Labo is something truly special. Its ability to merge cardboard crafting elements with functional electronic underpinnings is simply remarkable, and the fact that it’s being marketed as a children’s plaything even more so. It’s secretly not, of course, because I, as a nominally mature adult, have possibly enjoyed it even more than my children, while the discovery element of the whole thing’s set-up is undeniably not merely educational, but foundational for a raft of engineering applications that I can barely comprehend.
You know that the Toy-Con Robot Kit is going to be a serious undertaking when you first open the box, not least due to the big plastic bag of ‘important bits’ that’s chock full of straps, cords and plastic washers. The software itself confirms it by rating the build time at a hefty three to four hours. That’s a pretty accurate estimate, though thankfully it breaks the whole thing down into eight separate sections which makes it seem slightly less daunting. If, like me, you’ve got children who struggle with a short attention span then it’s likely you’re going to be at this for a few afternoons rather than making it all in one go.
Although there’s a simple little training project included in the box to get you started, I felt well prepared thanks to having completed half of the Variety Kit builds beforehand. For those in their teens and upwards, I don’t think you’d struggle too much if you’re going to head straight into the Robot Kit, but it’s definitely going to be a combined parent and younger child build if this is their first experience of Labo. Then again, that’s been half the fun in our house, and it’s a wonderful thing for bringing the family together, both in the building process and the play that comes afterwards.
You’ve got options when it comes to how you work through the build. You can pop the instructions on the TV and use a Joy-Con to cycle through the pages, but the Switch just works so well as a handheld tablet, and you can move the diagrams in 3D space in order to double check that you’ve got everything right. The only downside to using it out of the dock is that you’ll be wearing the battery down pretty quickly thanks to the screen being on permanently, but then, unlike the Variety Kit, you’re not relying on the Switch to be portable in order to play with the finished article so it’s less of a concern.
Note: This isn’t Dom or either of his sons.
The instructions are incredibly clear, which is a great help, even if they are a little too peppy at times thanks to cheery music and conversational tone. If Nintendo had their way you’d be mumbling and singing away throughout, which is a bit too Disney for me, though you’ll probably do anything to get a laugh out of your kids. Long story short, they’re playful, and perfectly in keeping with Nintendo’s whole demeanour, and Labo’s audience.
There’s a real sense of wonder as you’re putting stuff together, which mainly stems from wondering “How the hell does this become that?!” Understanding what the elements are likely to do though, and the ingenuity that it must have taken to put the whole thing together, is a constant source of delight, at least for a self-confessed man-child. It may be too obtuse for younger folk to try and understand how the various components become the larger toy, but the whole process covers the building blocks of design and engineering, from counterweights to structural integrity, even if they aren’t likely to realise that as they’re working on it.
The Robot Kit, much like the Variety Pack, is constantly surprising, and the solidity and functionality of the finished article is deeply impressive. From the thick strong shoulder guards through to the hefty internal weights – which are still just cardboard – it’s hard to believe that it began life as twenty thin cardboard sheets and a plastic bag of bits. That thinness does dictate that you need to be fairly gentle during the build, which is probably the toughest thing to communicate to a child, but once you’ve got a few pieces together it really starts to look and feel like a genuine contraption, cardboard or not.
Note: This also isn’t Dom. It’s Stefan.
The magic is that once you’ve built the contraption you’re able to do something with it, and for Nintendo fans it’s nice to finally see some fruits of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Project Giant Robot appear in a game. It’s the most game-like of the Labo experiences, with a huge bonus being marvelling at how a cardboard box attached to your back with straps and cord is able to replicate your movements in-game. Having played umpteen Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect games that have tried to do it, it’s funny that one of the closest systems is actually just a fancy cardboard box.
Your limbs are each attached to a cord that runs through to the Robot Kit’s backpack, and when you swing an arm or move your leg it pulls the counterweights up. These each have a reflective strip on that the right Joy-Con’s infrared reader sees, and sends the information to the game, which in turn sees you as a giant robot, stomping around a city and smashing it to pieces while you aim to top your high score. It’s a great piece of empowerment for kids, but it’s not the deepest of gaming experiences. In terms of longevity there’s a range of challenges that grant you new moves, which should then help you get even higher scores in turn, but it’s largely just smashing stuff to smithereens.
Besides that there’s the Discover section, which shows you the underpinnings of the technology behind the Robot Kit, from the design of the cardboard backpack unit to how the Joy-Con help replicate your movement in-game, and again it’s enjoyably playful, making it approachable for budding inventors to dig into everything. There’s also a calorie counter if you think you’re going to giant robot your way to a beach-ready body, but I can’t imagine it’s going to be a major draw.
As a building project, Labo displays a sense of ingenuity that few things do, and as an introduction to design and engineering it’s clear, fun, and solid. It’s a shame then that the game itself is a little too simplistic, though allowing kids to stomp around a city smashing things may not wear out too quickly in practice. I’d love to see an update for ARMS that lets you use the Robot Kit controller – knowing Nintendo they’ll do it and not tell anybody – but taken on its own it’s a feat of cardboard engineering tethered to a technically impressive, but ultimately shallow game.