The initial charm of Nintendo Labo, the Switch’s cardboard cutouts-turned-peripherals, may have already worn thin. But Nintendo’s third swing at the family-friendly learning tools, a.k.a. the cardboard toys that now live in our closets, seems like an upgraded iteration on what still seems like a brilliant idea.
Our first time constructing the different pieces of the Variety Kit felt wonderful, giving us real ownership over our peripherals. With Labo, gaming was less about technology, and more about the spirit of fun — and through toys in particular. But the compatible games lacked the lasting appeal to make Labo’s first offerings must buys. The Variety Kit feels like a Nintendo Switch minigame collection that doesn’t encourage much repeat play; it’s more like a showcase for the potential of the DIY hardware.
That’s where Nintendo’s third stab at producing a Labo set, September’s Vehicle Kit, already feels like an improvement. The Vehicle Kit combines the core premise of Labo — the wonderment of creating your own playthings — with the most basic tenet of a good game: something you want to play multiple times over.
We tried out the Vehicle Kit at a media event, where it was clear that Nintendo’s priorities had shifted. We were no longer given ample time to construct numerous, multi-step Toy-Con projects; instead, the only project we had to complete was a large casing for a Joy-Con, referred to as a key. This key plugs into the four different main events of the set: a steering wheel, submarine telescope, flight stick and acceleration pedal. It’s the most essential part of the entire kit, which we were mercifully spared from building out.
I understand that the whole “do it yourself” bit is an integral part of Labo’s pitch; but I also understand that some of these projects take hours, and even making the small key had me bemoaning my inaccurate folds. That frustration faded once Nintendo volunteers passed along the steering wheel and pedal to play around with, as well as handing off the flight stick so that we could do co-op. (The submarine The Vehicle Kit became much more than a cardboard construction set at that moment: It was the home to a diverse array of games.
There’s Adventure Mode, an open-world tour through a number of areas, each one with a set of missions to complete. These include using your RV to move very funny talking cows into their pen (which we destroyed with the bazooka that the second player, who rides in the back, gets to wield); landing your biplane onto a tower; and even driving a giant golf ball into a giant hole in the middle of a pasture. There are also reminders to fuel up your car, as well as options to attach a giant saw to either side, turn on a radio and use your windshield wipers.
Adventure Mode is quirky in that classic Nintendo way, and not all of the control options felt perfect. Driving a car is simple, since we’ve all played driving games. The flight stick controls are a bit wonky, since they’re based on the gyro sensor in the Joy-Con; using the submarine controller when our car ended up underwater meant switching between Toy-Cons and quickly trying to learn how to maneuver in a different kind of space. But everything we did felt vast and interesting to explore, especially since we barely left the meadow we started in. We can’t say the same about any of the individual games in the Variety Kit, and it seems to have more longevity than the Robot Kit’s main play mode.
There are several other ways to play in the Vehicle Kit too, and each of these felt more like the lighthearted multiplayer trials we find in Mario Kart and the like. A battle mode gives two cars power-ups and robot arms to whittle down each other’s health, or better yet, knock each other out of the ring. The goal is to rack up the most knockouts before time runs out. Steering with the wheel definitely takes practice, so we plummeted to our own deaths instead of knocking each other out during our match. But that just made us want to try again whenever we next had the chance, which is something I never said about the Variety Kit’s game selection.
A slot car race is also familiar and fun, using only the pedal to guide your little car around tracks with myriad loops and turns. Warning: This game is hard. Very hard. But it’s also one we’d like to practice more, as many racing games encourage. Speeding up and braking just so are skills learned over time, not intuited — and the Vehicle Kit seems to embody that throughout all of the modes we played.
With all of these multiplayer offerings, you may feel like you need two of the kits so that at least two people can tag in and play together. That’s not the case, as Nintendo has introduced a new mode called Custom Controls into this latest Labo set. This gives players the option to take the Joy-Con key and attach it to any kind of setup they want to craft a pedal, steering wheel or otherwise. The Toy-Con Garage, which also returns in the Vehicle Kit, does a similar thing, but Custom Controls seems more dedicated to getting players thinking about which household items they and their friends can transform into controllers.
Cutest of all? A spray paint studio that lets you customize your cars. This, again, feels kind of wonky, but there’s a neat feature that lets you hold a cardboard cutout of any shape in front of the Joy-Con’s IR camera and color it in like a stencil. (I was extremely terrible at this, but true artistes should be able to do some cool stuff here.)
All things considered, it feels like Nintendo Labo’s first year is one of experimentation. Isn’t that the entire idea behind the Switch add-on, anyway? This new experiment feels much closer to combining Nintendo’s vision for the Toy-Cons with what the company is best known for. We can’t yet speak to the Vehicle Kit’s longevity, but based on what we’ve seen, this $69.99 box not only includes new cardboard projects to construct, but also endearing games that make you want to use them way more than once.
The Nintendo Labo Vehicle Kit for Nintendo Switch hits retail on Sept. 14.