As a kid growing up, I built things. Lego is probably one of the most common touchstones that people have for construction toys, but there was also Meccano, Darda wind up cars and their rollercoaster tracks, and so many other toys that required me to get creative and make something. Playing with them was all about imagination, whether it was coming up with something entirely from scratch, following the instructions in your mind’s eye to create the Lego castle, or then conjuring up a world in which these toys came to life.
That’s what Nintendo Labo is. This isn’t your traditional video game, it isn’t even Toys-to-Life, it’s creativity and playfulness that only Nintendo seem to be capable of making. Yes, it’s cardboard, but it’s cardboard that is so incredibly clever and gives you the tools to go forth and create even more.
Sitting down to play and build my first Labo, I had a simple looking sheet of cardboard in front of me and the Nintendo Switch displaying instructions to follow on screen. That cardboard sheet has already been cut and perforated by Nintendo, making all the different parts easy to push out and giving you the building blocks with which to create. In this instance, it was the RC car, a simple, one piece construction that folds and locks into itself, and with a cute little antenna hat to turn the Switch into a remote control.
Following the instructions was nice and simple, with a very Lego-like approach to each of the steps. You have instruction to fold certain flaps on one side of the cardboard cutout, and then the other, to push a locking end of card through a slot, and then the other. You have to press and hold to advance the instructions, which does take a bit too long if you’re old enough to think ahead, but will be ideal when playing with kids. Then you can slide the two Joy-Con into their slots, stand the RC car on the six prongs to the front and use the Switch to make them buzz, channelling the precise vibrations of HD Rumble and making it move.
Further to this in the Variety Kit, there’s then kits to create a house, a piano, a set of motorbike handlebars and a fishing rod, while the Robot Kit has everything needed to create a mecha suit with a bulky backpack, bits of string and straps to track your leg and arm motions, and a visor to get you into the mood.
How each one has been made to work is incredible, whether using the motion sensible capabilities of the Joy-Con, the HD Rumble or the right Joy-Con’s IR sensor. Nintendo have constructed games or experiences around each one, so the house features different slots around the side, letting you put in cardboard squidgers, handles and other things that then combine to mess around with the little rotund figure living in the in-game house, potentially unlocking little mini-games.
Similarly, the keyboard has an octave to play around with, while there’s other cardboard bits and bobs that let you modify the sound, bend the notes, record what you’re playing, and more. You can even use the keyboard to read a shape you cut into a piece of card and then turn it into a fish to live in the Labo aquarium. Those fish then appear in the fishing rod mini-game for you to try and catch.
Some do end up more overtly game-like, such as the fishing game, the racing around circuits with the motorbike, and the Robot Kit as a whole, where you stomp, smash, fly and drive around a city, battling alien UFOs to get the high score.
The end result is fun to play with and is sure to spark the imaginations of children, but for adults it’s more about marvelling at what the system can do. It’s essentially an arts and crafts project, and you should feel free to use the plain side of the card to colour in, stick things on and get creative with. Alternatively, you can dive deep and modify the RC car to be the best one going for Robot Wars-style battling with self-righting mechanisms, front wedges and so on. Personally, I made something that I can only really call God of Labo.
However, nestled within Labo is the Garage, and it’s here that Nintendo really put the powers of creation in your hands, so that you can take the many Nintendo Switch inputs and translate those to different outputs. It could be using the IR sensor and a reflective dot to create a door bell that raises seven hells of cat meowing and yowling when a door opens, it could be a pseudo-theremin using the tilt of the Joy-Con in tandem with modifiers. It’s perhaps here that you’ll start to feel the limits of what the Labo software can do, where it’s nowhere near to being the game maker that you might desire, but as a way to learn about how Labo is doing all the things it can it’s a fantastic tool.
Nintendo Labo is a showcase for everything that the Nintendo Switch can do, and I really do mean everything. It’s smart, it’s flexible, and it’s so wonderfully imaginative as it combines real world arts and craft with video games. We’ll be reviewing it in the near future, as it launches at the end of next week, but it looks set to feed your children’s imaginations, creativity and playfulness.