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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. ((For a look at the most recent Nintendo Labo VR Kit, read our review.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The motorcycle game feels like Excitebike, with a simplified set of tracks and challenges, with extra track-creator modes. The Piano and the House are like creative toys. The Piano not only moves its cardboard keys and plays real notes, but a handful of extra pop-in cardboard dials change the instruments, shift the octave and teaches a handful of tunes. A Studio mode adds recording and customized instrumentation, but I barely dipped my Labo toes into that one.
The Robot kit mainly involves transporting yourself into the body of a mech robot, which works so impressively that it's almost worth considering on its own.
The backpack's got four cords that attach to hand grips and foot stirrups, plus a flip-down visor that shifts between a wide view of the robot and a first-person view. It feels like Pacific Rim, in Nintendo form. It's almost like full-body VR on a TV screen. (The Robot kit is really meant to be played on a big screen while the Switch is docked.)
Labo's most interesting feature, and one I got to spend the least time with, is Discover, a mode where each of the creations becomes a schematic, leading into chatbot-like discussions with in-game characters about the inner workings of Labo, and what secrets have yet to be uncovered.
Discover is set up as the third facet of Labo, after Make and Play, and in many ways it feels like the behind-the-scenes mode -- the user's guide, the director's notes, the "education" part. Reading through all the information unlocks more details.
I didn't get that far yet, but I've already read tips on how to repair broken-down cardboard parts on the little buzzing RC bugabot "car," gone through several walkthroughs on how the Joy-Con's IR camera recognizes reflective stickers and discovered tips to games I thought I had figured out. I've only played for a week, but knowing Nintendo's game-design tendencies, I'm expecting extra surprises to keep being unlocked. But I don't know how deep it all is yet, because I haven't "finished" what's available.
You can go deeper still with a feature I barely used at all: Toy-Con Garage. A programming tool of sorts, it's a way to map nearly any Joy-Con input (buttons, shaking, the IR camera, orientation) with an output effect: a sound on the Switch, making the other controller vibrate, making the Switch screen light up. There are extra projects here using extra things, some of which are in the kit, such as making an electric guitar with rubber bands, or making an IR "laser gun" that knocks down a little cardboard man.
The Garage was a little too abstract for my son to get right away, and the text and interface are hard to read on the small Switch screen. But he loved learning about it, and I bet he'd catch on fast (he already uses Scratch, and this isn't far off from that). The possibilities are massive, if communities create groups to share tips on new ideas. But the Switch's hackability will have limits, mainly because the Switch is a closed-off hardware environment. It's up to Nintendo to keep expanding the Garage features with new ideas and updates. After I take a little cardboard break, I'm going to try diving in again.
It's fun for my kids. Both my 9- and 5-year-old had a blast, but it's not always as easy to comprehend as a Lego kit. Also, putting the Joy-Con controllers into some of the contraptions involves careful insertion or unfolding part of the cardboard.
It's not great in large groups. My son had two friends come over and they took turns, but I started to worry about the cardboard things getting damaged. The experiences are all single-player, but some allow interaction with another Nintendo Labo kit, to a small degree. The Robot kit supports a two-player versus mode with two robot backpacks… which means you'd need to invite your Labo friend over.
The Robot kit is a surprise workout. I got a pretty leg-tiring experience from stomping and punching and crouching in the game, and there's even an estimated calorie counter based on weight. It feels like a long-lost cousin of Wii Fit. Maybe this should be reinvented as a fitness game?
I'd get the Variety kit over the Robot kit. It costs less, and seems to have more distinct things to do. The Robot feels like a thinner game, and not quite worth the price (yet). The Variety feels like it's worth the $70.
The Switch's short battery life means you'll need to take breaks. The instructions require the Switch to be on and nearby, but the 2-3 hour battery life ended up meaning I had to stop construction a few times. Nintendo recommends keeping it charged while building, but the bottom USB-C port can't be used while standing the Switch upright with a kickstand (unless you're using a separate charge dock or stand).
I coddled my Labo. You will too. Once these things are built, they're unwieldy. Sturdy, but unwieldy. I piled a bunch on a chair in the dining room. It'll be hard to store these without accidentally dinging them. Setting up shelf space to display them seems like the only good option -- or finding sturdy storage boxes.
The robot backpack is a tough fit on grown-ups. I squeezed the straps on, worried I'd break the cardboard, but everything worked. The weird pulley-string hand grips and foot loops have to be adjusted in length, too, which takes some fiddling. It works, but it's a bit clunky. Another coworker couldn't even get his arms in.
The Robot and Variety kits use separate game cards. Which means, maybe, that these kits aren't as truly cross-compatible as I'd hoped. Ideally, it would have been nice if all the Toy-Con kits you owned could accumulate in one single hub app.
None of this is portable. The large, delicate cardboard projects and the space you'll need to build them are, in a way, the total opposite of the Switch's totally pocketable, compact normal state of being. It means I obviously couldn't take this on a train easily. Just keep this in mind.
Labo is precisely the sort of wild idea that Nintendo somehow pulls out of its hat and succeeds at. It's surreal, enchanting, challenging and turns the concept of using the Switch inside out. As my son said, "It's like an extension of the Switch." It's impressed everyone I've shown it to. But it's not necessarily something everyone's going to want to use.
Labo's strong DIY vibe is best for builders, for tinkerers, for Lego nuts. It's great for families, but in smaller groups, I think. Yes, it's a successful dive into toys, too. Nintendo hasn't beaten Lego at its own game, but the semirobotic smart toys you can make with Labo feel like the first step in some strange hybrid world between toys and gaming. You can see it happening with Lego robotics kits like Lego Boost, and iPad-connected smart toys. Nintendo Labo is another spin, and compared to those others, $70-$80 isn't too high a price to pay at all.
Of course, you also need a Nintendo Switch. If you have one, you probably won't regret trying out one Labo kit. I'm not sure if I'd buy a Switch just for Labo, though -- but there are already enough great reasons to get a Switch already. Labo is really weird, fascinating icing on that cake.
Stay tuned for more discoveries as I keep playing with it.