Virtual Reality has come a long, long way since Nintendo’s first forays into head mounting displays for 3D gaming in the mid-90s. Nothing good came of the Virtual Boy, except for a realisation that the technology simply wasn’t ready yet, let alone the ability and understanding of developers to overcome its limitations. Nearly 25 years later and we can see VR as a much more established and coherent experience, regardless of the hardware that you decide to pick up, but as Nintendo dip a toe back in with Nintendo Labo VR Kit, it’s clear that they are still very much experimenting with what it can offer.
They’re not really competing with the likes of Sony, Oculus and Valve here, with Labo’s entire existence built around the notion of engaging children with the construction of Toy-Con, giving them some short to medium length games to play, and then revealing to them the true ingenuity of what they’ve helped to create through the Labo Garage. They’re as much educational tools as they are toys or games.
Even so, it’s disappointing to realise and accept that Labo VR can’t be much more than that – a fact made abundantly clear after The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey were both updated with VR support at the end of last week. Simply put, these are on the level of the early VR experiments that we saw as support for the technology was retrofitted into other games for the first VR dev kits, and while they work, they’re not really something you’ll engage with for particularly long.
The two updates take two very different approaches: Breath of the Wild simply lets you play the entire game with a 3D third person camera and a hint of motion control, while Super Mario Odyssey has a bespoke mode devoted to it. Odyssey’s approach works so much better for a variety of reasons, but even there feels quite limiting.
Here you’re dropped into three of the Kingdoms present in the main game and get to run around collecting the usual things Mario collects – coins, music notes, that kind of thing. The thing that holds you back is that you’re locked to a fixed point and are only able to look around you; it’s like VR video content, but in video game form. Because of that you only have a single small part of the level to run around in and it’s all over and done with in short order.
On a technical level, it works rather well thanks to Odyssey’s rock steady 60fps performance, but being fixed in place comes with a few side effects. For one thing, Mario can run off into the distance until he’s a tiny speck, and that forces you to focus at a range where you can very easily resolve the pixels on the Switch’s large 720p screen – just as with Labo VR itself, you can play this mode without VR at all, and it just looks and feels so much sharper if you do so.
At the same time, Nintendo have placed you in such a way that you have to look down and around yourself, making it awkward when you’re sat on a sofa and have turn to look behind you for more than a brief moment. The only real way it tries to accommodate you is with the ability to recenter the camera on Mario, helping you out when the motion sensors drift.
Breath of the Wild’s update is almost the exact opposite, giving you the full game to play in VR without restriction. It sounds great, and it is impressively ambitious for Nintendo to add VR in this manner, but in truth it’s lacking. You’re essentially just playing the game with a 3D effect and some basic motion controls to tilt the camera around Link – turn your head left, the camera moves to the right, look up and the camera moves down. Motion aiming can be used at the same time, but there’s just this slightly jarring disconnect for me in how that feels.
The user interface also hasn’t been updated to suit VR. Instead of pulling the FOV outward or bringing the UI elements closer to the centre of the screen, they’re still glued to what would be the corners of the screen outside of VR, making it difficult to see how many hearts you have or your stamina, amongst other thing. Dip into a menu and it’s simply projected as a 16:9 rectangle in front of you.
The bigger problem is performance because, unlike Mario, Zelda runs at 30fps… at best. Head to Korok forest and you’ll still have performance that judders, making it a blessing in disguise that you can simply bring your hands down and remove the headset. That is so far from ideal when it comes to VR, especially when also then facing up to the 720p screen on the Switch, of which only a fraction is actually being used because of its size and distance from the Labo VR lenses.
Remove the VR Toy-Con from the equation and you’re left with something that’s pretty rudimentary at best. The biggest obstacle to meaningful VR gaming on Switch isn’t so much the power of the handheld and the blurriness and low resolution effect that it ends up producing, but rather that you have to hold it up to your face. It’s all a compromise, of course, because the low quality, low frame rate VR is a recipe for nausea, which is why Nintendo remind you incessantly that you ought to take a break and why they don’t strap it to your face. So for anything without a Toy-Con, you’re left awkwardly holding the unit up to your head, not quite having the best grip on the two Joy-Con as you play and having to deal with the gradual build up of fatigue in your arms.
While these two updates are both flawed in different ways, I do really hope that Nintendo continue to experiment with their makeshift VR platform. It might be something as simple as adding VR support to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s replay viewer, or letting us take 3D screenshots, and while not mind-blowing, they could show the company’s intent. It might be years before Nintendo step up to challenge for more mainstream VR efforts, but if and when they do, these small steps with Switch and Labo VR will have helped show them the way.