Virtual Reality and Nintendo isn’t exactly a new topic, it’s something we at VRS have covered twice, both in terms of its past and a potential future. However, when questioned about this by magazine Les Numeriques, the general manager of Nintendo’s French operations, Phillippe Lavoué suggested in even stronger terms than had been seen previously that Nintendo are not going to pursue either virtual reality or 4K gaming.
It’s worth exploring the reasoning given by Lavoué and explore that whilst there is merit to the reasons why they are not, it is absolutely worth focusing on virtual reality.
So How is that Switch Doing?
When VRS last discussed Nintendo in any detail, the Big N was just about to launch their new console, a hybrid portable and home console called the Switch. After the commercial failure of Nintendo’s previous console, the confused Wii U, the Switch was a more focused device although much of the press wasn’t sure how it would end up performing, and rumours abounded about its abilities and a mysterious patent that showed a HMD case that could fit a portable console for playing virtual reality games.
They needn’t have worried. The Switch had a phenomenal launch period, in large part to its focus on high quality first party games, sold gangbusters, becoming the fastest selling console of all time in Japan and North America, selling over 10 million units worldwide in 10 months. It’s managed to catch on in a big way, and judging by what is known of the 2018 line up, that won’t exactly be changing any time soon.
Other than the portability of the Switch, it’s difficult to say what exactly has changed in their design philosophy compared to the relative failure of the Wii U. Perhaps it’s a greater focus on games that can serve as killer apps, with a year filled with high quality games. Every month since its release has seen a major game come out for the system and Nintendo have gotten a lot better at their marketing of the system than we saw with thier previous, confused system, the Wii U
Is Nintendo Switch VR Possible?
From a technical standpoint this is a question with a floating answer, as the answer is yes in theory but in practice whether it’s possible or even likely really depends on how much you want to trade off price and power. There are a number of options but we will quickly run over some of the biggest possibilities, which can be split into two distinct categories:
Portable VR HMD
On its own, the Switch in portable mode could technically pull off some VR features but not especially well. The portable screen used is 720p, although given its quality actually looks a lot better than that in most use cases, however strapped to your face it may well look significantly less impressive, with a big risk of screen door effect.
Hacked attempts to try VR on the switch using tablet VR headsets noticed major issues with resolution, particularly since it has a wider screen than most tablets typically do, with an aspect ratio closer to a television than a typical tablet. This means the resolution that can practically be used is even smaller.
With this solution, the only real option to improve the issue is a hardware revision, but at that point the answer would get so expensive you may as well make a dedicated VR console or a Switch 2. There may be creative ways around this, and if anyone would have them it’s Nintendo, but it doesn’t look like a terribly feasible idea.
The most likely option given the Switch’s inherent power disadvantage is a separate headset and possibly a second Switch dock. The configuration of the Switch means that the NVidia Tegra technology it runs on can be enhanced by external hardware. This already happens with the stock Nintendo Switch dock to raise the resolution up to a maximum of 1080p.
There is absolutely nothing stopping Nintendo from therefore creating a Switch dock that ups the power of the system to the point that it could run games in 4K, or provide the grunt to an external HMD. This would fix both the power and resolution issues immediately, although at a pretty high financial cost, as well as requiring every game be designed not only for the power disparity between portable and docked modes, but between the standard dock and whatever form the VR dock would take. That being said however, Playstation VR has a booster in its own headset which can be used via a bit of fiddling to provide high dynamic range to PS4 games without requiring a Playstation Pro.
Expandability has always been something Nintendo does well, even though this would take the expansion well beyond any of the add-ons and bring us close to essentially developing a new console. The big deciding factor would be price, and if it gets too much to add the booster then it defies the object of even having a Nintendo VR system be based on the Switch.
Trade-Offs and Potential Advantages
The Switch has a few inherent advantages to being a VR system despite its lack of power that the most relevant comparison, Playstation VR, does not. The first and biggest of these is motion control. After turning gaming on its head with the Wii, Nintendo have refined and retooled its motion control systems, and the Joy-Cons are a very capable motion control system, to the point that you could connect them to a headset and use the gyroscope and other sensors for tracking instead of relying on external tracking systems or something built into the headset.
The right Joycon’s IR camera can track distance so theoretically inside out tracking is possible. The focus on the Switch has been way more on traditional games so outside of ARMS’ alternate controller set up, 1-2 Switch, the pre-requisite Just Dance games and some tenuous applications in other games such as some of Breath of the Wild’s tilt-based puzzles the Joy-Con’s potential features haven’t yet been fully realised, although that may be set to change by April.
One potential issue is that if all the tracking is done by the Joy-Cons, a separate set will also be needed to control whatever game is being played. It’s not the biggest deal breaker but it does mean that a Switch VR unit may require buying an extra set of controllers on top of whatever other add-ons are being touted, which adds another £70 to the cost of the package.
A Switch VR system is certainly possible, and with some kind of hardware enhancement that could be sold, even be relatively powerful. The issue would, of course, be cost, and Nintendo seem reticent to enter the market precisely for those reasons.
Whilst add-ons for gaming hardware is almost always destined to be a commercial disaster, measured expectations for VR, and if it is possible to sell it for a price point slightly lower than PSVR, there is the potential to make it a success, particularly given Nintendo’s ability to use innovative games to get around hardware limitations and sell new systems, a notable exception being the troubled Virtual Boy.
Would Nintendo Thrive in VR?
This question goes beyond technical possibilities and more into whether VR, and indeed a lot of high end technology fits into Nintendo’s technical, marketing and design mentalities. It should be kept in mind that Nintendo as a company concentrate on game design and character, with a strong focus on making the best possible use of established, less powerful technology. This comes from the very top: long time innovator Gunpei Yokoi as well as Shigeru Miyamoto and former president the late Satoru Iwata, all follow Yokoi’s philosophy of “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”.
Many of their biggest franchises are third person games featuring distinct and iconic characters, and because of this translating that to VR may prove a little more challenging. If you think about the biggest games Nintendo make, what immediately comes to mind is the characters. You think of Link before the Legend of Zelda games he appears in, you think of Mario the character before any specific game. Before even worrying about whether the games even work as VR, the questions becomes whether the game is as appealing when you are looking through the eyes of the character or not.
Games that Would Benefit
Also of note is whether the games would even benefit from VR and the enhanced perspective it brings. Certain games may fare better than others. The kinetic spring-loaded boxing game ARMS would work well in VR and has its origins in a Virtual Boy game, Teleroboxer. Most of the actions wouldn’t even need to be changed much.
Splatoon 2, a third person shooter with fast-paced gameplay and kids that turn into squids could possibly work in VR, although the speed at which the game usually plays could cause a problem. Mario Kart in fact already has a VR experience at VR Zone in Shinjuku, created by Nintendo’s long time arcade partner Namco, and a full game could be something seriously fun, although how you could make this a multiplayer experience without multiple Switches I have no idea.
Oddly enough, one of the games that would benefit most from VR isn’t actually a Switch game, but a very late released Wii U game by the name of Star Fox Zero. A 3D space shooter which used the Wii U’s gamepad to show two different screens, with aiming taking place on the smaller screen while the television shows the full screen. In practice the controls were confused and the player had to constantly look at two screens at once, which simply didn’t work in a game as fast-paced as Star Fox Zero. VR would fix this, allowing the aiming and looking to be done via head tracking and not leading to the incongruent gameplay of Star Fox Zero.
Games that Would Not
Despite what would undoubtedly be some clear interest in it, you would be unlikely to get a VR Mario game, with the more likely use case for Mario in VR being something like the 3DS game Super Mario 3D world, where you could look around corners to solve puzzles. This would make it similar to the Oculus Rift pack-in game Lucky’s Tale, but probably not the game where you can be Mario which people might be looking for. Mario Odyssey would really not work in VR.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or a Zelda using that game’s style, might be a slightly better fit. The game is fairly quick and dynamic, but there is at least a theoretical way to match the sword and shield gameplay, although in practice it would probably closer resemble Skyrim VR than a more traditional Zelda, in the sense that it would be a slower paced game with less of the jumping and climbing around.
How would Nintendo Handle It?
Nintendo have positioned the Switch as a social system first and foremost, with the hybrid nature of it being showcased as a portable multiplayer system, a handheld and a big screen console. Virtual Reality is by its nature isolating and insular and would require some creativity to continue that social experience.
This is hardly a new issue and the Playstation VR also tiptoed around the issue of making an isolating medium a multiplayer smash. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a fantastic example of an asymmetrical game in VR, and there are other examples where one player is in the hot seat whilst the other players help outside of the experience.
In practice, this is a bit of a redundant exercise, as Nintendo would make new games for this technology, a new IP to give their personality and sense of character to the VR experience and more appropriate adaptations of their vast line of IPs. There’s plenty of series that would benefit from being in VR, and it would be incredible to see F-Zero, Wave Race, Luigi’s Mansion, Pilotwings, Metroid Prime, Doshin the Giant, Detective Pikachu and of course Nintendogs take advantage of the inherent immersion of VR and create new experiences.
Back to the Labo Again: Nintendo Cardboard
Nintendo unveiled on the 17th January their latest quirky line of Switch Accessories, known collectively as Nintendo Labo. Essentially a game with a series of cardboard sheets that can be folded and clipped together to make all manner of accessories and little projects. From vibrating robots controlled with the Switch to houses, to fishing lines, a piano and a set of handlebars, it looks like a lovely bit of fun. The second kit, Robot, looks even more fun, with a backpack and visor using the Joycon’s sensors to create a full motion sensing system using bits of string.
Some publications including Digitiser 2000 and TechRadar have praised this and heralded it as Nintendo categorically rejecting VR. I’m not sure I necessarily agree, especially since the focus of the Toy-Cons is more about teaching basic engineering and physics, as well as just being a fun cardboard toy, whilst VR ultimately has the potential to be much broader than this.
All this being said, whilst the Labo isn’t a VR unit, could it become one?
There is a cardboard visor that currently does nothing but prop up the left joy-con for head tracking, could that be replaced by a VR headset of some kind, whether it’s a Google Cardboard HMD or something more advanced or contains additional hardware? You could even still incorporate the Joy-Con’s sensors for this, but perhaps attach it more securely, such as via the connection rail on the Joy-Con.
Nintendo Labo looks to be an exciting system in its own right, allowing for the tactility currently lacking in AR and VR in a pretty cheap way. The MSRP of the Labo Variety Kit is $70 (£50), including the game to run it, which isn’t exactly cheap, but reasonable when the standard price for Switch games is around $60 (Around £45) each. The robot kit is ten dollars on top of that, but for people interested in potential locomotion solutions this may be the one to watch, and I will love to see how well it works in practice.
Conclusion: Why Nintendo Should Make Switch VR
Nintendo are an interesting company in a lot of ways. They are sometimes compared to Disney and that does show in a lot of ways, particularly their contradicting mix of innovative ideas and experimentation and their staunch traditionalism. They walk a fine line which quite often doesn’t pay off.
The 3DS became a success only after developers admitted defeat on the 3D and AR features. The Wii U, a rather fine system was hamstrung by its own two screen gimmick, and indeed the Robot Kit is directly based on a Wii U tech demo after that system collapsed in 2016.
Initially this article was just going to cover recent comments about 4K and VR that Nintendo were not going to focus on until they’re in more homes but the Labo project only added to the intrigue. Whether it will lead to VR on the Switch or in fact stands in the way of it is probably unanswerable at this point, at least until Labo is proven to be more than a fad or a gimmick.
When Nintendo do experiment with technologies they often can’t help but expand them. Pokemon Go is a particularly successful example of this; while GPS and AR based games have existed for over a decade, Pokemon Go made them for a time the biggest thing in tech and gaming, and it still has a fairly large audience to this day.
They have a habit of putting a face on faceless tech, and this is something virtual reality will need in order to get its breakthrough. Nintendo have a history of succeeding in this regard; they added a robot and a plumber and brought games consoles back after the last attempt was buried in a landfill. They brought motion controls and fitness games to the houses of millions with the Wii and its myriad accessories.