What is Nintendo Labo?
Nintendo is a company that has always distanced itself from the type of squabbles that Sony and Microsoft find themselves in, instead choosing to forge its own path. This was true with the introduction of the Nintendo Switch, and it’s true of the Nintendo Labo – a product that showcases the company’s outside-the-box thinking at its finest.
On first viewing Labo’s unveil video, I was equal parts intrigued, excited and mystified. One of the world’s largest consumer electronics and video games companies had just pulled the wraps off a series of build-your-own cardboard playsets. Come again?
The cynic in me thought that Nintendo was perhaps trying to capitalise on the popularity of maker kits, but after consideration, Labo didn’t really fit that profile. It is, at best, tangential to the likes of LEGO, Meccano and, perhaps, Kano – but in truth, it’s something wholly different.
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Nintendo Labo turns the notion of Ikea-like flat-pack assembly into something considerably greater than the sum of its parts. It’s able to capture some unique form of entertainment magic that neither construction toys, nor games consoles alone have been able to conjure independently.
Nintendo Labo Variety Kit Review – What’s in the box?
I started my Labo experience with the Variety Kit, the option that, on paper, looks to provide you and your kids – if you choose to share it with them – with the most bang for your buck. But what does £60-worth of Nintendo-branded build-your-own cardboard entertainment actually look like?
Lift the lid and you’re presented with the game cartridge in a decidedly plain-looking Switch game case. Each Labo kit comes with its own cartridge, and the cases themselves even have a dedicated space for you to sign your name, like a school workbook. It’s a great way, right from the get-go, to get across the concept that this is for your kids to make their own. Inside, you’ll find a wealth of instructional entertainment.
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Ironically, there are actually a few pieces of cardboard that aren’t part of the Labo experience, and are instead simply packing material. You could toss them into the recycling bin. However, they’re not far off the grade and thickness of the stuff Nintendo has supplied for the actual kit pieces, so the frugal among you could certainly keep them aside for customisation, repairs and other extensions of the Labo experience, if you wish.
Aside from the ‘Getting started’ guide (which is printed on the first half-sheet of cardboard you encounter), you’ll find a pack of assorted rubber bands of varying sizes, assorted string of varying length and colour, eyelet sets, three sponge sheets and reflective sticker sheets.
Also in the case is a stack of cardboard sheets that have been cleanly laser cut, pre-perforated and printed to make up the Variety Pack’s five principle projects, plus a few other extras for good measure.
It’s nice that even though Nintendo could have easily made mention of the other Labo kits available on either the Variety Kit’s box or within its companion software as a sort of internal advert, it has chosen not to.
Nintendo Labo Variety Kit Review – Make
Nintendo’s tagline for Labo is “Make. Play. Discover”, so I thought I’d review the Variety Kit with those terms in mind.
The fundamentals of Labo should be easy enough for all except the youngest of makers to grasp. Nintendo’s minimum age of three seems a little too young considering the concepts and capabilities that Labo is designed to realise, so bear that in mind. Nevertheless, Labo makes for an excellent group activity that you can complete together.
It’s a testament to the simplicity of the Labo instructions that the principles established in the tutorial you’re pushed into when you first slot in the game cartridge translate to the most complex projects almost exactly.
You build Labo using a step-by-step ‘video’, but to call it such is a bit disingenuous. Labo’s instructions offer greater clarity than that afforded to you by a printed LEGO booklet, primarily thanks to the fact that they’re on the Switch. You advance the guide by pressing the ‘forward’ button on-screen, or the A button on the Joy-Con, and you can even fast-forward (or rewind) to move through the steps faster.
Should you run into a particularly tricky section, the guide fully supports touch (or the Joy-Cons), so you can actually manipulate the camera on the current step you’re on. You can rotate, pan and zoom in or out, until you’re happy that you know what to do next.
Labo reiterates these steps in text-based guidance, too, but even here it packs in charm and character that serves no purpose other than to elevate the experience beyond expectation, while also adding a little humour into the mix.
I only wish there was an auto-advance option, as having to press and hold the Joy-Con or touchscreen to see what’s coming next is both tiresome and stops you from building.
As for the cardboard itself, it comes in what look to be E flute-grade sheets – around the same thickness as your average pizza box. There are 28 sheets in all, with simple colouring and a clean, consistent art style that matches the cardboard box aesthetic. A trait that’s beautifully realised when you complete each project.
As a company, Nintendo has a decidedly locked-in approach to the majority of the experiences it offers, and peripherals have famously served as one of its staple money-spinners – how many white plastic Wii tennis rackets and steering wheels did you eventually throw out?
However, this is yet another aspect that makes Labo so intriguing. Not only is the choice of materials environmentally friendly, but it’s far more accessible, affordable and interchangeable than any previous Nintendo add-on.
The projects, called Toy-Cons, are arranged in order of estimated construction time and complexity. You can make the Toy-Cons in any order, but the RC car takes the shortest time at approximately 15 minutes (the times appear to factor in building each project with a child) and introduces you to a few new concepts beyond the tutorial, without throwing you in at the deep end.
Labo’s design also showcases some truly ingenious methods of folding, fastening and strengthening a humble piece of cardboard to make some great, robust educational toys.
The guidance on offer from the Switch is excellent – for child or impatient adult alike – but, chances are, you’ll want to pop all of the pre-cut pieces out of the cardboard sheets from the get-go. But you must resist!
Building each Labo Toy-Con is a progressively more substantial test of patience, restraint and focus than the last. The pinnacle of the Variety Kit is the piano, and with an estimated build time of 3hrs 20mins, the construction experience won’t be for everyone, at least in a single sitting. You have been warned.
Nintendo Labo Variety Kit Review – Play
Once you’ve built a Toy-Con (or all of them), it’s time to play. The Variety Kit really lives up to its name here. The RC car uses the vibrations from the Joy-Cons mounted on each side to rumble across a flat surface, steered using touch-based tank controls displayed on the Switch’s screen.
The fishing rod has a telescopic design and a real line that runs behind the mounted Switch console, where it’s replaced by a virtual on-screen representation that matches its movements exactly. As you tug and yank to one side or reel in, the virtual line follows with impressive cohesion and synchronicity.
With the Joy-Cons connected to the various Toy-Cons, you open the related experience under the ‘Play’ section of the software. It’s at this point that things come alive in a way that far surpasses expectations, not to mention the sense of achievement that comes with having built the peripheral with which you’re now playing. And to think, said toy was once just a flat piece of cardboard.
The house offers the most unusual experience in the box. The Switch acts as a window inside, revealing a little character with which you can interact. Simply pick up the whole thing and move it around or insert the buttons and cranks that you built into the house’s various slots. Each ‘tool’ results in a different effect; each time I tried a different combination of accessories, I found myself genuinely delighted by the weird and wacky situation Nintendo had placed me in.
At launch, the Motorbike offered the most predictable – albeit enjoyable – experience of the whole Variety Kit, most likely because it was the most like a conventional video game in its execution.
However, keen to show that it isn’t going to let the genius of Labo go to waste, Nintendo has already added value to the experience by offering cross-game support for the Motorbike Toy-Con in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. With this in mind, I suspect the company has even bigger plans for Labo’s Toy-Cons going forward, and it’s a strategy I wholly welcome.
The Piano is arguably the most charming of the Toy-Cons in the Variety Kit. Not only have you built an instrument from cardboard, but you’ve learnt how its intricate design translates your key presses into sound (the right Joy-Con’s IR camera reads the reflective tape that you attach to the back of each piano key).
The cardboard ‘bolts’ that you build then slot in to augment the sound, changing it to an old man yelling or a chorus of cats meowing. It’s more weird, wonderful Nintendo fun and I loved my time with it.
Nintendo Labo Variety Kit Review – Discover
So you and your kids have built all the Toy-Cons in the Variety Kit, perhaps you’ve gone to town with markers and stickers, customising everything too. You’ve ridden the bike, caught some fish, and mastered “Mary had a Little Lamb” on the piano. So now what?
If you’re not yet convinced, it’s at this point that I felt that the Labo Variety Kit wholly justified its asking price.
There are two parts to the ‘discover’ element of Labo, starting with the pre-made experiences. You can ‘open up’ the virtual controller of the RC car, like opening up the bonnet of an actual car, and inspect its inner workings.
If your car had a tendency to drift to the left or the right, here you can tweak the frequency at which each Joy-Con vibrates to balance things out. The right Joy-Con’s IR camera flares into life and you can essentially use it to give your RC car night vision, or flip on the ‘auto’ switch and have it move based on whatever it ‘sees’ nearby.
There’s even a two-player mode, if you construct a second RC car and slot in a second set of Joy-Cons, all powered by the one Switch console. And this is all applies to just the first Toy-Con project in the box. Every project offers a variety of experiences.
Use the Piano in Studio mode and you can lay up to eight tracks, add reverb and other effects. You can make your own custom sounds by cutting card into any shape you want and having the IR camera scan the waveform it generates.
At this point let me remind you that this is a child’s toy, made out of cardboard and a couple of game controllers. The scope of what Labo makes possible with the tools it provides borders on limitless if you spend enough time with it – and I haven’t even got to the Toy-Con Garage yet.
Up until this point, if your Nintendo Labo experience has been anything like mine – by which I mean highly enjoyable – you’ll have built and learnt how each Toy-Con is made and works with the Switch’s hardware, played with everything, and rooted about in the various game menus to see what else there is to offer. You’ll eventually unlock the Toy-Con Garage, which will reveal an entirely new set of tools to play with.
Gone is the cartoon-like aesthetic of the rest of the Labo software. The Garage is a far more involved experience that requires yet more patience and concentration.
In essence, Nintendo has developed a block-based coding system, where you link cause and effect ‘nodes’ by dragging ties from one block to another. You can customise how each block behaves and create as complex a web as your brain can muster.
A look on YouTube or Twitter should give you some idea of what enterprising Labo engineers have been able to construct from thin air using Garage’s open-ended toolset. As I’ve already said, there’s essentially no end to what can be made using Labo in this way.
Why should I buy Nintendo Labo?
The Variety Kit is arguably the best way to discover and gain an understanding of the Labo platform works, demonstrated through its excellent instructions and diverse functionality. Even having built all the Toy-Cons and played with them, however, you’ve still only enjoyed part of what Nintendo Labo has to offer.
Sure, it’s predominantly made from cardboard and the Toy-Cons will wear out faster than the plastic Nintendo accessories of old. However, there are already first and third-party replacement supplies available, free blueprints to print and cut yourself. There are countless ways to breathe new life into the experience should it start to become stale.
With Nintendo Labo, there really is something here for everyone. Whether child or adult, Labo’s ‘Make. Play. Discover’ progression brings new ways of delighting and challenging all in equal measure.
The open-ended nature and discovery-driven creativity of Nintendo Labo sets it apart from anything else out there. Provided you have the patience for it, your efforts will be rewarded countless times over.
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