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Nintendo Labo is custom-built for nerdy parents like me and their curious kids

STEM and educational toy companies will need to up their game

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Today’s announcement of Nintendo Labo — a line of custom-made cardboard projects for Nintendo Switch — made me so happy that it literally brought tears to my eyes. That’s because my daughters and I have been doing projects like these for years, but none of them ever promised this kind of magic.

Just last night I was sitting with my oldest, who will turn eight this year, and making a catapult. We’d recently received the gift of a subscription to Tinker Crate, which ships kids and parents unique, STEM-based engineering projects once a month. Inside our first box was a well-crafted set of laser-cut wooden parts, rubber bands and plastic bolts, as well as kid-friendly instructions on how to make our catapult. By the end of the night, my daughter was beaming, giggling to herself as she practiced addition to add up our scores in the game she had just made.

It’s not the first time we’ve been a customer of KiwiCo, the company that makes Tinker Crate, Kiwi Crate and other similar boxed educational products. Through them, my daughters and I have grown closer together as we practice the fundamentals of the scientific method, the parts of the human body, the basics of optics and even color theory.

But what Nintendo has just introduced to the world is an order of magnitude more exciting. I just showed my daughter and her friend the Labo video, and they were cheering, jumping for joy at the prospect of building their own robot and a piano.

These two Girl Scouts are positively ecstatic at the possibilities they were shown. Now it’s up to Nintendo to follow through.

One of the reasons that we initially stopped our Kiwi Crate subscription years ago is because we began to feel that the quality of those projects had begun to taper off. The way its subscription model works is that the first set that you receive is essentially guaranteed. What it advertises is exactly what you get in that first box. Some projects are available a la carte, but more often than not, a subscription model kicks in and you get whatever’s on the menu that month.

Over time, we felt that those projects became less fun. But, recently, KiwiCo has refreshed its business and projects. That’s part of why we signed back up.

“Is that a HEXBUG, daddy?” No honey, that’s its replacement.

The lesson here is that Nintendo can’t simply capture children’s interest: It must keep it. If Nintendo Labo is simply another version of Wii Sports — an exceptional but limited selection of experiences — it will not have a very long lifespan. What we’ve been shown so far better be the tip of the iceberg, because no one goes through content faster than a kid that’s hungry for knowledge.

What has me on Nintendo’s side for Labo is simply how these toys are being built. Many of the items that KiwiCo sends out to its customers each month are made of plastic or wood. Everything that Nintendo showed in the initial Labo trailer is made out of cardboard. It all packs flat, like a piece of Ikea furniture. That makes it cheap to make and cheap to ship.

If Nintendo can keep the cost low and pump out new experiences that are compelling on a regular basis, my daughters and I could be customers for a long, long time.

But you can be sure that, when that robotic backpack breaks, I, as a parent, will have a crisis on my hands. It sure as hell better be easy to get a replacement sheet of cardboard the day that Nintendo Labo comes out, or Nintendo could have a lot of unhappy children on their hands.