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Nintendo returns to virtual reality with $40 headset

  • The Labo VR Kit, a build-it-yourself set of cardboard goggles and controllers, seems to be aimed at casual gamers
  • If the kit sells, it could help enhance Nintendo’s games line-up without the company having to produce a bunch of new hits

The Nintendo Switch has instructions on putting together the Labo VR Kit.
The Nintendo Switch has instructions on putting together the Labo VR Kit. (Bloomberg)

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Aquarter-century after its disastrous first foray into virtual reality (VR), Nintendo Co. has returned to the technology with an affordable headset that has potential for bigger things.

The Labo VR Kit, which went on sale on 12 April and starts at $40 (around 2,770), is a build-it-yourself set of cardboard goggles and controllers for Nintendo’s Switch console. The VR system has been carefully designed to work within the limits of the Switch’s processing power, and to minimize the chances of making players dizzy or sick. Its simplistic “mini-games” seem aimed primarily at casual gamers, particularly parents with youngish children who might want to try VR without dropping the many hundreds of dollars that more advanced systems like Facebook Inc.’s Oculus Rift can cost.

If the VR kit sells, it could help enhance Nintendo’s games line-up without the company having to produce a bunch of new hits. Last week’s announcement that popular games Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild will be compatible with the cardboard headset generated more buzz than the headset’s original unveiling and pushed shares to a two-month high.

The assembled kit.
The assembled kit. (Bloomberg)

“Labo VR’s killer apps are certainly Mario Odyssey and Zelda,” said Serkan Toto, founder of Tokyo-based consultancy Kantan Games Inc. “If Labo VR sells, Nintendo will follow up with more content, first and foremost support for Mario Kart.”

It comes with basic goggles and a gun-like controller used to blast aliens. The full $80 version adds more controllers that resemble a camera, an elephant trunk, a bird and a pedal, and are used in other mini-games to take photographs of fish, fly like a bird, or paint in 3D. Another mode tests player creativity by letting them devise their own basic games.

So far, the software lacks the depth of Nintendo’s flagship titles and feels similar to the quirky mini-games released for other Labo products, which have mostly failed to attract a wide audience. The headset also makes painfully obvious the graphical limits of the Switch, which sports just half the pixel density of today’s top smartphones and a third the pixels of high-end VR headsets. The result: jagged 3D models and a noticeably low frame rate.

But Nintendo knows the Switch isn’t the ideal VR hardware. That’s why each mini-game in the Labo VR Kit is designed to be played at the most for 5-10 minutes. The company has also opted against including a headset strap, meaning players are forced to hold the goggles up to their eyes. That also helps discourage using the system in anything other than short bursts, and encourages friends to pass it around.

Nintendo’s return to VR comes as a surprise after years of executives dismissing the technology as difficult to design games for, or questionably safe. “When I see people play virtual reality, it makes me worry,” legendary game designer and senior executive Shigeru Miyamoto told Time two years ago.

The company had reason to be sceptical. The Virtual Boy, its disastrous first attempt at a VR headset, flopped with gamers in 1995 due to lousy graphics, boring games, risk of nausea, and even worries over brain damage. Nintendo experimented with another VR product for its GameCube console a decade later, but ultimately shelved it.

That baggage is one reason why Nintendo opted for a low-key approach with its new VR kit, foregoing a big launch event on 12 April. A few retailers contacted in Tokyo said sales were trickling in, but lacked the lines that tend to accompany major debuts. Reviews of the device were mostly positive, but muted.

“For veterans of virtual reality, the full Labo VR Kit offers few of the jaw-dropping moments they’re accustomed to,” video-game review website Eurogamer wrote. “It’s not virtual reality as you’ve come to know it—and that’s what makes it so interesting,” wrote The Verge.

The biggest test will come in two weeks, when the Mario and Zelda games will be updated for compatibility with the VR Kit. If Nintendo can succeed in adapting those hits for VR, it will instantly give the company one of the strongest software line-ups of any VR headset. Beyond Mario Kart, other titles that are well suited for VR include the latest entries in the Star Fox and Mario Party series.

And by getting consumers immersed with its beloved characters in VR, Nintendo also takes another step in its bigger strategy of milking more value out of its intellectual property. As with the game maker’s forthcoming theme parks and movies, VR can help diversify its returns on the likes of Pikachu and Donkey Kong.

“This is an experiment that shows Nintendo in 2019 still tries to innovate,” said Toto.

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