Considered Nintendo’s biggest failure and the butt of endless jokes, the Virtual Boy delivered an embarrassingly limited virtual reality experience when it debuted in 1995. But the console’s quick death didn’t discourage Nintendo from taking risks, and 24 years later its second attempt at virtual reality leverages the Switch hardware to deliver a series of experimental games that let you dabble with an impressively capable VR experience for as little as £35.
Nintendo Labo: VR Kit
WHAT IS IT? DIY cardboard upgrades that turn your Nintendo Switch into several fun VR experiences.
PRICE: £35 to £70, plus the cost of a Nintendo Switch.
LIKE: A fun way to try VR without spending a small fortune.
DISLIKE: It's not immune to the side effects of cheap VR like dizziness and nausea.
I might be one of a few people who didn’t actually hate the Virtual Boy. Yes, the blood-red monochrome graphics took some getting used to, but the 3D experience was solid, and at a time when no one else was doing 3D gaming. It also probably didn’t hurt that I picked up my Virtual Boy from a discount bin for just £15, including a handful of games.
It might not be a direct result of the lessons Nintendo learned from the Virtual Boy’s failure, but starting with a £35 price tag makes the company’s second shot at VR gaming a Switch upgrade worth trying.
As with the previous Labo kits, the new VR version leverages your existing gaming hardware using cheap(ish) cardboard accessories to introduce new gameplay experiences. The VR games and worlds included with the Labo: VR Kit are incredibly well-executed and genuinely enjoyable, which isn’t surprising given Nintendo’s pedigree. They’re bite-size virtual reality experiences that don’t require much investment – as long as you’re not counting the many hours required to build all the cardboard Toy-Cons.
A deceivingly sleek box opens to reveal sheets and sheets of cardboard ready to be punched out and assembled. Keep a recycling bin close by as you’ll quickly be drowning in tiny bits of discarded paper.
The in-game build instructions are excruciatingly thorough, even letting you rotate and study the Toy-Cons mid-assembly as you work through each step.
One of the few complaints I had with the original Labo series was the tediousness of building of all the cardboard components. As with IKEA’s furniture, Nintendo offloads the assembly labour to the consumer so while you’re saving money, you’re not saving time. Nothing has changed when it comes to building the new Labo: VR Kit Toy-Cons, and that’s unfortunate because the time-consuming process quickly gets repetitive and tedious. The in-game building instructions are easy enough to follow – it’s almost impossible to make a mistake – but Nintendo needs to include options to accommodate experienced builders who don’t want to sit through every last animation. Even the ability to just work through the build instructions at twice the speed (without any special gestures) would be very much welcome at this point.
Each of the Toy-Cons rely on these cardboard VR Goggles which hold the Switch in a cardboard sleeve behind a pair of large plastic lenses.
The location of the actual lenses (behind that grey dot) makes it tricky to clean off dust or dirt on the inside. You’ll have to almost completely disassemble the VR Goggles occasionally to give them a good cleaning.
Each Toy-Con has a slot and pivoting cardboard flap that holds the VR Goggles (and your Switch) securely while you’re playing.
Some of the Toy-Con builds are more complicated than others. The Blaster features a working ‘cock to fire’ mechanism and trigger, and will take you well over an hour to put together. I don’t recommend trying to build all of them in one night.
The Toy-Cons rely on the Switch’s Joy-Cons for detecting motions or button presses while you play, and most of the time they easily slot into cardboard sleeves allowing them to be quickly swapped between accessories.
A couple of the Toy-Cons (the Bird and the Elephant) require some minor disassembly when inserting or removing the Joy-Cons.
The complexity of the builds remains more or less the same as the last few rounds of Labo kits, with the exception of the new Toy-Con Blaster which features a sliding loading mechanism and a working trigger release – it’s a genuine marvel of cardboard engineering! What’s different this time around is that all of the accessories rely on a set of Labo VR Goggles featuring a pair of large plastic lenses. It’s essentially the same approach as Google Cardboard and other disposable VR viewers use, but it feels slightly more immersive as the Switch’s large screen fills your field of view better than a smartphone can.
The Toy-Con Blaster is the heftiest Labo accessory to date.
There’s no head strap, which means you’ll need to hold the Toy-Cons up to your face the entire time while playing. The cardboard is light enough on its own, but with the Switch inserted, and Joy-Cons attached, it won’t take long to feel the weight. Thankfully, the included games and VR experiences won’t hold your attention long enough for you to feel the burn, but they do manage to deliver short bursts of entertainment.
Labo: VR Kit includes a mix of games, sandboxes, and creative apps that provide a good sampling of what you can currently do in virtual reality, but some will hold your attention longer than others. I did not expect to find the Toy-Con Bird, which has players using a pair of levers to control the flapping wings of a goose, to be all that compelling. But soaring around its virtual world was a relaxing Zen-like experience, and I was happy to ignore the goals and unlockables the game kept reminding me to pursue.
All your wonderful memories of Mario Paint on the Super Nintendo will come flooding back when you experiment with the Toy-Con Elephant’s painting modes.
I’ve never enjoyed playing with 3D printing pens, but in virtual reality they’re almost impossible to put down.
Each Toy-Con starts with a simple game that introduces you to how the accessory works, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find other interesting applications to explore. For example, in addition to solving maze challenges, the Toy-Con Elephant can also be used as a virtual 3D-printing pen to model objects in a big empty room that feels like a holodeck. It might not sound compelling, but I spent more time than I intended just doodling in the air. And while not available at the time of writing, Nintendo has already promised Labo: VR-Kit support for Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so when you get bored of all the content that Labo: VR Kit offers, it won’t necessarily be another accessory destined for the recycling bin.
Assuming you’ve already got the Switch hardware, Labo: VR Kit offers a solid value in terms of affordable and easy VR experiences. It feels like the next step beyond what Google started with its Cardboard viewer, but you’ll want to keep in mind that Nintendo’s offering still suffers from the same side effects that cheaper VR solutions are notorious for. The limited frame rates, sub-HD graphics, and lag in motion tracking will leave some users feeling queasy. I never experience motion sickness, but I find I can only play with one of the VR Toy-Cons for about ten minutes before I start to feel the effects.
It looks goofy, but this elastic-powered elephant is one of the more satisfying Labo: VR Kit toys.
Will the Labo: VR Kit ever come close to the experience of strapping a pair of £500 VR goggles to your face and exploring a detailed virtual world powered by a beefy gaming PC? Not even close. But for £35 it does manage to work miracles with cardboard, elastic bands, and reflective stickers. I knew the build process would be tedious (and I’m still nursing a couple of nasty paper cuts). What I wasn’t expecting was a solid VR experience that kept drawing me back to play again and again.
- If you’ve already got a Switch, for £35 you can turn your console into a well-executed VR toy and not feel (as) guilty when you inevitably get bored.
- When did Nintendo become masters of cardboard engineering? Let’s hope they’ve considered making cheap furniture too.
- Building the cardboard Toy-Cons takes quite a bit of time (well over an hour in some cases) and the methodical in-game step-by-step instructions might frustrate experienced builders.
- The Labo: VR Kit experiences feel more like a collection of mini-games, but Nintendo knows how to execute those well, so there’s still lots of replay value.
- The Switch’s large screen better fills your field of view so the VR experience feels more immersive, but limited resolution and frame rates can lead to nausea or feelings of dizziness for some users.