Earlier this week, GeekMom Corrina and I made another pilgrimage to NYC to check out the latest from Nintendo of America. This time our big city adventure included an introduction to the newest product in the Labo line, the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit. What we discovered was a virtual reality experience with a genuinely novel slant, and, of course, lots and lots of cardboard.
After checking our coats and catching up with our Nintendo cohorts, Cory and I were ushered into yet another clean, white playroom and shown a tabletop strewn with various Toy-Con VR modules. Before we even had much time to speculate on how and why all the components worked together to achieve VR gameplay, we were presented with an introductory video from NOA.
With the formalities out of the way, we were presented with the Toy-Con Blaster, a sizable cardboard construct with a rear-mounted (thumb-activated) trigger and shotgun-style cocking mechanism. The Toy-Con VR Goggles, complete with the Switch tablet inserted inside, serve as your sight, and the left and right Joy-Cons are attached at the base and barrel respectively.
While I was admiring the build, noting the similar components from other Labo products, Corrina began blasting aliens. She was clearly having fun and she looked kind of ridiculous, so, of course, I had to record it. For valid journalistic reasons.
A Different Perspective
Next, it was my turn, and once I found the game’s menu—this on-rails shooter is presented in 360-degree VR, so the floating text was actually behind me—I, too, set off for a world-saving adventure. Eliminating the (adorable) alien threat was beyond fun. Rather than a tightly contained home VR experience, it instead felt more like the kind of wrap-around shooter you’d experience at an amusement park or large arcade. (R.I.P. DisneyQuest!)
The Blaster itself was sturdy and responsive, and the gameplay expertly choreographed. The distance and direction of your projectiles always felt spot-on, and though distinctly arcade-y, the game was instantly engrossing. So much so that I know Corrina and our tablemates had almost as much fun watching me play as I did playing the game myself.
There were some features I didn’t get to experience—apparently, you can pull down the left Joy-Con to enter bullet time and line up a devastating series of carefully-placed shots—but it was more than enough to whet my appetite for everything else Labo: VR had to offer.
We Came, We Saw, We Looked Up a Bird’s Butt
With our thirst for alien blood sated, we moved on to a more meditative exercise using the Toy-Con Bird build. After strapping the Goggles to its avian posterior, I was directed to flap the wings by placing my hands through a pair of conveniently placed slots. This also moved the creature’s Joy-Con beak, powering the bird forward, and I could change direction simply by turning my head.
While Cory used her time to soar through the skies, I, instead, used my time in bird land to raise hatchlings. Practically as soon as I raised the VR Goggles to my face, I noticed an egg about to hatch. Out of it popped a small white chick—I named him Orville—who told me he required apples to grow up big and strong. Nurturing parent that I am, I popped right off to find him some grub, and, true to his word, he immediately developed into a big, beautiful bluebird as soon as I fed him. Ain’t parenting grand?
Our time already running short, we quickly transitioned to the Toy-Con Elephant for a little doodling in 3D space. While I thought for sure that this thing would be loose and insubstantial, this comical construct of cardboard, rubber bands, trunk-seated Joy-Cons, and familiar IR stickers was rock solid and wonderfully responsive. I’m no artist in two-dimensions, and adding a third certainly didn’t help matters, but from choosing between paints, pencils, and colors to blowing it all away with the trashcan tool—it functions sort of like a Ghost Trap, sucking in anything close to its opening—the experience was amazingly intuitive.
I spent a lot of time marveling at the depth of my scribbled creation, moving it around with the hand tool. Unfortunately, this meant we only had a few final minutes to explore the scores of other mini-games available in the VR Plaza (64 in all!), and we missed out entirely on the underwater photography (Ocean Camera) and Wind Pedal-powered racing (Bird Dash) experiences. The Plaza, though, was nothing to sneeze at, with even the smaller games, like a 2D fighter and Arkanoid-style brick-breaker, having something new to offer.
In closing, we were told that each of the games we’d experienced could be played in standard 2D on the Switch itself (using an alternate cardboard Screen Holder when necessary) and that curious gamers could use the new Toy-Con Garage VR interface to see and interact with the code that makes each VR Plaza game possible.
Dollars and Sense
While the Toy-Con 04: VR Kit packs in all these activities and more at $79.99, a slimmer version with the Starter Kit (for assembling the VR Goggles) + Blaster is only $39.99. The Camera + Elephant and Bird + Wind Pedal modules will be available as $19.99 expansions, all of these working with the existing Starter Kit’s Goggles and software cartridge.
At that price, these VR sets are much more budget-friendly than the previous Labo products. Assuming you already own a Nintendo Switch, which you likely do, you’re looking at a noticeably more affordable point of entry.
If you like the Starter Set, you can pick up the expansions later. If it doesn’t float your (virtual) boat, you’re only out the initial $40 investment.
A Shared Experience
So here’s the thing: I am a social gamer. Now that doesn’t mean I’m all about MMORPGs or competitive multiplayer. In fact, my preferred titles tend to be heavily solitary experiences. But the way I play—the way my family plays—is far from isolated.
On a given Saturday, you might find my daughter and girlfriend playing Minecraft together, either in the same world gathering materials and talking strategy or in their own separate games showing off new build ideas. Similarly, you could find my son and I engrossed in our own digital adventures. Our current go-to titles are Diablo 3 and The Binding of Isaac, so we often share the couch, comparing notes, showing off our latest killer combos or outlandish boss battles.
When we play, we play together, even when we’re playing apart. I think that’s at the very root of my longtime resistance to “traditional'” VR gaming. You have a headset strapped to your face, headphones blocking ambient noise, and controllers in each hand; you are effectively cut off from the outside world. You are insulated.
Nintendo has stripped away these barriers by the very nature of the Labo: VR builds. They are self-contained modules; you just pick up the desired assembly, slide in the Switch, and choose your game mode. You hold it up to your face, and when you’re done, you put it down. You are never strapped in. You are never isolated.
The physicality and sheer spectacle of gameplay draws in those around you—whether it’s painting with an elephant’s trunk or looking up the business end of a cardboard bird. Then they want a turn. It’s this play-and-pass nature that makes all the difference.
The Nintendo Labo: VR Kit blew away my preconceptions of what virtual reality gaming could be, and it did it by scaling back. Immersive but not intrusive, intuitive but never photorealistic, Labo: VR is an enjoyable, affordable way to bring VR gaming home to your family. In short, there’s a lot more to make, play, and discover when Nintendo Labo: VR products arrive on store shelves April 12th.
Disclosure: Travel and accommodations were provided by Nintendo of America. All opinions are my own. Yes, I looked up a cardboard bird’s behind. Yes, there are photographs.