost stupidly generous to put them all in one package like this, with peripherals to boot, for a price point lower than some modern games. Just when you think it’s done, it nudges your kid towards a ‘garage’ mode that’s a super-smart first step into coding and building their own games in VR. And of course it puts a smile on many faces that we have an answer to that question of what Nintendo could do with Virtual Reality. They can make it magical and unexpected all over again, and do it using the most basic of tools.
Nintendo’s sideways step into VR for Switch might have tripped clumsily over its Mario- and Zelda-branded shoelaces straight out of the gate, but now we’re left looking at this newest, most unexpected entry into the VR space and wondering in what unexpected direction their next step will take them.