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Toys and Games

Nintendo Labo with my kid was insane, magic cardboard fun

Backpack robots, magic fishing poles, programmable RC cars. Here's what amazed us about our hands-on with Nintendo Labo.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A pile of cardboard sheets are dumped out in front of me. My son and I are beginning to build a set of RC cars. Intimidating, at first, but we dive in. Or, my son dives in, and I follow. He's looking at the steps and folding pieces intuitively. I do my best to keep pace. 

These are the first moments with Nintendo Labo. Minutes later, we're making things buzz and move. After that comes virtual fishing. And a giant robot backpack. Some motorbike racing. The hours fly by. We don't have time to finish building our fishing rod. 

Labo, you've hooked us. 

When Nintendo surprise-announced Labo last month, the initial reaction was, "April Fool's Day came early this year." Yes, it's targeted squarely at kids -- but would parents really pay $70 (£60 or AU$100) for a product that seems like little more than chopped-up cardboard boxes wrapped around the Switch game console? It seemed like a grade-school arts-and-crafts project that Nintendo was somehow trying to sell at a big markup. 

Now, after I spent the morning at a Labo hands-on event in Manhattan, I'm a true believer. My 9-year-old son was excited about it, too. He dabbles in Scratch programming, makes tons of Lego kits and has done paper craft. And he definitely knows his way around a Nintendo Switch. His favorite Labo activity was "fishing," and building out the funky interactive house toy. 

Nintendo's cardboard experiment feels like a bold take on STEM robot kits and construction projects, and so far, it completely succeeds. 

Check out our earlier coverage if you want the basics for what Labo is. Read on to see what amazed us about using it in person.

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This robot suit backpack is nuts. Arm motions and leg motions turn into game moves.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The games are really, really fun

I had to pry my kid away from most of the game demos. Some of them were good enough to be sold as standalone ideas. The fishing game was brilliant: The fishing line looks like it's magically descending into the Switch screen, and jiggling the line makes the virtual line move. It's a seamless effect. It's the best tablet fishing game I've ever played.

The motorcycle mini-game felt like Excitebike but with vibrating, realistic handlebar controls. Being able to twist the handlebar to accelerate really worked, too.

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I could play the fishing game all day.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The insane robot mech-suit game that comes with the separately-sold Robot Kit ($80, £70, AU$120) is the closest to full-body gaming that I've ever experienced at home. The amount of pulleys and attachments was bizarre, but it all somehow worked smoothly to make a virtual mech suit. A pull-down visor made the screen zap into a first-person visor mode. It felt like a cardboard version of "Pacific Rim."

The robot is madness, but it wasn't my son's favorite. He said the controls sometimes were too difficult. Also, the robot kit only includes the robot. He much preferred the five-in-one Variety Kit. Every experience was a bit like a Michel Gondry film brought to life.

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Nintendo Labo's piano worked better than expected.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The cardboard kits work seamlessly with the Switch

I remember how amazing Google Cardboard was when it first debuted: a simple folding design turned a phone into a set of VR goggles.

A similar vibe runs through every Nintendo Labo Toy-Con creation. (Toy-Cons are what the completed cardboard constructions are called.) Snap-together toys are designed to have the Switch's Joy-Con controllers slot inside. Vibrations, motion controls and even infrared cameras make the accessories work in surprisingly effective ways.

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One Joy-Con has a small IR camera, barely used in any games other than 1-2 Switch. That IR sensor ends up enabling the vibration-driven "RC cars," which feel like cardboard versions of the popular buzzing Hexbug toys, to see reflective stickers and follow a hand based on body heat. Or, work with reflective stickers in moving piano keys to trigger musical playback. Or even drive movements in the massive Toy-Con robot backpack.

It all worked -- and shockingly well. The piano with its working keys, or a strange interactive house that uses the Switch as a window and does different things depending on what cardboard plug you snap into its side, felt like magic sculptures.

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Step-by-step instructions are perfectly executed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The instructions are really smart and easy to follow

Nintendo took a page or two from Lego, and even improved on the equation. The two Toy-Con cardboard creations we got to make were easy to do. A number of letter-coded sheets of cardboard had all the pieces we needed. The Switch app shows the folding and connecting process in animated steps, and can be fast-forwarded or rewound. The 3D models can be spun around and zoomed in, too. We never had a problem figuring out what to do next, even on the pretty complicated fishing rod.

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My hand-drawn customized cardboard didn't end up looking this good. Maybe yours will?

Sarah Tew/CNET

It was great to collaborate and bedazzle

Did it feel fun to share the Labo projects with my kid? Yes, and the kit does seem designed for a partner. We took turns. I paged through instructions while he built, and then I built for a while as he took a break. It felt like being buried in a massive Lego project.

The customization of the pieces -- coloring in, or slapping on stickers -- is optional, but recommended. Nintendo offered a bunch of crayons, stickers and pens. I could see people designing all sorts of crazy customized, crystal-covered pianos, furry robot backpacks and so on.

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A glimpse at the Toy-Con Garage programming interface, from Nintendo's teaser video.

Nintendo

It'll all be programmable

Nintendo's surprise announcement at the event was Toy-Con Garage, a programming environment of sorts that will come with Nintendo Labo. In the multiproject Variety Kit, for instance, it'll be possible to reassign and connect different accessories in new ways: Nintendo representatives showed how the motorcycle handlebars could control the RC car bug-things. The fishing rod could be set up to play music instead of going fishing. Or, completely new projects like an electric guitar (using the Switch as a strummable screen in a cardboard guitar body) could be engineered.

How deep and DIY will Toy-Con Garage go? It looks like a kit that will unlock access to all the basic features and controls the Joy-Con controllers have, including the IR camera. I'm hoping the possibilities will become wide open, which is how Nintendo is promising it will be.

Nintendo Labo won't be available for another two months -- it hits stores around the world on April 20 -- and this might be the last we see of it until then. After several hours, I came away impressed. So did my son. If the Labo universe ends up being expansive enough, I could even see it becoming the main reason someone might get a Switch for their kid, if affordable bundles arrive by the holidays. I'd love to see Nintendo tackle a Labo VR headset. My son is dreaming of a cardboard bow and arrow. The best part is, true to the promise, Labo is wacky and fun and creative, and my son can't wait to build more.

Neither can I, by the way.