Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Nintendo Labo VR is not trying to emulate a high-end virtual reality experience. It’s not a replacement for a $1000 gaming rig and $500 headset. It’s not coming close to seamlessly tracking your position in a 3D space, and it’s not looking to wow you with stunning visuals. Yet, despite its simplistic mechanics and lo-fi aesthetic, Nintendo Labo VR is easily one of the best VR experiences on the market, not to mention one of the most interesting products Nintendo has put out in years.
For those who aren’t familiar with Nintendo’s line of build-it-yourself line of gadgets, here’s a quick rundown. Regardless of which Labo kit you buy (the Variety, Robot, and Vehicle kits released last year), your first goal is to assemble rudimentary devices (called Toy-Con) out of cardboard, which can then be used in a variety of included mini-games. For Labo VR, the main kit comes with five Toy-Con: a blaster, a bird, a camera, an elephant, and a space viewer. If you want to dip your toes in the water, Nintneod is selling a starter kit (with just the blaster), allowing players to pick up the remaining four Toy-Con down the line. Frankly, this is a smart move. While I myself am fully onboard with Nintendo’s take on cardboard-based gadgets, those who aren’t fully convinced will be able to pick up the starter kit for half the price of the full set.
If you’re worried about putting together and assembling the Toy-Con, don’t be. The included build videos do an excellent job of guiding you through which pieces of cardboard to use, and everything is presented in a clear, straightforward manner. Players can rewind, fast forward, pause, zoom in/out, and even rotate the tutorial videos with ease, and each one comes with on-screen text instructions, complete with jokes and puns that are right on par with your plucky cousin or aunt — you know, the one who is really into arts and crafts.
Once you’ve gone through six to 10 hours of creasing folds, carefully applying reflective stickers, and inserting tabs into slots (the latter of which never gets old or any less satisfying), you’ll have a handful of sturdy and incredibly well-designed Toy-Con. Honestly, I can’t overstate just how impressively engineered these gadgets are. Other VR solutions require high-end (and often finicky) sensors, a mess of cables, recalibration procedures, the list goes on. Labo VR, on the other hand, makes use of your Joy-Con’s accelerometers and gyro sensors to translate simple motions into on-screen movement, and the right Joy-Con’s IR sensor is used in tandem with the aforementioned reflective stickers to great effect. Honestly, the only complaint I have about the Toy-Con is their physical footprint. Your cardboard creations can’t easily be broken down, so it’s best to think of a storage solution ahead of time.
Of course, there’s no getting around it — the Nintendo Switch itself is used as the screen for VR, and that means there are some limitations to deal with. While the included games and activities run at a high enough framerate, the 720p resolution doesn’t exactly make for the most crystal clear VR experience. That being said, Nintendo has built Labo VR with these limitations in mind. There’s no head strap to deal with — Labo VR was never intended for continuous hour-long play sessions, which also means that you won’t have to deal with constantly monitoring your Switch’s battery life. The on-screen text can be a bit blurry, but since players don’t have to fit the headset tightly around their face, you’ll be able to make micro-adjustments allow for slightly more clear visuals. If the tracking ever gets thrown off-center (which does happen when you’re passing the headset back and forth between friends), Labo VR will prompt you to re-calibrate. Thankfully, the system handles this on its own, as long as you lay it flat on a flat surface.
Of course, the real stars of the show are the Toy-Cons themselves, and the myriad of games that Nintendo has cooked up for each one. As a fan of shooter games, I was immediately drawn to the Toy-Con Blaster. As someone who’s used a handful of firearm peripherals in VR, I can safely say that the Blaster is one of my favorite implementations to date. Sleek plastic controllers and positional tracking are nice things to have, but it’s difficult to trump the Blaster’s tactile feedback, thanks to its pump-action shotgun reloading mechanic. Since all Labo VR games are seated experiences, the persistent aim down sights works rather well, and the Blaster is big enough to hold comfortably. Two players can’t use the headset simultaneously, there are a handful of games that allow for asynchronous multiplayer — one in particular tasks you with feeding hippos by launching fruit using the Blaster, with players competing for high scores.
While others might find the experience rather slow-paced, I thoroughly enjoyed the Toy-Con Camera and Viewfinder. These simple gadgets are, on paper, glorified 3D model/environment viewers — the Camera allows you to zoom in with a satisfying rotating lens — but the built-in games are a perfect way to introduce someone to virtual reality for the first time. The Ocean Camera mode puts players on the ocean floor, with plenty of fish to capture on camera. Optional challenges require you to seek out hidden items and creatures, and I can’t help but feel that Nintendo should really capitalize on the situation with a follow-up to Pokemon Snap.
The Toy-Con Elephant might be one of the more time-consuming builds, but the end result is more than worth it. The extendable and fully movable elephant trunk makes use of the right Joy-Con’s IR sensor to track depth and position in space, and in combination with the built-in Doodle tool, players have a bona fide (albeit simple) 3D modeling tool to play with. For those who are more interested in physics than art, Marble Drop comes packed with 100 built-in levels, tasking you with guiding a marble to the finish line by placing and manipulating trampolines, platforms, and gravity. The Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Bird can be used in tandem, though there are plenty of minigames which allow for them to be used separately. Hop Dodge lets you play as a leaping frog, with gusts of air from the Wind Pedal coinciding with in-game jumps. It’s an incredibly simple gimmick, but one that feels great to use in action.
Aside from the over 60 built-in VR Plaza games, savvy and creative gamers can take control of Toy-Con Garage VR, giving you the chance to build your own minigames with any of the included Toy-Con. The simple “if this, then that” wireframe programming interface is simple enough for complete novices, and each included VR Plaza minigame can be edited and built off of as a starting point. Unfortunately, there’s still no online portal or QR code system to share your creations (or download other players’ games) so your penchant for DIY VR games will live and die by your own interest and abilities.
Still, even though I dread having to (safely and carefully) pack up all these Toy-Con for my move to a new city, I can’t help but be thoroughly impressed with what Nintendo has accomplished. While it might lack the razzmatazz and appeal of more complex (and expensive) VR platforms, Nintendo Labo VR is one of the most creative and delightful virtual reality platforms on the market and is easily the best Labo kit so far. It’s hard to tell what the future of Nintendo’s cardboard-based toys to life concept will bring us, but I sure hope there’s more VR on the horizon.
This review is based on the full Labo VR Kit. A retail copy was provided by Nintendo.
Don't be fooled by its simplistic tech. Nintendo Labo VR is one of the most enjoyable and creative virtual reality experiences out there, and an absolute delight to play.