Nintendo Labo is the gaming giant’s first major update to the Switch console launched last year – but it’s an update with a twist in that it’s made almost entirely of cardboard.
Building on the flexibility of the Nintendo Switch and it’s removable Joy-Con controllers for gaming at home and on the move, Labo is designed to be a mechanism to expand the possibilities of what you can do with the console, and open it up to younger players too.
Labo does this by enabling users to build items that when combined with the Switch and Joy-Con controllers are brought to life – an RC car, piano, fishing rod or motorbike all known as Toy-Cons – and all with their own Switch game experience to play once built.
At the heart of Labo is the three-pronged mantra of ‘make, play, discover’. This is the process of first building the Toy-Con, then attaching it to a Switch console for play, before finally encouraging players to discover more about the various Toy-Cons by learning how they work.
At a special workshop in London, Nintendo showed off Labo in the flesh for the first time, walking groups of children and adults through the various pieces of Labo. This is what we found out.
Arts and crafts
The Labo experiences begins with a sheet of cardboard from which users pop out the perforated parts as needed, on this occasion to build the RC Car.
Crucially, the Switch console acts as a guide here – the Labo Switch software comes complete with extensive set-up manuals, which users go through at their own pace, with the on-screen instructions and animations making sure all you’re on the right track.
This part of the process will be familiar to anyone whose ever built a cardboard model, with folds, flaps and tabs to correctly fit together.
In the case of the RC Car, it’s a basic rectangle shape on six legs – not a traditional looking car but it doesn’t need to be once the Joy-Con controllers are attached – more on that shortly.
Before that, Nintendo say its at this point it wants Labo users to get creative by colouring and decorating their designs.
This is as much a part of the Labo process as any other, the company believes, and parents will no doubt delight at a task that requires a fair amount of concentration from younger users.
It is even playing to sell a customisation pack for just this reason.
Several felt tips, glue and a pair of comedy eyes later, the Make part of the experience is complete.
This is where the unusual design of the RC Car becomes clearer, and the ingenious way Nintendo has built Labo to connect with the Joy-Con controllers is shown off for the first time.
The open slots on either side of the cardboard car are used to slide the two Joy-Cons into. From here, players use the Switch’s touchscreen to control the strength of vibrations sent to the Joy-Cons and which carry through the car’s long legs like a tuning fork, to move the device around.
Across the different Toy-Con creations this clever marriage of cardboard contraptions and technology housed in the Joy-Cons is brilliantly shown off in the way they fit together.
The piano, for example, uses the Infra-Red sensor is the base of the right Joy-Con – which slots into the back of the instrument – to read special reflective tape on the keys so the console knows which note is being played.
The fishing rod too takes advantage of the sensors inside the Joy-Con, with the accelerometer of one Joy-Con used to clock the rotation of the reel, which the other uses the built-in gyroscope to log side-to-side movement and show both on-screen in the fishing game as you attempt to land a big catch.
Across the various Toy-Cons, the experiences are varied and engaging. The physical act of reeling in a catch on the fishing rod, or revving the accelerator on the motorbike for example are made all the more fun by the fact that there’s the added satisfaction of doing so with a toy you’ve lovingly built yourself.
The most epic of the kits is the robot, which combines a backpack containing a system of levers and string pulleys attached to the wearers hands and feet, movement of which controls the on-screen robot as it stomps around.
The robot is the most expensive Labo kit at £69.99 and also the most complicated – said to take around four hours to assemble. But that price includes the companion software too, and means that as well as a mindless video game, parents can delight in watching or even helping their kids put together quite a feat of engineering before they play.
The other Variety kit contains the RC Car, fishing rod, house, motorbike and piano and will cost £59.99, again not cheap but still offering huge scope for creativity and hours of fun from building to playing.
Nintendo are not the first tech company to turn to cardboard as a way to innovate – Google Cardboard was launched in 2014 as a way of giving smartphone users a device to slot their phone into to create a basic virtual reality viewer.
But Nintendo Labo has that key factor that the Japanese firm seems to be so good at – charm. Everything about Labo makes you smile, from the initial building process through to play and seeing how the simple cardboard components work with the cutting edge Switch console to create an entirely new gaming experience.
It’s a potent process to experience, and one that parents and children will love. Crucially, much of Labo has been designed with wear and tear in mind, with Nintendo pointing out most pieces can be easily repaired with tape without ill effect.
Good news because Nintendo Labo kits are likely to be lovingly played with over and over once they launch on April 27, the day cardboard looks set to become cool again.