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What every parent should know about Nintendo Labo

Don’t throw anything away

Nintendo Labo - man and boy build robot suit backpack
“No, Timmy. I don’t have a clue how to fix that.”
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.

As the proud owner of several curious, industrious children I shed a literal tear when I learned about Nintendo Labo, the line of custom-made cardboard contraptions for the Nintendo Switch. Here is a toy specifically designed for nerdy parents like me. Since its announcement yesterday I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I’m going to introduce it to my kids.

Here’s my best bet of what you should expect from these soon-to-be-released kits, as well as my thoughts on what I hope Nintendo does to keep this brilliant little system from being just another flash in the pan.

If you have children under the age of eight, your first purchase should absolutely be the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit. At the very least, it’s going to give you a couple of bites at the apple just to see if your kid is interested in the first place.

Before you even bring the thing into the house, however, you need to have a serious conversation. You will need to explain that the Nintendo Switch is not a toy, that it’s a computer and that mommy and daddy both have their The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild saved games sitting on there so under no circumstances should you spill your juice on it, alright?

The contents of the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit include two cars, a fishing pole, some sort of house playset, a motorcycle and a working piano. But it might include more, smaller projects to teach you how it all works.

But you’re also going to need to get into how fragile the thing truly is. Cardboard is only so strong, and rubber bands eventually give out. Explain to the kids that if you’re lucky this thing is going to last a few weeks before it breaks. Set their little expectations early, and later you can be the hero who picks up a replacement fishing pole after standing in line at the GameStop overnight. Because if you know anything about Nintendo, you know that even these replacement cardboard sheets are going to be few and far between on store shelves.

There’s also talk of Nintendo providing “templates” for do-it-yourselfers to roll their own sheets of cardboard at home. In fact, Nintendo tells Polygon that the unused portion of each cardboard sheet that come inside the box can be used to trace replacement parts. Certainly taking a picture or two of each sheet on your cell phone before you break them apart isn’t a bad idea. Maybe you can even get the local copy center to print you a new one.

Anticipate that your first few hours with the Nintendo Labo, whatever kit you get off the bat, will be frustrating for everyone involved. You’re going to lose a piece, probably, or tear something in a way that can’t be duct-taped back together. Again, set the expectation with your children that something is bound to go wrong and then work together to solve it when it does.

If we’re very lucky, the Labo will include a tutorial sheet or two. It’s common practice for other STEM-based educational toys to come with a few practice projects in the box. That way kids and parents get a feel for working with the concepts and the materials before moving on to the big show. But, knowing Nintendo, even if there isn’t a set of physical starter toys you’ll likely spend time going through a lengthy tutorial. Safe to say that little Timmy won’t be punching buildings down for at least an hour.

We’ve seen a few items, like a pedal and a sort of grinder, that can’t even be accounted for in the “five different Toy-Con projects” included in the Variety Kit. My hunch is that they’re either upcoming expansion packs or a kind of tutorial set that comes with every kit, something designed to introduce you to how the system works as a whole.

From the initial video, it looks like there’s something like a pulley system that Nintendo has cobbled together from inexpensive parts. They also make use of the Joy-Con’s IR sensor and its high-resolution motion sensing and rumble system. Nintendo will want to arm you with information in order to set you up to troubleshoot things when they don’t work as anticipated.

Again, be patient. You thought syncing the Joy-Cons was a pain in the rear when you moved from the television to the backseat of a minivan? Get ready to wrestle a three year-old to the ground before doing to same thing.

BEST nintendo labo kick pedal gif
What’s even is this? A fan? Or maybe it’s something that we haven’t been introduced to yet. If we’re lucky, it’s just one of many tools that Nintendo will help kids and parents build together, a building block that can later be used to make other things.

Finally, once things really take off for your family and you’re building this and playing that, start looking for aftermarket equipment. I anticipate a healthy cottage industry of Nintendo Labo-compatible 3D-printed kits to land on places like Shapeways almost immediately. Whether it’s just a stronger version of that one piece of that one project that tends to break for everyone, or a whole new way to interact with a given minigame, you can bet that the most interesting experiences will be dreamed up by the community of tinkerers and makers out there in the wild.

Listen, I’m not saying you’re going to hack the Switch and use it as the controls for a Super Mario-shaped flamethrower at next year’s Burning Man... right away. It’ll take at least until the holidays for that.

Finally, a word of caution: Moderate your own level of hype in front of the kids. What I haven’t seen yet from Nintendo is a commitment to use the Nintendo Labo to make functional components, working building blocks that can be repurposed into other things. To me, that’s a sign that it will be limited in its functionality.

The Joy-Con itself has multiple uses, to be sure. But Nintendo Labo doesn’t seem interested in making a big friendly button, for instance, or a set of gears, or the other kinds of simple machines that can be used in concert to make different things or support steady stream of downloadable titles. Each of these physical projects seems to be a one-off minigame, and some of them might not be any fun at all.

As cool as the remote-controlled “car” looks, if the game that’s attached to it is just as strange as milking a cow was when the Switch came out, things could go south really fast.

Either way, temper your children’s expectations as well as your own prior to release. That way everyone involved will have a better time when Nintendo Labo is finally unboxed.