Thinking Outside the Box
Nintendo is historically a toy company, originally known for releasing playing cards and inventions like the Ultra Hand. Now, the big N manufactures video games, but it still continues to revolutionize within that field – Wii Sports, for instance. The company’s latest innovation is the Nintendo Labo, which combines cardboard box building with the technology of the Nintendo Switch.
Check out the Video Review for a more hands-on look at Nintendo Labo!
The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit features five primary projects, also known as Toy-Cons, named after the Switch controller, the Joy-Con. The projects include: a remote controlled car, fishing rod, house, motorbike, and piano. The package contains all necessary building pieces, which mostly consist of large perforated cardboard sheets, plus the software that makes it work.
With the exception of the car, which takes ten minutes to build, each project takes about two to four hours to complete. Building was the most relaxing part for me, and I didn’t mind sitting down for hours tinkering away at toy crafting. Nintendo effectively streamlines the process so that younger builders and non-DIY types like me can construct with relative ease. Although each project is a diverse endeavor, they all consist of punching out perforated cardboard pieces, folding creased lines, making 3D shapes, and inserting tabs into holes, so the tasks eventually become second nature. While this is a great project for children to hone their fine motor skills, they may need some assistance with certain actions like tying knots or applying rubber bands. In this way, Nintendo Labo functions well as a family or group activity.
Those worried about the daunting construction will be glad to know that the Switch tablet displays incredibly thorough step-by-step directions. Additionally, the interface shows detailed 3D images that can be rotated and zoomed using typical smartphone finger gestures. If you ever need to suspend crafting, the game saves your spot. Alternatively, you can jump to any step you’ve completed or rewind the instructions.
It was fascinating seeing how each step contributed to the whole project, and the finished products delivered a huge sense of accomplishment. Before detailing each project, I’ll note some general thoughts. First, I actually enjoyed building more than playing with the toys. That’s not to downplay them; the Toy-Cons are extremely clever, interacting with the Switch controllers’ hardware to function as playable cardboard models. It’s seriously bonkers that they actually work. Nonetheless, the toys are shallow in terms of gameplay. They skew towards younger children, their intended demographic, who might rather play around as opposed to fiddle with deep mechanics.
That being said, the cardboard, while fairly sturdy, is a fragile product. Even during building, there were some moments when I thought the cardboard would bend or break apart. Repeated use will likely wear them out. Consider also that the toys require the expensive Nintendo Switch console and Joy-Con controllers. I was already uneasy sticking my tablet in and out of the cardboard tools.
Older builders may be more impressed with the inner workings of each Toy-Con. Thankfully, Labo comes with an informative “Discover” mode, a series of in-depth explanations of how each toy works, presented as a conversation between three cartoon characters. It also offers troubleshooting tips and ideas on how to further utilize each product, such as creating your own imaginative minigames or decorating your toys. I admire how transparent Nintendo was in revealing Labo’s secrets, making it an incredible learning tool for both kids and adults. It brought so much insight into the Joy-Con’s intricacies, and I’d believe it if you told me that Labo was in development before the Switch came to be.
Now, here’s a brief overview of each Toy-Con. First, the remote-controlled car is by far the simplest, both in build difficulty and design. It barely resembles a car; instead of wheels, the Joy-Con’s rumble feature vibrates the cardboard piece along, which is admittedly pretty smart. The car’s most clever application is its auto-drive function, achieved using the Joy-Con’s IR camera and reflective stickers. But the car is more of an introductory project than anything. At least the variety pack lets you build two so you can play with a friend.
The motorbike is more substantial to make and play with. By crafting a bike handle, you can use the Joy-Con’s gyro motion controls to compete in races. It’s a neat combo of arcade bike sims, Excitebike, and Mario Kart’s steering wheel peripheral. Unfortunately, the tracks and bike speeds are limited, so the gameplay isn’t deep. But the track editor mode is interesting. You can either form a track as you drive or construct tools that let you scan real objects to create the terrain. Although the editor is fun to explore, it grows stale without real multiplayer support.
The fishing rod was one of my favorites to build, incorporating real string and pulleys to simulate the pastime. Interestingly enough, most of the physical parts are for show, such as a tab that only exists to produce a crank noise. It demonstrates how much thought was put into each toy. The fishing minigame plays out like a simple, relaxing arcade game. You can extend your line down into the deep ocean floor, tugging and reeling in any caught fish, which you can transfer into a virtual aquarium. The simulation works well thanks to the Joy-Con’s gyroscope, and there’s a satisfying challenge in catching ‘em all.
The most unique Toy-Con, the house, hosts a virtual creature inside, which you can feed like a Tamagotchi. The house itself isn’t difficult to build with its big parts, but the smaller interactive devices are tricky. What devices, you ask? They consist of a button, crank, key, and link cable. Each device performs various actions when you insert them into the house’s openings, like changing day to night or filling the room with water. The real highlights are the nine minigames that you unlock through certain device combinations. For instance, you can discover bowling, shooting gallery, and minecart minigames. Don’t expect anything more than light 30 second experiences, but the variety of bitesize games are great for kids.
The last Toy-Con, the piano, was the most time consuming to put together, but the end result is one of the deepest to experiment with. You can simply play music on the toy piano, or tinker with a studio mode that utilizes the toy’s more complex functions: recording music, pulling a lever to change octaves, scanning paper to adjust pitch, and conducting with a baton. The piano is surprisingly versatile, despite only having 13 keys. It’s obviously nowhere near as effective as a real keyboard, but it’s not bad for a pint-sized piano.
The final, hidden feature of Labo, the Toy-Con garage, is a perfect sendoff that essentially transforms its users into programmers and engineers. Within, you apply everything you’ve learned and code programs on your Switch – for instance, a program that vibrates your controllers or plays a sound when you press part of the touch screen. By combining this surprisingly deep mode with your cardboard toys, you can create whatever your imagination inspires, from guitars to cardboard people. I look most forward to seeing what novel ideas Labo stimulates.
I was skeptical coming into Nintendo Labo, but I ended up enjoying the building and learning processes. The variety kit’s five Toy-Cons may keep kids busy for a while, but their lack of depth will eventually bore older gamers, who may find more excitement from the other Labo kit, the cardboard robot. Regardless, Labo can work as a family project as it fosters teachable moments and valuable skills like fine motor, following directions, and making connections. However, the high asking price may be a deterrent. As neat as the mechanics are, it is cardboard and won’t last forever – not to mention you need a Switch, making it more expensive than other DIY kits or STEM products. All things considered, kids, kids at heart, and creative crafters will find the innovative Labo more worthwhile. Truly, Nintendo has once again thought outside the box.
What do you think of Nintendo Labo? Is it ingenious or a waste of cardboard? Which Toy-Con looks most interesting to you? What Toy-Con would you like Nintendo to make? Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments section below! Thank you so much for reading and watching!
For more on Labo, please be sure to check out our Hands-On and Unboxing Video of the Variety Kit!