Leave it to Nintendo to so effortlessly underscore the obvious: Virtual reality in its current state is not much more than a toy.
Whether you’re willing to accept that fact and embrace the novelty and frivolity of cardboard VR powered by short silly games will determine just how much you might enjoy Nintendo’s Labo Toy-Con VR kit.
While this latest wave of VR excitement has been marked by billion-dollar investments, a broadening swath of different sorts of headsets, and an impressive array of games and experiences stripped down to its basics, virtual reality isn’t much more than a high-tech form of stereoscopic postcard.
Creating a sense of 3D by laying two images next to one another has been around since the 1800s. Modern VR adds motion to that trick of the mind, and the ability to interact, stereo sound and a few other bits and pieces, but it’s still fairly simplistic.
Nintendo’s latest Labo Toy-Con release — a series of cardboard meets software kits created for the Nintendo Switch — proves that point.
The Nintendo Labo Toy-Con VR kit comes in a couple of varieties. You can pick up a starter kit for $40, and expansion sets for $20 each, or you can get the entire collection for $80.
The $80 set comes with the pre-scored cardboard and instructions to create attachments for your Switch that function as a sort of gun, a bird, a camera, a wind pedal, an elephant, and VR goggles.
Once built, each form factor unlocks a set of games that you play while your face is pressed up against the back of the construct. So if you want to blast your way through an alien-infested city, for instance, you need to slide the Switch into the Toy-Con Blaster. If you want to take photos of sealife underwater, you’ll need to slide the Switch into the Toy-Con Camera.
It’s likely the first item you’ll create, though, are the VR Goggles, which give you access to some very basic games, that are more akin to viewing experiences than a full game. They also, as of April 25, allow you try your hand at playing two of the Switch’s most popular games — “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Super Mario Odyssey” — in VR. It’s this last experience, an add-on for those who already own those two games that make it obvious just how toylike VR continues to be.
Part of the delight found in the Nintendo Labo kits is the experience of not just building the cardboard constructs, but marveling at the ingenuity that went into designing each creation. The goggles are fairly straight forward, taking the least amount of time to create a rather mundane, handheld VR headset. In this regard, what you’re getting is essentially a beefier form of the Google Cardboard headsets that helped to turn countless smartphones into subpar VR machines. The Labo VR goggles are made of stiff cardboard and feature a hard plastic nose card, a set of lenses and space to slide the Switch into place in front of them. Once in place, players can either use the attached Joy-Cons as they held the contraption up to their face, or tap on the top right corner of the cardboard for simple interactions. The result is a fairly modest, but still fun little VR headset.
It’s once you start diving into the bigger creations — elephant with motion-trunk, bird, camera with zoom and thumping blaster — that you get a true sense of what Nintendo has created.
All of these cardboard peripherals take quite a bit of time to put together.
I found the process relaxing and a fun way to explore the charming design of each device. The camera, for instance, makes use of cardboard gears and cogs and cleverly shaped cut-outs to turn the flat sheets of compressed paper into video game-powering origami.
The completed camera has a lens that can rotate, making clicking noises as it “zooms” and “unzooms” and spots for both Joy-Cons. Placing the Joy-Con controllers in the camera body is how the device senses your desire to zoom in and lets you take pictures. Once complete, the Switch is slid into place in the goggles and the goggles are then attached to the camera. Then, camera in hand, players can drop into an ocean to explore the deep, quietly sneaking up on fish and other creatures to snap pictures with the camera.
The Blaster, the largest of the selection, looks a bit like a cardboard bazooka and features a cocking and firing action that thumps the gun in your hands as your chase down aliens.
While the experience of creating these toys always left me marveling at their design, I was equally unimpressed with just how little I could do with them once the construction was complete.
The included mini-games are fun, interactive little oddities, but don’t provide much more fun or take up much more time than the process of creating the peripherals needed to play them.
Players can use the included software to create their own little games that can make use of the accessories, but it would have been nice to have access to more to play directly from Nintendo with the package.
The final draw for the VR kit — playing two full-blown Nintendo games in VR — delivered the same mingling of excitement and disappointment as the cardboard creations and its games.
Going into either “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” or “Super Mario Odyssey” and selecting VR mode, simply splits the screen and gives you a 3D view of the action. It’s a fun little diversion but quickly loses its charm after spending a few minutes with the goggles pressed to your face as you try to play games that require quite a bit of dexterity. Ultimately, it’s a reminder that great games plus VR doesn’t make for an even better experience, but rather a more annoying one. It also serves as a reminder that virtual reality, despite all of the buzz, remains in its relative infancy, flooded by games that would play just fine — perhaps even better — without the addition of VR.
While the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con VR set is an intriguing idea, the included software simply doesn’t deliver enough experiences to make the purchase and the time invested worthwhile for most. Ultimately, the task of building the peripherals becomes the highlight of the experience, leaving Nintendo’s toy-like games feeling more like colorful afterthoughts than the sort of engaging experience fans of the company have come to expect.
For fans looking for a kit that has you building not just the hardware for play, but the software, this is probably a good fit. Those looking for a completed Nintendo experience are likely to be disappointed.