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Nintendo Labo review: The weirdest kind of fun

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Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 01: Variety Kit

(Part #: 107137)
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The Good Incredible cardboard designs. Really well-done step-by-step instructions. Labo's software and games are fun to play and explore. There's a lot to do, and a sense that many secrets await unlocking.

The Bad Yes, it’s mostly just cardboard. The kits can be daunting for younger kids. There's a risk of things breaking, so handle with care. And, where do you store all those large cardboard things later on?

The Bottom Line Nintendo Labo is a fun and unique Switch add-on -- a Lego-meets-Ikea cardboard construction set that will unlock kids’ real-world creativity.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0

Labo may be Nintendo's weirdest idea in video games ever. And that's saying something. This is the company that created some of the most offbeat gaming concepts in history, from wildly interesting flops like 1995's Virtual Boy to megasuccesses like the Nintendo Wii.

Mixing papercraft, brilliant designs and a bit of programming, Nintendo Labo feels like a weird cardboard fantasy dream. Suddenly, the Nintendo Switch console can become a fishing pole, a motorcycle, a piano or a robot, all made of cardboard. It's a Michel Gondry film come to life.

Arriving April 20, Labo is available in two versions to start: the Labo Toy-Con 1 Variety Kit, at $70, £60 or AU$100, and the Labo Toy-Con 2 Robot Kit, at $80, £70 or AU$120. A Nintendo Switch console, which is required, will currently run you $299, £279 or AU$469.

My son and I had played around with it at a preview event a few weeks after Nintendo's January announcement for a few crazy hours. But my two young sons and I (and my wife) have now spent the past week or so playing with both versions, where we were able to try it from scratch -- and do so at a more leisurely pace.  

So far, in my second extended time with Labo both at home and at the office, it's felt like a combination of a school science project, Lego and Ikea had a magic video game child. It's not necessarily going to be for everyone, but I think it's a brilliant innovation, where the journey is as important as the destination. Come along with me.

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These are big boxes (and I carried them on New Jersey Transit).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unboxing the boxes

The Labo boxes were larger than I expected, larger than the Switch packaging. Both the Labo Variety and Robot backpack sets are heavy boxes. They're colorful, looking like a toy more than a game. As someone at my office noticed, "Labo looks like Lego."

The packaging matches all those Lego kits we've bought for our kids, and even more closely resembles Lego Boost, the flexible programming kit that came out last year. In many ways, the Variety kit is very nearly what Boost was. It's also less expensive if you already have a Switch (or more expensive if you don't, since you'll need one).

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A lot of stuff inside -- mostly cardboard sheets.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I opened up the cardboard box, and found... more cardboard. Twenty-eight sheets of it in the Variety kit, 19 in the Robot pack. Plus a little bag of stickers, colored string, plastic grommets and rings, rubber bands and straps. And a physical game card: Both Toy-Con kits come with a Switch card, rather than a download code, which stores the program and games you can try with each.

If you have a kid, and your kid likes construction things, Labo will seem familiar. There are tons of papercraft, construction and robotics kits, and Labo sort of slides into the middle of all of them.

Is it really all cardboard? Yes, it really is. Most of the projects were done completely by cleverly folding perforated sheets that magically fit together, per Nintendo's in-app instructions. The fact that it all worked often seemed miraculous. Some plastic connectors, rubber bands and straps are used occasionally, but rarely.

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Here we go.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Stage 1: The build

Get ready to set some time aside for making these cardboard things. Nintendo suggests 3 to 4 hours for the Robot kit, and it took me more like 5. The other Labo kit, Variety, has five projects -- RC car, fishing pole, motorcycle handlebars, piano, house -- that range from 15 minutes to 3 hours. You'll get more construction time with the Variety pack.

My 9-year-old tried Labo earlier this year, and used it again, catching on fast. I watched nervously over his shoulder, worrying he'd bend something wrong. Labo could make Type A sorts worried about improperly tearing, bending or ruining the slightly delicate pieces. Nintendo's included software, on a physical game card, has tips to repair broken construction projects, but no clear advice on how to buy a replacement piece.

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It's easy to follow along and do astonishingly complex constructions, thanks to the Labo software.

Scott Stein/CNET

Building is pretty much a solitary affair. The fantastic animated instructions on the Switch screen can be zoomed, fast-forwarded and rewound, and are like a future model of where Lego and Ikea need to go next. But the step by step instructions restrict you to the current step, without being able to easily "flip pages." My wife tried building and did it a lot faster than the Switch app, even on the fastest fast-forward.

Some parts get repetitive. My son gave up after a bit and let me take over (OK, maybe I just took over, and he let me).

Most of my first few days were about building models. But after a while, I picked up a common language in what Nintendo was communicating. If there's a Toy-Con Kit 3 or 4 (which I'm sure there will be), I expect I'll already be a lot more ready to dive in and get folding.

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Look in there, and you can see the reflective-stickered piano keys that the Joy-Con's IR camera can read.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Switch's IR camera-equipped Joy-Con controller is the key to most of the magic

Labo is full of fun ideas, but the best ideas in both kits come from clever use of the infrared camera in the right Joy-Con controller. The camera hasn't been used for anything other than one minigame in 1-2 Switch a year ago, but its features are deeply unlocked with Labo. (The Joy-Con controllers got a firmware update when I started Labo, perhaps suggesting the IR camera capabilities have been enhanced.)

Several projects use a large box, into which the Joy-Con controller is half-inserted, seeing in the dark items with patterns of reflective stickers, which are read and interpreted as game actions. The piano's keys work like this, and so do the robot's motion controls and the house's interactive pop-in cardboard buttons, cranks and knobs.

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Sliding the Joy-Con into a box it can look into: that's how many cardboard "Toy-Cons" work.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Those IR camera functions can do other things: The RC car is a simple little vibrating bug-thing like the popular Hexbug mini-robots that have been around for years, but its camera can recognize reflective stickers and follow them, or follow a hand or obstacle at close range. It's pretty amazing that the Switch has this latent ability, although it's only in one of the two controllers.

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The robot backpack kit is absurd. And it's so much fun.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Stage 2: Play

The next morning, after a long night of finishing the House Toy-Con in the Variety kit, my son came downstairs and saw the crazy thing. He got a brief glimpse of it during Nintendo's previous event. Now my younger son joined in, too.

Labo cleverly starts unlocking things to do with the stuff you've made, throwing in all sorts of surprises. Each cardboard creation has its own app or game: The RC car is basically a remote control with a deep set of customizations; the fishing pole has a fishing game that I'd gladly have paid for separately.

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