Mario And Zelda's New VR Modes Are Not Good

All images in this post are captured from games running in VR mode. That requires the hardware to render two images, one for each eye, hence the split view.

Nintendo just added free updates to Nintendo Switch blockbusters Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild that introduce virtual reality modes to both games, but you’ll be perfectly fine if you skip them.

Mario Odyssey’s new VR mode consists of a trio of small custom levels that let you use Mario to quickly collect musical instruments for characters who eventually assemble to perform a special VR concert of the game’s main theme.

Breath of the Wild’s VR mode lets you play the whole game in a basic 3D view that does little to bring you further into its world.

Neither is much of an advertisement for virtual reality gaming in general and may serve as an indictment of the limits of VR on the relatively low-powered Switch. To play either game in VR, users need to slide the system into the cardboard and plastic goggles that are packaged with the new Nintendo Labo VR Kit.

The goggles are mostly fine, but the Switch does not seem powerful enough to generate a strong VR experience for either game.

Nintendo Switch VR requires the Nintendo Labo VR goggles. While the goggles are mostly cardboard and therefore very light, the set-up necessitates that a user holds the system to their face. There is no headstrap, and the act of manipulating game controls inches from your face can be awkward. It is awkward for the Mario and Zelda VR modes.

VR gaming requires hardware to send split images, one to the left eye and one to the right. That’s why all the screenshots in this post, captured while I played the games in VR, show a left-eye view and a right-eye view. This split taxes even much more powerful hardware and leaves the Switch only capable of displaying games in a grainy resolution. Screenshots in this post look better, albeit flatter, than what I saw in VR.

The Switch version of VR also doesn’t track where the player is in a space, so it can only create the sensation of seeing a virtual world from a fixed location as opposed to more advanced VR tech that lets you move, at least a little inside a virtual space as you move your head or body.

The Mario Odyssey VR mode is separate from the main game. It is spread across three playable levels and a bonus interactive concert. The levels are set in the game’s Hat Kingdom, Seaside Kingdom and Luncheon Kingdom. Each is a custom version of the Kingdom that is set up to feel like the small virtual spaces surround the player.

To experience this, the user puts the Switch into the VR goggles, sits or stands while holding the goggles to their face, and then enters the Kingdom.

If you turn your head, you’ll find that the Mario Kingdoms appear to be rendered all around you. Your perspective is fixed in the center of them, as if you’re a surveillance camera in this special Mario world. All VR gaming inherently presents game worlds in 3D, which adds depth to what you can see. That said, being fixed in one location while having to run Mario all around the camera, often straying pretty far from it, doesn’t look that good and isn’t fun.

Challenges like this could look cool in VR if they didn’t seem so far away. Unfortunately, Switch VR for Mario Odyssey works with fixed camera positions. The sense of scale afforded by more advanced VR set-ups that allow for movement within a VR world, is limited here.

The Kingdoms are sprinkled with some simple challenges in which Mario collects musical notes, triggers the appearance of musical instruments and then hands those instruments to the appropriate musicians.

It takes just a few minutes to reunite the musicians in each Kingdom with their instruments. The reward is a New Donk City concert, in which Pauline belts out Mario Odyssey’s theme while players can make Mario hop through the crowd or jump on stage with the singer and her band.

Look straight ahead and you’ll see the concert’s performers...
... turn around and you’ll see the concert’s audience.

VR can often at least convey the magical feeling that, wow, we’re inside this virtual place. That sensation isn’t very strong in Mario Odyssey’s VR modes, simply because there isn’t much of a spectacle surrounding the player. The graphics are grainy. Mario is alternately too close and hard to control or too far away and too tiny to enjoy seeing. The scale of the levels stands out only in the Seaside Kingdom, where the camera perspective is low and the height of a beanstalk that grows and of an umbrella-jumping challenge convey some sense of scale.

Breath of the Wild’s VR is also deflating. In theory, you could play through the entirety of this all-time-great game in the new VR mode. It’s a toggle from the game’s main menu. But to do so would appear to be folly. The VR mode for this game doesn’t immerse you in it. There’s no turning of your head to peer around at a virtual world around you.

Instead, Breath of the Wild’s VR offering amounts to presenting the game - through the goggles - with stereoscopic 3D depth in a perspective that stays fixed in front of you. You’ll feel like you’re a little closer to Link’s world, but the Switch isn’t able to—and likely can’t—render the world as if it surrounds you.

Instead, it’s more like you opted to buy the more expensive 3D movie experience but are still sitting in a theatre seat with the graphics locked in front of you.

Like Odyssey, Breath of the Wild is much grainier in VR. It also has a stripped down interface that hides the game’s mini-map and makes the the health counter hard to read as its row of hearts bends out of the user’s peripheral vision.

Breath of the Wild’s VR may bring you closer to the action, but that is offset by grainy graphics and a stripped-down user interface.
For comparison, a similar moment in Breath of the Wild not in VR.

Compounding the limitations I’ve already listed is the fact that VR for the Nintendo Switch is a considerable arm workout. The Labo kit’s VR goggles have no head strap. To use them, you have to hold the goggles, which, remember, are cardboard but contain a Nintendo Switch, up to your face.

It’s no wonder that Mario Odyssey’s VR mode repeatedly encourages the user to take breaks. That’s probably for arm health, but, phew, it’s tiring to hold the ostensibly light Switch up for five, 10, 15 minutes while running around in some Mario world. How would someone play the entire Zelda game this way?

Well, Breath of the Wild’s fixed camera angle - the fact that turning your head doesn’t change the angle at which you see the game world—means you can at least lay on your back and play while holding the goggles to your face. Note that the Switch’s controllers need to be affixed to the system, so you’re playing while basically holding the controllers near your cheeks. It’s weird and not at all a good way to play on Switch.

If there’s one thing Nintendo’s Mario VR is great at, it’s warning the user to take breaks.

VR game design is still a young format. Top developers struggle to provide gamers with great experiences in this ostensibly magical tech that lets us get inside a virtual world. It was exciting that Nintendo was going to try, first with its custom Labo VR games but then also with VR for its two flagship franchises.

Sadly, even the brilliant minds of Nintendo weren’t able to tack great or even good VR onto their Mario and Zelda games.

Seeing these game worlds in the kind of VR that the Switch can render just isn’t exciting. Nintendo has surely heard this before, but given the lacklustre results of VR for these Nintendo titles, may I humbly suggest they try something else? Perhaps, VR Pokémon Snap?


Comments

    "Yucky," was the first word to come to mind.

    Breath of the Wild absolutely has head tracking though, you just need to enable it in the menu ????

    See that's what I mean experiencing VR in Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild does not live up to Nintendo's standards.
    That's because Doug Bowser's idea to introduce the Nintendo Labo VR Kit was absolute rubbish.
    Putting together the VR goggles is time consuming you would be wasting hours trying to put it all together it won't give you the VR experience you want and at $120 it's not worth it.
    Making VR goggles out of cardboard isn't going to last long and if you put it away somewhere your VR goggles will start attracting all that dust and the fact that you don't need a head strap for the Nintendo Labo VR Kit not so good.
    Nintendo you really need to go back to square one this Nintendo Labo VR Kit is utter garbage.
    And the free software updates for Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is not good at all.
    If you really want to spend $120 spend it on Yoshi's Crafted World which is absolutely fantastic also spend your $120 on Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled because that's what I'm going to be doing I'm going to be getting Crash Team Racing when it comes out in June.
    Doug Bowser if you're listening you seriously need to go back to square one and bring us a headset made of plastic because it's more durable than the Nintendo Labo VR goggles made of cardboard also do include a head strap because people will love it if you include a head strap.
    But the Nintendo Labo VR Kit no way Doug Bowser people are not interested in your idea and we won't be supporting you and your hard work if you don't include a VR headset made of plastic included with a head strap.
    So please Doug Bowser I'm begging you please bring us a plastic VR headset with a head strap otherwise we won't be supporting you for your hard work and you'll be the one that's saying sorry.

    I just tried Breath of the Wild then - it’s pretty fantastic. I could see myself playing through the whole game again (a 9th time), perhaps with a modified nose-piece, because here’s how to actually do it:

    Lie on your back in bed, detach your joy cons, place the VR over your eyes, earplugs in - stretch out your arms and enjoy.

    This was surprisingly comfortable for 30min, but for a bit of pressure on part of my nose - the switch does not weigh much at all without the joy cons but some extra padding might help for a super long session.

    You would not play through BOTW the first time this way - the minimap is missing entirely and the tooltips- you basically just see your hearts. Still if you know where you’re going as I certainly do by now, it’s a blast.

    Using a nearly complete save game I took a tour of Hyrule. Most impressive were areas with a lots of scale - the maze in the North East, the Lake with the dragon, flying down off the great plateau and some of the shrine interiors. Least impressive were areas with choppy frame rates (Kakariko village - the lost woods wasn’t too bad) and fairy fountains - mainly because they used a lot of cheats for the grass and foliage. On a hill I was amazed by the vegetation in 3D, but by a fountain - a lot of that grass is not 3D and this gives it away.

    And if this sounds ludicrous - you can actually tilt your head around slightly to aim your bow without it falling off. Because it’s basically 3D + feels like you’re sitting in front of a 900 inch screen, it feels like you’re there, but without the usual VR dizziness. Blocky as hell of course, but well worth trying out if you have an opportunity.

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