The Labo VR Experience: My Journey to Look Up a Cardboard Bird's Butt

Up, up, and away with Nintendo's attempt at virtual reality.

I think everyone was a little surprised when Nintendo looked over at the VR market and said, "Say, we'd like to try that, too." Nintendo's always been content to do its own thing; it doesn't often chase after market trends.

After spending some time with Labo VR, however, it's clear Nintendo is still happy to dance to its own tune. That's not a bad thing. It just means if you pick up the build-it-yourself virtual reality kit, you should be prepared for a set of experiences that are unique and unlike anything else on the market. "Bonafide Nintendo," in other words.

For one thing, no other VR headset on the market makes you assemble its goggles and accompanying "Toy-Cons" out of cardboard. Yes, cardboard; it's the Nintendo Labo way. I initially wondered how good dead tree VR can possibly be, especially games that are controlled using glorified origami birds and elephants. I was therefore surprised to discover the games Nintendo built for the little gadget are easy to lose yourself in.

Dark Chest of Wonders. | Nadia Oxford/USG

I was also surprised to discover how easy it is to assemble the Labo VR Toy-Cons. It's still a long process, but the (surprisingly charming) instructions that come on the game card are very clear and include digital models for each step that can be rotated 360-degrees if you lose your way. I'm not a crafty person, nor am I much good at assembling things, but I genuinely enjoy folding up Toy-Cons.

I can't share my Labo VR experience with any children because I'm a shrivelled witch who lives in an isolated bog, but I'm confident parents will get hours of play from Labo VR. Just assembling the VR goggles and the bird Toy-Con took me a few hours.

I started with the bird Toy-Con, even though the Labo VR Kit also lets you build Toy-Cons for an elephant, a camera, and a Blaster. It's not every day you're afforded the opportunity to jam your face into a bird's cloaca. It's usually a good way to get ejected from the zoo.

Sweet, the View-Master is back! Been waiting forever for a new 3D He-Man Adventure. | Nadia Oxford/USG

First, I assembled the cardboard headset that holds the VR goggles, because a VR experience usually doesn't happen without goggles. The goggles are an easy warm-up project for the rest of what the Labo VR Kit offers, plus it gives you a chance to get used to the step-by-step video tutorials that help you build the Toy-Cons. I already mentioned the videos are easy to follow and are lightly funny and charming. I want to reiterate that point because it takes significant writing talent to add personality to instructional videos about folding cardboard.

Once completed, the headset feels lightweight without feeling cheap. Like other Labo projects, it uses a thick, high-quality grade of cardboard that doesn't misfold or tear easily. Of course, sliding the Switch into the viewing slot adds some weight. There are several small games that you can play with the headset by itself, and it's a particularly good way for a kid to get warmed up with their first VR experience. A few examples are a car driving game, a jumping game, and a baffling game that lets you pick up and fling around balloon animals using your Joy-Cons.

All right, now let's build us a bird—hey, excuse you.

Expect unexpected supervision. | Nadia Oxford/USG

Yeah, it goes without saying that Labo's cardboard attracts cats like cheese attracts mice. Do your best. Don't bother with negotiations. They won't work.

Don't worry about getting mixed up while building your Toy-Cons. Every piece of every kit is clearly labeled, e.g. all your bird part sheets are labelled A through D and have a cute bird icon in their corners. The sheets are color-coded, too. Maybe you noticed as much in this picture. Hint: Try looking below the cat's butt.

Visor goes up, visor goes down. | Nadia Oxford/USG

One reason it's so easy to build a complicated Toy-Con like the bird is because you assemble each major piece separately according to step-by-step instructions sequestered behind different videos. For example, part one of my bird-building adventure involved putting together the gull's rear end. Once a piece is done, you set it aside until it's time to attach it to another completed piece.

This particular piece has a "visor" that swings upwards and covers the top of the VR goggles. The visor's hinges contain some plastic parts, but overall the Labo VR Kit is 99% cardboard. It's good to see a biodegradable toy in this age where dead whales are being found with stomachs full of plastic.

Oh, I made myself sad.

This bird doesn't have much meat on it yet. | Nadia Oxford/USG

Here's another example of the Toy-Cons' "modular" designs. I assembled the core of the bird's body by following another set of instructions, then slotted it into the bird-bum piece. Additional videos directed me on assembling the head, the wings, and the rubber band-powered mechanism that makes the bird bob its head whenever you squeeze down on its sides.

Cats love Labo, too! | Nadia Oxford/USG

Whew, this is hard work. Be sure to take a break. Mind you, this is a Nintendo product. Rest assured you receive incessant reminders to stop, take a break, and even enjoy a nice cup of tea (oh, I think I will, thank you).

[Seagull banshee screech] | Nadia Oxford/USG

Behold my beautiful son. Yes, that's a Wii U behind him. Please don't stare at it too long. It's very self-conscious.

While you can decorate your bird pal if you so desire, I'm content to let him fly naked and free. As I said before, I'm not the crafty type, but I still managed to derive a surprising amount of pleasure putting the bird together. I found fiddling with Labo is a perfect activity to enjoy while listening to a podcast (pssst, I can recommend a great one). You probably shouldn't do that if you're helping a kid assemble it, though. Give them your undivided attention, or else they might take the pets hostage with a glue gun. That's something children do to get their way, right?

With the hard part out of the way, I shoved my face into the bird's no-visiting zone and took off into the wild blue yonder.

So How Does Labo VR Perform?

I wasn't expecting much out of Labo VR, so I was surprised when I wound up spending a not-small amount of time flying around "Bird Island." I collected food, hatched babies, and made new friends who flew around with me, making new formations as we travelled. It's a relaxing experience and highly immersive, even if it's not particularly fancy-looking. The birds' plastic, toylike designs actually remind me of that early '90s computer animation about the bird and the fish who fall in love.

Pressing the sides of the bird Toy-Con to make it flap its wings is more interesting than simply pressing a button, though the repetitive action makes my hands cramp after a bit. With that in mind, Nintendo-brand VR is truly built for the young. It seems there's a reason Nintendo has those frequent reminders to pull your head out of the bird's ass and take a break.

While you can't go into a project like Labo VR expecting graphics on-par with Oculus Rift, there's some noticeable screen blur going on. Far away objects appear particularly "smeary," though I never noticed any kind of frame drop. It's worth noting I have a (cheap) screen protector on my Switch, so I doubt that helped. Some of the blur might also come from the schmutz and fingerprints accumulated on your screen, so give it a good wipe-down before playing.

Holding Labo VR's goggles to my face for an extended period of time tired out my flabby sad-person arms. It's not too bad for the packed-in Labo VR games because none of them are meant to be played for more than a few minutes at a time. I'm interested to see how (or if) Nintendo addresses arm fatigue when Breath of the Wild gets its VR update. Will we see the release of a simple head harness? Maybe one made of cardboard? I'll assemble it! I know I can do it now!

Yet after some time with Nintendo Labo, it's looking like "take frequent breaks" is going to be the extent of Nintendo's problem-solving. I doubt it wants anyone, especially kids, suffering from attacks of motion sickness, and being able to abort your play session at the first sign of queasiness is a good way to deter that. I had no problem with motion sickness when I explored Bird Island, but I did feel light-headed when I tried out its racing mini-game. There are a lot of twists and turns in that mode, and they almost got the best of me.

As with most things Nintendo, the strength of its properties and its uncanny sense for making fun experiences are at the core of the Labo VR Kit's appeal. This isn't PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, or HTC Vive, not by a long shot—but it's not trying to be. Labo VR is a fun, safe virtual reality experience that's unlike anything else on the market. It's pretty much what you'd expect from Nintendo's own foray into any big industry trend, really.

While people without kids might not get a whole lot out of Labo VR outside of a short but potent injection of fun, it's worth keeping an eye on if Nintendo has plans to implement VR into more of its franchises. If that Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Switch remake rumor ever solidifies into something real, I'd be OK with piloting a Loftwing from its rear end.

Tagged with Labo VR, Nintendo, Opinions, Simulations, Switch, virtual reality.

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