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Toys and Tabletop Games

Nintendo Labo, my demonic children and the weekend from hell

Commentary: With some kids, Nintendo Labo can be a magical, educational bonding experience. Mine aren't those kids...

Sarah Tew/CNET

Friday, 5:45 p.m.: The end of a long, stressful week at work.

I'm lugging a massive cardboard box from my office. Inside: Nintendo Labo, the company's latest attempt to shift the parameters of interactivity.

Labo is a set of video game peripherals with a twist: You actually have to build the peripherals, from intricately designed sheets of cardboard. It's aimed at families, parents with children.

I have two children. 

As I lug the box onto the bus, a dreamlike vision of how my weekend might play out.

This pretty much sums up my weekend. 

Mark Serrels/CNET

Soft focus. Saturday morning. My 5-year-old son wakes up and walks downstairs, rubbing his bleary eyes against the morning light. I'm already downstairs. I'm smoking a pipe.

"Son, I have a surprise for you."

On a spotless kitchen table bathed in white light: Nintendo Labo, glinting and sparkling like a rare jewel.

"Oh Dad! It's just what I wanted!" He runs toward me, we embrace, the music swells.

"Can we build it right now, Dad. Huh? Can we? Huh?"

"You betcha, sport!"

We share a precious morning that exists outside time. A montage of jump cuts and laughter as my son and I build all that Labo has to offer: the fishing rod, the piano, the robot backpack thing.

The sun sets on a perfect Saturday as my wife appears with a tray of perfectly crafted triangle sandwiches.

"Looks like you boys have been busy. Figured you might like a bite?"

One last cut. It's dark outside. I'm reading my son a bedtime story; he stretches into a yawn.

"Dad," says my son, before drifting off to sleep. "This was the best day ever."

A beat.

"I love you, Dad."

"I love you too, son."

Friends, this is not how things played out.

Nintendo Labo in real life

Friday, 6:30 p.m.: This is what I arrived home to.

I think Quinn was going for Incredible Hulk abs. Hard to tell at this juncture.

Mark Serrels/CNET

Allow me to introduce my children. On the right is Quinn, 5 years old. Nice enough. He enjoys ninjas, Beyblades and drawing "abs" on himself with a felt-tip pen.

On the left is Lincoln, 2 years old: Fiendish psycho dwarf from the chaos dimension. He enjoys destroying things and putting things into other things.

This is polite society. I know the rules. But I'm going to level with you: Lincoln is definitely the worst one. However, Quinn's no picnic either.

"What's that, Dad," he asks, motioning to the box in my arms.

"It's a surprise," I reply. "If you eat your dinner and get ready for bed quickly, we can play tomorrow."

Labo's games are well-designed. The cardboard kits are intricately made and (mostly) rewarding to build. Elastic bands provide tactile resistance and have clearly been play-tested to perfection. It's hard to deny the simple fun of winding the reel of a cardboard fishing rod and having it work seamlessly in tandem with an on-screen video game.

I'd also like to state that the age recommendation for Nintendo Labo is 6-plus, and Nintendo advises parental assistance up until the age of 10. "It will vary by the age and skill of the child," Nintendo told me, "but we believe Nintendo Labo is most fun when people build Toy-Con together with family and friends."

My children are 5 and 2. But like many parents, I tend to ignore age  ratings and dramatically overestimate what my children are capable of -- mostly to my own detriment.  

This is fine

Saturday, 6 a.m.: That's when Quinn usually wakes up. I am used to this. This is fine.

"Daddy, where's the surprise?"

I unveiled Labo with a flourish. Quinn wore a dispassionate expression that said, "This isn't a Beyblade".

Problem No. 1: It's difficult to inspire and delight a child with what is initially a dozen sheets of cardboard. Thankfully, once Quinn realised Labo was a video game, we were good to go, and for an hour I lived my actual dream.

Quinn and I built the "RC car", the entry-level Labo creation. A single sheet of cardboard, easy to build, easy to use. I let Quinn do the folding. We attached the Nintendo Switch controllers, and voila! A "remote controller car".

The RC car uses the vibrate function in the Nintendo Switch controllers to noisily propel cardboard at what I would generously describe as a "glacial pace". It's nifty if you're an adult with an understanding of context, but my son's expression said it all.

"Can it go faster?"

No, son. It cannot.

But Quinn was impressed. The RC car was pretty cool. We were having fun.

Now Playing: Watch this: A week with Nintendo Labo
5:25

My son wanted to try the fishing rod next. So we began building. It was then, around 7 a.m., that my 2-year-old, Lincoln, decided to wake up.

The next couple of hours were a little more challenging. Lincoln wandered around the living room looking for something to destroy. The fishing rod was way more intense, way more time-consuming and repetitive. Thirty minutes in, Quinn decided he was done folding cardboard and spent the next hour fighting with his brother over a Ninjago spinning top.

I sat cross-legged on the floor and folded. Then I folded some more. I ate breakfast. Then I folded some more.

I have no idea how or when this happened.

I'd gotten to the point in the fishing rod build where washers were required. I noticed one was missing, then an almighty scream. Quinn decided to wear one as a ring and, predictably, had gotten it extremely stuck.

Thankfully my wife added some dishwashing liquid, ran Quinn's hand under a cold tap and managed to wriggle the thing off.

Two costume changes later, and the fishing rod was ready.

All by myself 

Saturday, 1:56 p.m.: The children have abandoned me.

I am alone, legs crossed on the hard wooden floor, folding insanely intricate pieces of cardboard in an attempt to make handlebars for a video game motorbike I can barely comprehend. How did it come to this?

I was certain Labo would instantly win over my nephew, Elijah, 7 years old, creative and razor-sharp. That he would sit next to me as we huddled around the Nintendo Switch and folded meticulously.

When I took this photo I was still blissfully unaware my son had totally wrecked the Labo motorbike.

Mark Serrels/CNET

Two minutes and he was off with his cousin Quinn playing Beyblades, dressed up in a bedsheet that doubled as a superhero cape. It immediately became apparent I would be building everything Labo had to offer on my lonesome.

Adult family members darted in and out of my house. Eating lunch, having conversations. In an imagined time-lapse I sat still in one exact spot as the world spun in orbit, folding cardboard, attaching elastic bands.

The fishing rod was a smash hit with the kids, but the motorbike? Less so. We found it difficult to control and the game was a little uninspired. It took me roughly two hours to build Labo's bike and the kids were bored and frustrated within minutes. They asked for the fishing rod game again. I was happy to oblige.

Eventually the older kids were gone. Lincoln, the 2-year-old hell-dwarf, waddled up.

"MY TURN," he said.

Sure, why not? I set up the fishing rod and left for a quick 10-minute break. I took some deep breaths, made a cup of tea and sat on the couch scrolling through Twitter.

When I returned my son was still going buck wild on the fishing rod. He wasn't looking at the screen.

That's when I saw it.

Ah yes, fantastic. The motorcycle I had spend two long hours crafting had been mindlessly shredded by my 2-year-old.

It doesn't look like a lot of damage, but some context: The right handle bar is where you slot in the controller. The other ripped part is where the Nintendo Switch screen goes. It was almost as if my son had deliberately targeted the key part of the cardboard required for the game to function.

Part of the fun

I thought about the reviews I'd read, a significant percentage of which were clearly written by men in their mid-20s who probably hadn't even seen a child in months. I thought about the words they'd lavishly used to describe Labo: "It could well be the most exciting thing to come along from the games industry since Minecraft".

I thought about the words used by Nintendo, which had cheerfully told me during a preview, "We want people to troubleshoot Labo themselves if things go wrong, that's part of the fun!"

Oh dear.

Mark Serrels/CNET

Presumably all households have a spare Mary Poppins at their disposal to wave magical umbrellas at torn-up Labo kits, but I certainly don't. Sure, I could tape the motorcycle back together with some electric tape -- but I am not MacGyver. Ikea furniture sends me into cold sweats.

My anger eased when I discovered Nintendo is selling replacements (at reasonable prices) and has provided PDFs to allow exasperated parents to print off their own parts. But a huge part of me thinks everyone -- Nintendo especially -- is underestimating how much time parents have to "fix" toys they've literally just paid money for.

I think of toys like Lego. Jesus wept, Lego is a pain to clean up but it's sturdy. I'm comfortable leaving children of all ages with Lego, in complete trust that nothing will break.

I think about how malleable Lego is, how it bends to the level of the user. My 2-year-old can build a tower, my 5-year-old can build dragons. My 7-year-old nephew can use Lego to build an extravagantly designed world for his toys to live in.

Labo is missing that flexibility. The target audience is more limited. 

Case in point: It took my 2-year-old son five minutes to undo two hours of work. And the worst part: The outcome was damn near inevitable. I had no one to blame but myself. I should have seen it coming.

Because Labo is made of cardboard. Cardboard, people! Cardboard is fragile. Cardboard is not a good material for children's toys. Particularly when your 2-year-old has a fondness for casually shredding everything within his grubby grasp.

Some parents (with their older, better children) are having a blast with Labo, and I respect that. But from my pained, weathered perspective, Labo is a bad idea. A brilliantly executed bad idea, but a bad idea nonetheless.

I'm sure Labo will find its place. Among children smart beyond their years and adults with time on their hands. I suspect it won't be the mainstream hit Nintendo is hoping for. It'll no doubt find its niche, but we're probably not looking at the next Minecraft.

Quinn didn't ask to play with Labo on Sunday, or the following Monday. And I was too traumatised to fold more cardboard. At 5 years old he's probably a little young for it. I'd say the 6-plus on the box is optimistic. I'm not sure if we'll ever use it again.

Right now I'm busy trying to solve problem No. 2: finding space to store all the cardboard peripherals I spent hours trying to build.

And problem No. 3: the 2-year-son who keeps wrecking all my stuff.

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