Nintendo Labo VR seems good -- but is it too late?

Nintendo has done what it does best and recently delivered a new product that was hard to believe until it actually released: the Labo VR kit. After years since the VR craze took off, this is what Nintendo has to show for it. It’s for this reason why some people have lambasted the new set of Toy-Con (the same tired argument of: “It’s just overpriced cardboard!”), but I personally think it’s a pretty neat concept. I was already fond of Labo since its initial reveal, and now seeing it merged with VR makes it all the more interesting to me personally. That said, I actually have yet to pick up any of the Labo sets, and I also haven’t ever tried a VR gaming experience. Labo VR could push me to do both simultaneously. However, despite how interesting it is to me, it doesn’t seem like the general Switch audience really cares that much for it.

Total sales numbers still have yet to be released by Nintendo, but there is some data coming in from the Labo VR Kit’s launch sales performance in the USA, UK, and Japan. Going by these results is what’s led to me to the conclusion that interest appears to be low.

For starters, in the UK, the Labo Kit didn’t even crack the Top 40 charts during its launch week. The UK does happen to be Nintendo’s smallest market, but this is still quite low. Japan actually does have real numbers, with Famitsu reporting 26,000 units being sold during launch week. For a gaming product, 26,000 units is a very small number, especially when you compare it to the Switch’s install base of 32+ million units worldwide—8 million of which are in Japan.

The US is the outlier here as reportedly stock depleted in various retailers around the country. Even Amazon had a shortage. At first glance that does seem like good news, but there’s one of two possible reasons for this happening. The more pessimistic theory is that Nintendo didn’t produce a lot of stock to begin with—let’s say just 10,000, for example. The second theory is that demand simply outweighed supply, which would be good. But this could still tie into the first theory with there possibly not having been a lot of stock to begin with. Regardless, just going by the UK and Japan trends alone, it doesn’t seem like Labo VR will be much of a runaway success. A product is at its peak popularity at launch, so if that initial performance isn’t great, it certainly doesn’t bode well for the future. But considering how successful the Switch has been, why hasn’t Labo VR caused a larger stir?

Nintendo Labo VR seems good -- but is it too late?

Nesting in the niche

I believe the answer is the same reason why I criticized the thought that VR would become the “next big thing” in gaming back when that idea was popular a few years ago—because it’s a niche. Not every game can work in VR (or at least not work well). This puts limits on what developers can do. Another thing that’s held it back is the cost of entry, primarily in the gaming world. Complex VR headsets like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PSVR cost hundreds of dollars, and they all require actual machines on top of their existing cost. As a result, so far VR gaming has been something primarily enjoyed by the financially stable gamers out there that have been curious enough to justify dropping the cash. This represents just a small section of the entire gaming market. So that, combined with the design restrictions of developers, is likely why the VR world is still quite compact. All the fanfare that it was generating a few years ago has pretty much died down at this point, and now most gamers (and developers) are just focusing on wanting more powerful machines for things like 4K, 60+ FPS, and ray-tracing. New VR games are still being made, but it’s clearly not a major focus for most studios at this point.

That’s why I think Nintendo was ultimately too late with this. Had Labo VR come out at the launch the Switch, or at least sometime in 2017, it likely would have fared better. But even then, it still would have been a little late as the VR hype had already begun to subside at that point.  All the same, none of this detracts from what cool things Nintendo has achieved with this interesting take on the whole VR concept.

Tying the technology with Labo has allowed the development team to craft experiences around specific Toy-Con, all of which behave uniquely. This makes the VR experience itself more versatile and special due to players being able to enjoy it in a variety of ways and interact with physical objects that have an effect on the virtual world. This is something that even more complex VR platforms don’t really have. The VR Toy-Con also give developers a more varied toolset to work with rather than having focus exclusively on, “How do I make this work with just the Joy-Con and goggles?” That’s why it’s unfortunate to see the entire Labo VR kit just mostly be passed by. Like with the rest of the Labo family, there’s definitely a lot of potential here with the VR kit. However, there’s also another problem—Labo itself is a niche product.

Nintendo Labo VR seems good -- but is it too late?

Cardboard chronicles

The VR Toy-Con, as well as all the other Toy-Con, can do so many cool things. Yet they’re brought down by the fact that they’re ultimately just constructible cardboard accessories.

This immediately puts off people who have no interest in the building aspect at all. But even if someone doesn’t mind that, it’s hard for some folks to not see the Toy-Con in a similar light as the dozens of Wii-branded plastic accessories. Like those, most people seem to just use the Toy-Con a couple of times and then chuck them away into a closet. It doesn’t help that none of the Labo game experiences are actually anything in-depth that last several hours. From the testimonies I’ve heard/read from people that have played with any of the Labo sets, the general consensus is simply that, once the initial novelty of playing with a Toy-Con wears off, there’s not much desire to return. Add this to the fact that there haven’t been much third-parties supporting any of the Toy-Con either, so again there’s even less of a reason to keep playing with them.

It’s still early in the life of the VR kit, but the writing seems to be on the wall. While Nintendo may very well support it for a while, it seems like it would take a major new game to generate true buzz. But is there really a chance of that happening if initial sales are seemingly so low? Most likely not. Nevertheless, only time will tell what happens. It doesn’t change the fact that Nintendo nailed a decent concept here, so seeing it have a respectable future despite its niche appeal would be nice in my eyes.

A.K Rahming
Having been introduced to video games at the age of 3 via a Nintendo 64, A.K has grown up in the culture. A fan of simulators and racers, with a soft spot for Nintendo! But, he has a great respect for the entire video game world and enjoys watching it all expand as a whole.

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