There’s a reason why young children (and cats) prefer to play with the cardboard box, rather than the toy that came inside. A simple cardboard box gives them infinite ways to play and delivers hours of creative fun, just look up ‘Cardboard Box Office’ family for inventive, comical ideas inspired by pop culture. So is Labo’s ‘make, play and discover’ theme all it’s cut out to be? Let’s find out…
Nintendo’s no stranger to thinking outside of the box. While their roots were founded in playing cards, the company has invented a range of technology to encourage non-video game players to try something different. Before the Candy Crush and Farmville smartphone days, Nintendo’s Wii software was designed to bring joy to families with Wii Sports, whilst supporting a better quality life with Wii Fit. It created its Miiverse hub to stimulate creativity in the community, so that others could learn and save clever Mii designs to use within games. Fans, critics and tech-followers often claim these innovative uses of technology as a ‘very Nintendo’ approach. As a society, we’re evolving our business and personal relationships through a Cloud network, using technology as the facilitator. So in a world where other companies are focusing on streamlining technology to make it more lithe, more agile, more flexible, Nintendo are – with Labo – doing the opposite.
Cardboard is rigid, sturdy and able to withstand many hours of creative play. It’s one of the reasons why Nintendo chose to use cardboard instead of plastic for Labo. Developed by the Nintendo EPD team, and the brains behind 1-2 Switch and Miitopia, the inspiration for Labo originally stemmed from the way children used cardboard as playthings and was designed to educate users on the principles of engineering, physics and basic programming. But above all else, Nintendo wanted to specifically produce something that could inspire creativity in children, either as a solo project or as a team project with the help of siblings, friends or family. Labo encourages teamwork; it’s why UK schools are so interested in teaming up with Nintendo for educational purposes, too.
In a recent interview, Labo’s Director Tsubasa Sakaguchi, said: “I kept thinking about the [Joy-Con] controllers and what made them special, and eventually I realised it was the sensors – both the left and right controllers have sensors in them. If we made something with both Joy-Con attached to it, we could use the differential between their sensors to do all kinds of new things… that was really the start of [Labo].”
Let’s make: Toy-Con and Robot Kits
No matter which kit you obtain, making each toy-con follows a fairly similar format. Each kit contains several cardboard sheets, with perforated edges to easily pop out the individual cardboard pieces, and a colour-coded section in alphabetical order to distinguish each step or Toy-Con. Using your Switch console, Labo creators can easily follow the instructions on the screen and can zoom in/out, or fast-forward and rewind sections as they please by touching the screen. While the instructions are interactive to connect with a modern ‘YouTube’ audience, the written text that’s associated with the steps are light and humorous. Who knew following instructions could be so entertaining? If only we had boop-boops for assembling flat-pack furniture.
Depending on the Toy-Con you’re making, the time it takes to assemble can vary. For example the RC Car is estimated to take 10 minutes, while assembling the piano could take up to four hours. In essence, you’ll need to pick your solo and team projects wisely. On the other hand, the Robot ‘mech’ suit is designed for teamwork, ideally for 2-3 people, and often requires you to replicate a series of steps for power boxes, handholds, footholds and the backpack straps. With the number of little cardboard pieces you’ll need to pop out, making the Robot is time-consuming and far exceeds the 3-4 hours stated by Nintendo. If you’re working solo, it’s more likely to take anywhere between 6-8 hours, duos are likely to take anywhere between 4-6 hours instead.
Despite the somewhat monotonous steps taken when building the Toy-Con, it remains as one of the best stages of the experience. When you hear the fishing rod making its clicking sound as you extend the fishing line and hook into the sea, or when the motorbike engine and accelerator vibrates in your hand with the Joy-Con’s HD rumble feature, or even when you punch through buildings and UFOs in the Robot’s free-play mode for the first time, it’s all those individual moments that make building each Toy-Con so satisfying. Seeing something you created from cardboard working with the Switch and Joy-Con’s unique abilities trumps anything you’ll experience in the software afterwards.
Customisation is also a key element to Labo, too. While paints and colouring pens aren’t included in the kits, at least one customisation sheet featuring spare parts is included for your use. Children and adults alike can create a unique Toy-Con by using stickers, colours and themes to make it entirely their own. Included with our Labo kits was an £8.99 / $9.99 customisation set, which contains two sticker and stencil sheets, along with two sets of ribbon tape. Although it carries the Nintendo quality seal, I’d wager you’d get a better variety (and less expensive) custom set in any craft shop.
Let’s play: Toy-Con Variety Kit
The Toy-Con Variety Kit’s playability widely varies depending on the user’s age and ability. What suits a three to five-year old, wouldn’t work well for an eight to 11-year old. Retailing at a £59.99 / $69.99 price tag, this particular kit feels similar to the prizes on show at a tombola or part of a pound-a-go toy-crane arcade game; there’s always some trash mixed in with the good prizes. Though as the famous saying goes, ‘one man’s trash is another’s treasure’.
In terms of re-playability, Joy-Con use and content on show, the RC Car and the House are the weaker Toy-Cons of the five available. As the quickest to build, the RC Car moves by using the Switch touchscreen to control the HD Rumble’s strength; make the Joy-Con vibrations stronger and you’ll be able to make it travel from one end of the room, or hallway, to the other. If there were two RC Cars – and the kit does give you an extra to make another – it would probably feel similar to the episode of Friends where Joey and Phoebe race their mechanical wind-up toys inside their flat. Except in this version, the RC Cars aren’t as comical or even remotely fun to use. On the other hand, the house features an adorable creature that, at its best, combines a short mine cart mini game with a touchscreen Tamagotchi.
The best and certainly most value-for-money Toy-Cons are the Motorbike, Fishing Rod and Piano. While the latter would entertain my two-year-old Goddaughter for hours making amusing sounds and bashing at the resilient cardboard keys, the Fishing Rod would be perfect for my four-year-old Godson. By cranking the wheel to release or reel in the rod and casting it back out to sea to catch common or rare fish, it’s a brilliant way to entertain the kids on a rainy day. On the other hand, the motorbike is great for children and adults alike where you can compete in Grand Prix modes of three varying classes. Plus, you can even create a mini motorbike to make custom courses of your own. Simply hold the mini motorbike with the Joy-Con attached and carve out your course by using the unique gyroscope feature. Simple, but very effective.
Let’s play: Robot Kit
Retailing at £69.99 / $79.99, approximately £/$10 more than the Toy-Con Variety Kit, the Robot Kit is certainly the cooler Labo product, purely from an aesthetic point of view. Unfortunately, Nintendo shifts its focus to style over substance. Getting into the ‘mech’ suit, at first, feels great. You look a bit crazy, certainly in front of your work colleagues, when punching the air, stomping your feet and rotating in a circle as your Joy-Con can’t quite understand that you have a natural tilt to your body that makes your robot look and act slightly drunk. Don’t ask me to recite my ABCs and walk in a straight line with the backpack on while sober, I simply can’t. And trust me when I say this, I was punching the air while facing away from the screen, looking like an absolute fool. Although, might I add, was absolutely hilarious for our company CEO to watch. What can I say? Sometimes the cheap laughs are the best.
You’ll get a choice of three in-game modes with the Robot; Challenge, Robot and VS modes. As VS mode requires an additional ‘mech’ suit and person to play with, we couldn’t try this one out. However, you’re essentially popped into a boxing ring of sorts, with the main aim to punch each other’s lights out. The Robot mode resembles a free-play, sandbox-style stage, where you’ll learn the ropes and destroy buildings, UFOs, hexagonal trees and so on. Challenge mode, however, brings the pep to the party and dishes out three stages focusing on different moves: Charge Punch; Corkscrew Kick; Plane Mode; Quick Jump; and Special Beam. Avoiding the pitfalls and punching in the right places is key here, only difficult to do if your body puts a natural drunken spin on things.
To flesh out the rather light content featured in the Robot Kit, Labo users can customise how their robot looks (with colours) and sounds. To do this, you’ll have to access the Hangar and the Robo-Studio. While the latter uses the touchscreen to go through ten different sounds, the Hangar can only be used by placing your previously made screws into your backpack. It’s a little archaic, if we’re honest, and time will tell if kids have the patience to do this each time they want to change their robot’s colour scheme. And although the entire idea of Labo is to use your creations with the software, it’s a little disappointing that there isn’t an option to just play through the software with the Joy-Cons in a normal fashion. Echoes of the cancelled Project Giant Robot are haunting.
Let’s discover: Toy-Con Garage and other bits
Perhaps one of the most interesting twists on Labo is the ability to discover and create your own Toy-Cons. Embedded in the software, users can check out the ‘Discover’ section, involving three character developers with vocal sounds reminiscent of the Zelda franchise. They explain how each Toy-Con works, how to repair them should they get broken and how you can utilise the different Joy-Con features in play. Not only does it give parents helpful hints on how to easily store the different parts of Labo in one place, it also gives users hints and tips on how you could create your own Toy-Con with the Toy-Con Garage.
Designed as a place to learn the basics of programming, the Toy-Con Garage inspires creativity in children and adults alike. By using simple commands, you can easily create different outputs. The creative possibilities are endless and could be a mod haven, generating a community of cardboard Toy-Con cut-outs. The Toy-Con Garage, above all else, gives Labo its longevity in our socially connected world. And perhaps that’s what Nintendo’s main goal is; to make developer-based content accessible to anyone. We’ve seen it with Super Mario Maker and Minecraft, now it’s Labo’s turn.
What Nintendo Labo achieves is, at its core, exactly what Wii Sports achieved for the Wii in 2006. It encourages non-video gamers the chance to get involved with something their children love. It brings family to the fore, allows for natural teamwork to evolve and both nurtures and inspires creativity. And quite frankly, that’s hard to put a price on.
Toy-Con Variety Kit – 8/10
Robot Kit – 6/10
Review copies of Nintendo Labo Toy-Con and Robot Kits were provided to My Nintendo News by Nintendo UK.