As with so many emergent technologies, it’s rare that their creator absolutely nails all of its uses and possibilities right off the bat. Nintendo history of striking gold with their more outlandish ideas is better than most, but even they sometimes struggle to sell their full vision from the start. Nintendo Labo is one of those ideas. Initially a grab bag of demos and funky ideas, successive Toy-Con bundles and kits have shown a growing maturity to Nintendo’s new cardboard platform, and VR Kit is more than just a collection of bizarre things to shove your face into.
OK, so it is still a collection of bizarre things to shove your face into, and it often feels a bit light and like tech demos, as with the Variety Kit, but there’s still a real and satisfying ingenuity to the games and experiences. Everything hinges on the VR goggles that the Switch slips into, the console switching into a VR mode that splits its screen between your two eyes. What’s surprising is that, while the resolution is obviously much, much lower than ideal, it doesn’t struggle to convince. Give it a few moments and the jaggies stop really mattering as you let yourself be absorbed in the quirky games that it offers.
The Starter Kit features the bare goggles and the Blaster Toy-Con, and honestly, it’s simply incredible that Nintendo have created something that feels so damn good to use out of cardboard, a few plastic hinges and elastic bands. While I’ve never touched a shotgun in my life and have absolutely no intention of doing so, pulling back the pump-action loader ends with a satisfying clunk inside the barrel, and a thumb trigger then fires it forward. Open up a little window in the side of the barrel and you can watch the mechanism engage, the cardboard hooking onto itself, until you release and let the elastic bands do their work.
Naturally you have to built all this first, and VR Kit retains the excellent interactive instructions on Switch, taking you step by step through the process with some light touches of humour. It takes quite a long time just to make the main VR goggles, and the complexity of the other Toy-Con are listed as projects for up to two hours. The end products are surprisingly solid, with the folded, layered cardboard shapes having a good structure to them, but I do still worry about their durability,
You slot the VR goggles into the end of it, securing in neatly in place with a protective cardboard shield, and then hold it to your face to play the handful of games for the Blaster. It works naturally for an on-the-rails shooter, where you fire arcing projectiles at invading aliens, can target guided missiles and, tilting the other Joy-Con that’s attached on the side, can enter a slow-mo mode and fire off a battery of missiles. There’s multiple levels and stages to play through, bosses with nicely highlighted weak spots to fire at, and so on.
But there’s other games to play with this particular Toy-Con, like Kablasta, a pass-and-play multiplayer game where you find the right fruit to fire at hippos in order to tempt them to your zone. The same is true of all the other Toy-Con that come separately or in the collected kit. The camera lets you take photos of the furry little monster that inhabited the house from the first Labo Variety Kit or go deep sea diving and try to pap different rare and interesting fish, there’s an open world to fly around as a bird with the bird Joy-Con, collecting items for birds that hatch from eggs and taking on Pilotwings style time trials. There’s the bird controller that you hold to your face, flapping its wings and optionally using a foot-powered Wind Pedal that gusts air toward you in a way that will come in very useful in the summer. They’re not the most extensive of games, but ably demonstrate the ingenuity of the system.
The great thing is that you don’t need to play any of this in VR, thanks to a lens-free holster. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, when the best VR games are created as bespoke experiences, it’s a necessary element for something that has been designed with children so clearly in mind. This is the first gaming VR system intended for children under 12, but the guidelines for parents still say that VR and 3D are not suitable for the developing eyesight of children under the age of 7.
That’s one side of it, but the other is simply that it’s really quite tiring to hold all of this up all the time. I was always picking up the game and looking downward in the first hour of playing with all these Toy-Con, and then having to adjust my posture to look forward and up – there’s a lot of vertical looking to the Blaster games, for example. Being able to hold and play in 2D will surely be a blessing after a while.
The games created by Nintendo themselves for Labo are obviously a big part of the appeal here, but another side is the Labo Garage, which for VR Kit has advanced a huge amount to let you actually create things more like actual games within it. A new 3D editing view allows you to head in and place objects in 3D space, switching seamlessly to the wireframe 2D command, action and control options that will be familiar for those who played with Labo before, and this can be previewed live at the tap of a button. These games can be VR, they can be 3D, they can single player or multiplayer, they can use Toy-Con or avoid them, they can be created from scratch or built upon the 64 VR Plaza examples that Nintendo have provided as building blocks.
While they’re hardly the first to do such things, it’s fascinating to see Nintendo increasingly putting the tools of creation in the hands of players. Though there’s the sheer madness that is Super Mario Maker, Labo is much more of an educational tool for children, and Labo as a whole is really all about creating, playing, experimenting and learning from it. The single thing that typifies this the most is the Blaster Toy-Con. Even once it’s completely built, there’s a little hatch on the side that you can open, letting you peer inside to see how the internal mechanism of the pump-action works. Just because you’re playing doesn’t mean you can’t learn something too.