A couple months ago, Nintendo proved once again that they’re not afraid to experiment. With Nintendo Labo, they managed to turn sheets of cardboard into their next big contribution to video games. Labo is a new series of play sets made for the Nintendo Switch that the company plans to launch in April. Each set contains the cardboard and building materials needed to create all kinds of toys, from cars to pianos to giant robot suits, that can be brought to life using the Switch and the console’s two Joy-Con controllers.
In San Francisco last week, Nintendo held a demo event to show us exactly how Labo works. We were able to build a couple of the cardboard Toy-Cons ourselves, try out all of the Labo toys that Nintendo will be releasing in April, and even got a look at Nintendo’s latest addition to Labo — the Toy-Con Garage, which lets you build Labo toys out of anything you have laying around the house!
We started out with a couple Toy-Cons from the Variety Kit. The remote-controlled car is the simplest one to build — it’s made from one piece of cardboard, with a small second piece providing a decorative RC antenna on the Switch. The cardboard pieces pop out of the sheets easily, and the Labo game that comes with the kit walks you through the process of folding the cardboard to create the car.
The instructions are really well done. At any point, you can fast-forward or rewind as fast or slow as you want by dragging your finger. Need to see the flip side of the model? You can rotate it on screen and zoom in or out. It’s really beginner friendly, which is key — some of the other Toy-Cons are a lot more complex.
Like, say, the fishing rod. The rod and reel have loads of cardboard pieces that need to fit together just right, requiring little plastic bolts to hold some pieces together. Best part? All the pieces fit together just right. Building the fishing rod, I was really impressed by how well-designed it was — tabs fit perfectly into slots and some ingenious folds help to keep the whole thing together without adding too many extra parts. Oh, and no need to throw out the leftover cardboard sheets once all the pieces have been popped out — they can be used as stencils for if one of your Toy-Cons gets destroyed, which, since we’re dealing with kids here, seems likely!
But, Labo isn’t just about creating IKEA-like cardboard toys. The cool part is how the toys actually come to life. The Switch’s Joy-Con controllers aren’t just buttons and joysticks — Nintendo loaded them up with precise motion sensors, vibration, and, on the right Joy-Con, an IR camera. Combining those controllers with the cardboard Toy-Cons opens up a surprisingly large world of possibilities. With the RC car, the controllers slide into the sides and make the car move forward or turn by using vibration, with the Switch’s touchscreen used for control. The fishing rod uses motion sensing — load one of the controllers into the reel, and it’ll know when you’re rotating it to reel in the line and when you’re yanking up on the rod to secure a bite. For the fishing game, the Switch slots into a cardboard case and displays the ocean and the fish you’re trying to catch. It’s pretty fun, and believe it or not, a fishing rod made of cardboard works pretty well!
The most clever Toy-Cons are the ones that use the IR camera. The right Joy-Con fits into the back of the piano, with the camera watching for patterns of tape on the backs of the keys. Press a key down, and the camera will pick that up and signal the Switch to play that key’s assigned note. There are even little modulator knobs you can switch in and out that work the same way, changing the sounds from piano notes to cats meowing to old dudes yawning. There’s even a lever to raise and lower pitch! It’s genuinely stunning how much they’ve been able to wring out of a bunch of cardboard and some extremely clever programming.
Then, there was the robot suit, which comes in its own separate kit. There’s pretty good reason for that! It’s a whole ordeal actually getting into the suit once it’s built, with a backpack, a couple of foot straps, a couple cardboard tabs to hold, and some headgear all included. One controller goes in the headgear, allowing you to turn the robot by tilting your head. The other uses its IR camera to look at the inner workings of that backpack — whenever you lift a leg or move an arm, you tug on a string that tells the controller to tell the game to move the robot forward, throw a punch, or take flight, all in the name of wanton city destruction. There’s a lot going on, but again, the gameplay itself works! The robot suit takes some getting used to more so than the others (and it might be difficult to get the kids to walk in place instead of running into the TV), but it’s also the one a lot of kids are probably going to enjoy the most.
And that might be the key to Labo’s success — putting the Toy-Cons together is pretty fun, but is the gameplay compelling enough to keep kids interested for more than a few days? I think it’ll vary by child and by Toy-Con — I can see the RC car becoming boring within a day, while the piano could end up being a go-to for the creatively-inclined kids out there. The robot suit seems like a lock to be an ongoing favorite for a lot of kids. And hey, if they Toy-Cons do get old, at least they can be easily recycled or composted!
Ultimately, the key to Labo’s long-term success might be the Toy-Con Garage. Toy-Con Garage makes it possible to use anything as a Toy-Con when used with the Joy-Con controllers and the Switch. The Garage itself will look familiar to programmers — it’s a basic input-output interface, where you can pair Joy-Con movement, button presses, or a whole host of other commands with outputs like sound and vibration. The Nintendo team showed off all kinds of instruments made out of household stuff like brooms — basically, you might want to keep whatever’s in your recycling bin handy. The Toy-Con Garage should not only keep Labo fresh, it’ll give it some credibility as an educational STEM toy that teaches basic coding concepts. Nintendo’s certainly not the first here, but Labo is one of the most enjoyable and clever ways I’ve ever seen it done.
But, with Labo, the only critics that really matter are the kids themselves. Good thing Nintendo encouraged attendees to bring their kids to the event! I don’t have any of those, but a lot of other people do! The kids at the event seemed to really enjoy building and decorating the Toy-Cons. When it came to playing with them, there were definitely favorites — the robot suit and the motorcycle handlebars for a racing game were getting a lot of love, while there wasn’t as much interest in the house Toy-Con, which is just a collection of minigames.
It’s clear that Labo is mostly for the kids, and I think it’ll be a hit for that crowd — there’s some real parent-child bonding potential. If you’ve already been cast into adulthood, you might even find something to love here without kids — popping out the cardboard pieces, folding them, and putting them together is probably the most therapeutic thing I’ve done all year.