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20th of November 2018

Gadgets



Nintendo’s Latest Cardboard Toy is Its Best Yet

I was a rambunctious, energetic child. It was hard for me to sit still for anything, but if you gave me a box of Lego and a good set of instructions, I could sit for hours. I had Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, K’Nex, model cars, you name it.

There’s a wonderful zen to quietly assembling something. But then, what do you do after you're done? The true test of a building toy is whether you find creative ways to play with it once it’s finished. Toys like K’Nex could always be repurposed for games or rebuilt in perpetuity. Models and electronic Technozoids (yes, they were a real thing on the other hand tended to end up in the closet or on a garage sale table sooner rather than later.

As crazy as my little building projects got, nothing from my childhood was as ludicrously weird and inventive as the new Nintendo Labo. Nintendo’s latest nutty idea is a trio of Switch games that each come with more than two dozen sheets of corrugated cardboard. To play the included games, you must first spend at least an hour snapping and folding together what Nintendo calls Toy-Cons: cardboard controllers.

One kit comes with smaller Toy-Cons you can use on a table, like a piano and fishing rod, another lets you create steering wheels to control three types of vehicles, and the last lets you spend hours making a wearable robot backpack and suit. All the step-by-step instructions are on your Switch, and when you finish a Toy-Con, a mini game is unlocked. You slide the Switch touchscreen into its designated slot in the cardboard, then slip in the Switch’s two motion control Joy-Con controllers into, say, the handle of the fishing rod you just assembled, and off you go. Before you know it you’re reeling in digital fish.

Finding Your Toy-Con Zen

I’ve built some forts out of cardboard and opened my share of boxes, but I never realized how serenely thrilling corrugated cardboard is as a material. I found myself in a state of pure calm freeing the cardboard cut-outs and punching out the little holes and chads as I went (I leave no hanging chads).

Much of the fun comes from the quirky way each cardboard Toy-Con is designed. No build is predictable and it’s fun to figure out precisely how the odd mess of cardboard will ever come together, but it always does so in surprising, brilliant ways. After a few days with Labo, I feel like I’ve already learned a bit about construction and how to fortify a cardboard creation. I can only imagine what a creative kid who normally plays Minecraft might dream up after getting a taste for Toy-Cons.

Nintendo

The on-screen instruction manual for each Toy-Con also adds to the fun. The sometimes snarky, often amusing instructions, feel like a part of the experience, not just a prerequisite before the real game starts. I don’t remember Lego instructions ever telling me to choose “whichever [shortstrap] speaks to you in your soul,” encouraging me to take breaks after finishing sections, or making up rhymes like “Dum diddly dum dade! Not long ‘til the arms are made!” to keep me engaged.

Each set of instructions walks you through every fold and snap, complete with sound effects for every touchscreen tap. Each step clearly lays out which pieces you’ll need to snap out of which cardboard sheet and 3D models let you zoom in or move the camera with the Switch touchscreen. Most of the projects tend to take at least a half hour, and some last as long as 4 hours.

The only thing that occasionally broke my zen was the Nintendo Switch itself. The most comfortable way for me to get to work was with the Switch on my dining room table, propped up with its kickstand. Unfortunately, the Switch is wobbly and fell down more than a few times, and ran out of battery in the middle of long projects. Hopefully Nintendo will make a Switch with more than 3-5 hours of battery life someday.

Which Labo Should You Buy?

There are three Nintendo Labo kits, and they each include multiple cardboard Toy-Cons to build, games to play with them, and a Discover section, where a group of kooky characters with suspiciously appropriate names like “Professor Gerry Rigg” and “Lerna Lotte” will teach you tons of tips and tricks, and unlock extra modes, customizations, and doo-dads in the games. All of three kits are fun, but they’re made for different kinds of players.

The Vehicle Kit is the BestNintendoNintendo

The Vehicle Kit ($70) is the newest Labo Toy-Con, and my favorite (probably yours, too). It's just hitting shelves in September, about five months after the Variety and Robot Kits debuted. This kit is all about steering and piloting, and has a pretty deep and wacky exploration game attached to it.

You can build a spray can, gas pedal, an airplane joystick, a double-handed submarine steering box, and an extremely robust steering wheel. The steering wheel looks polygonal, like it's from an old Nintendo 64 game, but it's packed with features, including a jet boost cord you can yank, a horn, a lever for reverse, and two twistable, flickable stalks for other functions, like window wipers and shifting gears.

With the gas pedal, it sometimes felt like I was using a full racing wheel for driving simulators. Granted, it always felt like a racing wheel made of cardboard, but the control is impressive nonetheless.

It will take 5-10 hours to build the five kits, and they're a lot of fun to put together, like the Variety Kit. Unlike the Variety Kit and Robot kits, the gameplay they unlock is actually more fun than the build. The Vehicle Kit also has an adventure mode where you can freely drive or fly around an open world with 10 zones to explore, each with at least eight small little challenges in them, like finding the gas station in each zone, herding plastic toy cows, or shooting balloons out of the sky. I've already spent a few hours driving, flying, and subbing around the island, and there's a lot I haven't completed. The submarine is my least favorite, but I'm sure other players will love it.

Nintendo

Even if you're not into the challenges, it's still a delight to use the motion control to fly and drive. Even non-gamers will enjoy trying it out. It shows the potential of Labo kits to bring new types of control to life. It's also easy to swap between control types, taking the air or water in seconds, with a Joy-Con "key" that you slide in and out of each steering gadget. Your second Joy-Con is always in the gas pedal.

If a friend also has a Vehicle Kit, you can face them in a surprisingly fun Battle mode (I had fun blasting the AI opponent alone, too). A few other minigames are also included.

Nintendo has already committed to bringing Labo steering wheel to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (the Variety Kit motorcycle handlebars will, too). Hopefully these steering options become usable in more games.

The Variety Kit is Fun for CreativesNintendoNintendo

If you’re interested in Labo, or you're shopping for a kid, it’s probably because you want to construct a lot of cardboard gadgets and make some of your own. The Labo Variety Kit ($70) is a good introduction. It includes five different table-top Toy-Cons, letting you construct a working piano, a fishing rod with a sandbox-style fishing game, two small cars that buzz across the floor, motorbike handlebars for racing, and a house with a Tamagotchi-like creature living in it.

Most of these mini games are fun to play for a few minutes, but lack a ton of depth unless you spend time to learn their secrets.

There are moments when you’ll wish Nintendo would hold your hand more or keep teaching. After having a ton of fun constructing a cardboard piano for three hours, the end result was a surprisingly functional piano that could play all the notes, and a bunch of extra tools that make fun noises (like cats meowing or weird men yelling). The Toy-Con Piano even has the ability to swap between octaves and record music.

My problem: I don’t know how to play a piano. I wish Nintendo had included more tutorials on how to play some classic songs or old Nintendo themes. It hints at some ideas, but leaves it to you to be creative and play whatever you want. For for some kids, this is a gateway to ideas. For the little Jeffreys out there, it may mean that the piano Toy-Con doesn’t get used as much.

Other games are more fun to tinker around with. And the Variety Kit has a Garage section, which lets you make your own Toy-Cons. If you or your kid loves to play open-ended games like Minecraft or create inspired Lego creations without instructions, the Variety Kit is a great way to go.

The Robot Kit is More HardcoreNintendoNintendo

If you or your child like the idea of using your arms, legs, head, and body to control a giant flying robot fighting machine, the Labo Robot Kit ($80) is for you. Instead of five unique, cardboard Toy-Cons, this kit has a single 4-hour project. Your mission is to construct a complex backpack, headset, and string-tethered controls for your feet and hands. It’s very fun, but more about gameplay than discovery.

Once you’re wearing the suit, you can use your hands to punch objects and your feet to walk. As a 30-something adult man, I felt a tad embarrassed wearing this corrugated getup, even alone in my apartment, but I also had a ton of fun. It’s not virtual reality, but feels more immersive than some VR games I’ve played thanks to its responsive controls.

Your first mission is to smash a city, so you can stomp on buildings or anything else you feel like destroying. If you crouch down, you can transform into a tank and blast enemies that way too. But that’s just the start.

Nintendo

There are five different types of challenges with multiple levels and they each teach you a new move or ability. If a sibling or friend also has a Labo Robot suit, and you own an extra set of Joy-Cons, you can fight each other in a multiplayer mecha deathmatch.

There are other extras, like the ability to fully recolor and customize the look of your robot, a free-for-all music mode that lets you play instruments by moving your arms and legs, and a calorie counter that tells you how many calories you’re burning by stomping and punching away. You won't find endless fun here, and it's a lot of work to put on a full suit every time you want to play, but you can goof around for many hours before feeling like you've mastered the game. Like the Variety Kit, this set also has a Garage that lets you program your own cardboard Labo (or the new robot suit you own).

Program Your Own Cardboard Toy-ConsNintendo

For some of you, the Garage will be too much, but for others, it's where the real fun begins. In this area of the software, you can set up rules to program Labo to do a bunch of things. You just tell it what the trigger is (example: if a Joy-Con moves) and then what the result should be (example: make the screen light up). Any of the console's sensors, motors, and buttons are are your disposal.

It hasn't happened yet, but if the games attract a community, there could be websites full of instructions on how to make custom Toy-Cons, and Etsy sellers could have a field day peddling pre-cut cardboard to curious kids. Nintendo already sells Labo masking tape in Japan and offers a U.S. Customization Set. It's clear that more cardboard is coming.

Made for Kids, But Fun for Adults

There are a lot of STEM games and programming toys out there, but there isn’t anything quite like the Nintendo Labo. Building out of cardboard is far more freeing and rewarding than I thought it would be. Even if you rip something or make a mistake, there’s always an easy fix: grab some tape. Anything can be modded, too—as soon as you feel comfortable tinkering with Nintendo’s simple programming interface (and once your parents give you permission to use the scissors).

The Labo Toy-Cons work so well they're often magical, but you also get to learn exactly how they work as you build them. That said, some of the Toy-Con games, especially those in the Variety Kit, are open ended and might seem shallow once you're done putting everything together. If building isn’t the top reason you’re buying a Labo, opt for the Vehicle Kit, which has a more comprehensive game attached to it.

When I first got Labo, I wondered if it would be like a good set of Lego, or more like something you make and then put on the shelf. The answer will depend on you (or your kid). Nintendo has stuffed an incredible amount of playful software into its three Labo Kits, and goes out of its way to encourage creativity by letting you customize and experiment. With enough imagination, kids and adults can get way more than $70 worth of fun out of any Labo. Heck, I might pay $70 just to sit and peacefully assemble another cardboard gadget.

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