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Nintendo Labo review: The weirdest kind of fun

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My son tries the motorbike.

Scott Stein/CNET

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.)

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The Discover section unlocks conversations with characters that discuss how Labo works, and other ideas for things you could do. 

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Stage 3: A bit of education, a promise of programming

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.

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Toy-Con Garage is a way to program and remap what the controllers do, and what it can trigger.

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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.

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Getting our feet wet with Garage at home.

Scott Stein/CNET

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.

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Oh, this is a lot of stuff.

Scott Stein/CNET

Other notes

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.

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A brilliant first step

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.

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