Growing up, I was the kind of kid who found hours of fun playing with shoeboxes, or empty water bottles, or even just rocks I found on the ground. It’s been more than 14 years since my grade school days, when dirt-cheap toys could sustain my interest. Now, gaming is finally capitalizing it with Nintendo Labo — and after going hands-on with it, I feel like Nintendo may have even perfected the experience of making your own fun.
Nintendo has captured the childlike imagination and do-it-yourself spirit that made playing with cardboard boxes fun, and paired it with actual video game software ... oh, and cardboard boxes.
“Nintendo Labo is a set of interactive, build-and-play experiences,” said Marc Franklin, senior PR director for Nintendo of America, during a hands-on event in New York City showing off the Labo line today.
That’s a good way of summing it up. Here’s another explanation: Nintendo Labo is a toy and software line featuring cardboard pieces that players can put together and then play with, using the Switch console and controllers. Each project, known as a Toy-Con, must first be built; every Labo kit includes sheets of branded cardboard, and the software itself has detailed, interactive instructions on how to make them. When that’s done, it’s time to play with the Toy-Cons — Nintendo designed unique minigames for all six of its first wave of projects.
Despite my childhood love of building my own fun from virtually nothing, the Toy-Cons are more like Lego sets than empty boxes that you fashion into spaceships. I had the chance to build two different projects during the event: the small RC car, which looks more like a giant beetle shell for the Joy-Cons, and the much more complex fishing rod. Because of the instructions, neither of them was especially difficult to construct — but they took far longer to make and offered much less leeway than what I imagine you get with most DIY toy kits.
Scanning the projects you can make and play with in the Labo software’s main menu, I saw some helpful stats immediately, including the length of time it takes to actually put one of these projects together. For the RC car, Nintendo estimates that the average person will take 10 minutes to build it. (I’m not the average person; it probably took me 20.) That factors in all the time to punch out the perforated cardboard pieces, crease them, fold them, crease them again and connect them to the Joy-Cons. Other projects take way longer: Nintendo estimates that the fishing rod, which we also tried to construct, could take as long as two and a half hours to put together.
The step-by-step instructions note that you should handle the cardboard carefully, which is easier said than done. My raging perfectionism and anxiety meant that I was “folding neatly” until my hands started to ache. The good news is that, after 10 (or 20) minutes of meticulous building, I had a fully functional RC car.
Figuring out how to use it was another learning process; the minigame it’s paired with is a bit obtuse, as steering is relegated to touchscreen versions of the Joy-Cons. The RC car basically jitters to the right or the left, depending on which Joy-Con you tap; touching both makes it go in as much of a straight line as the little thing can muster.
It turned out that the best part of the RC car wasn’t playing with it; it was making the thing, and knowing I made it myself. That’s an important thing to teach kids, who are admittedly the obvious target audience here. Patience is indeed a virtue, and that’s good to reinforce. Watching the toy you built yourself get animated by your favorite gaming system is a truly special takeaway, especially since Nintendo is keen on ensuring that builders come away from their projects with a full understanding of the mechanics powering them.
After we made our cars, the Nintendo reps taught us a little bit about the underlying engineering. Using a combination of reflective stickers and the right Joy-Con’s infrared camera, the reps could have the cars follow their hand or stop moving entirely. That’s the auto-drive mode, another version of which uses the heat from your hand to attract the car. There’s a little heat-mapped image that shows how that functionality works, and it uses the camera to actually display your hand on the Switch tablet.
We also got to see how the piano Toy-Con works, which really enforced the idea that the Labo kits are more than just magic. There’s reflective IR tape behind each of the piano’s 13 keys, and when you press down on a key, the IR camera tracks the movement of the attached tape. It’s fascinating to take a look at the technology, and it’s a smart way to legitimize using Labo in, say, elementary school science class. There were plenty of educators at the press event, so it seems like they’re a big part of Nintendo’s pitch.
Still, I’d say it’s fair to have reservations about the Toy-Cons themselves, especially as an older Switch owner. The included cardboard, pretty as it is, likely won’t withstand energetic kids’ hands. (Hopefully the ability to color and decorate your projects will encourage children to take care of their cardboard creations, but ...) The majority of the minigames seem shallow, aside from a Mario Kart-like racing game and the house Toy-Con’s hub of several tinier minigames.
But Labo has my vote of confidence. The educational opportunities are plentiful and smart; the Toy-Con Garage feature that Nintendo showed us for the first time is a simple way of teaching the basics of programming. (The included app reduces the development process to ‘Action A leads to Reaction B,’ and so forth.) I got more excited thinking about how the feature would let me reprogram my existing Toy-Con projects, as well as create original ones, than I did building the premade default Toy-Cons — and I did find that process enchanting in and of itself.
There’s at least one gameplay opportunity that I’m really excited to try again. Playing with the Robot Kit — the more expensive of the two kits available at launch — gave me the feeling that Labo has legs. I didn’t get to craft the giant fighting robot myself, which I’m OK with; it looks like a daunting exercise. There are foot straps, a visor and a big backpack with its own set of straps. I can’t imagine successfully putting it together, but I’m sure doing so would be one of my proudest accomplishments.
The game it comes with is almost as impressive as the robot contraption; it seems like a clear successor to that old Wii U demo, Project Giant Robot, in that the game uses the Toy-Con to ... turn you into a giant robot. I crunched vehicles by stomping my feet, squatted to turn into a car, and punched with my fists to destroy buildings and UFOs. It was cathartic and wonderful.
I spent about two hours toying (forgive me) with the Nintendo Labo line and all it has to offer thus far. I felt the same way I did on the playground years and years ago, when I dreamed up scenarios with my own toys. Nintendo has latched onto that magical, imaginative time and brought it inside the classroom — without losing any of the wonder.
So far, Nintendo Labo seems like more than a short-term Switch add-on. When it launches on April 20, it may become a whole new educational platform.