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Nintendo Labo review: an incredible learning tool that’s a blast to play

Only Nintendo could make folding cardboard fun

Photography by James Bareham

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For the past few days, my living room has resembled a mid-1990s arcade. There’s a fishing game in a corner with a physical rod so you can reel in a digital catch. Beside it is a motorcycle racer where players can use their bodies and hands to navigate a twisting race track. There’s also a piano where you can record your own tracks and manipulate sounds with a series of strange knobs. Smack dab in the middle is a massive, angular backpack that you can strap on to control a lumbering on-screen robot, swinging your arms in the real world to smash buildings in the game. The big difference between these games and the arcades of my youth is that each and every one is made of cardboard — and I built them all myself.

At the beginning of the year, Nintendo revealed a strange new initiative called Labo, a series of accessories for the Nintendo Switch with a decidedly DIY bent. They’re building sets coupled with games: you put the accessory together yourself, and then you use it to play the accompanying game. Labo was intriguing for a few reasons. First, there’s the playful nature of Nintendo merging the worlds of digital and physical play, encouraging kids to use their hands to build things.

But there’s also an educational element. Labo not only allows you to build things like a cardboard piano, but it also gives you a peek behind the curtain into how these strange accessories actually work. This is coupled with a more freeform “garage” mode, where you can use a rudimentary programming language to create your own interactions and design your own Labo kits from scratch. The whole thing is wrapped up with the distinctive Nintendo charm, which makes repeatedly rolling tiny pieces of cardboard somehow feel fun.

The tagline for Labo is “make, play, and discover.” Each of these elements is an equally important part of the experience, but the most impressive aspect of Labo is how the lines between the three blur. You play as you build, you discover as you play, and it’s a blast no matter what you’re doing.

At launch, Labo comes in two forms: a “variety kit” and a “robot kit.” The variety kit is cheaper and more expansive, with five different projects to build, compared to the robot’s one. (Nintendo calls these projects Toy-Con, a play on the Joy-Con controllers that work with the Switch.) They range quite a bit in terms of complexity, starting with a simple RC car, before moving on to a fishing rod, toy house, piano, and motorcycle. The first thing you have to do, of course, is actually build something.

The process of creating a Toy-Con is both intuitive and entertaining. The Switch serves as an interactive instruction manual where you can tap through step-by-step instructions. The real object in your hands is represented on the screen in astonishing detail, and you can pan around and zoom in on the digital version to check it out from every angle. This attention to minutiae is important because most of the Toy-Con kits are very precise creations that need to be put together in a very particular way. But the interactive nature of the Switch manual means that it’s easy to track what you need to be doing and how you need to do it. You can always see the position a piece of cardboard should be in, and how it needs to fold or connect to something else. I’m the kind of person who struggles to build an Ikea bookshelf, but I never found myself struggling or confused with any of the Toy-Con.

There are no tools required for any of the Toy-Con, but the one thing you will need to build them is time. Aside from the RC car, an introductory kit that takes a scant 10 minutes to put together, the other sets can take upwards of two hours to build. This depends on who is building them, of course; I found things naturally went much faster than the estimated building time when I put together the fishing set by myself, and it took slightly longer than estimated to create the piano with the help of my two- and five-year-old kids. You also get faster the more you do, as you start to understand how everything works. (Never mess around when it comes to folding properly.)

Each set starts out as a bunch of cardboard sheets, which contain a number of smaller pieces that can pop out. (Some also use other accessories like rubber bands or stickers.) The on-screen instructions tell you exactly what pieces you need to be using at any given time. It’s very organized; there are different colors and labels to ensure you are using the right pieces. And you can either tap through the directions using the touchscreen or use a button on a Joy-Con controller to skip through them. For some of the more complex kits, things can get repetitive. Building a piano involves folding 13 very similar keys, while the robot backpack features a series of weighted bricks inside of it, each of which is packed with folded cardboard. Mercifully, you can fast-forward through the digital booklet so you don’t have to go over the same instructions more than once.

For an adult, the building process can be a bit tedious at times, though not especially challenging. But with a kid, the experience takes on a new dimension. I found building Labo kits with my kids to be much more intuitive and collaborative than, say, putting together a Lego set. Part of this is due to the instructions, which are wonderfully playful. The game will regularly remind you to take breaks, and even make jokes when things get repetitious. At one point, after making four nearly identical pieces in a row, the instructions opined, “There’s something just magical about the feeling of folding cardboard… right? It’s not just me?”

Often my older daughter would do the building, while I handled moving through the instructions, following her pace. When she got stuck or unsure, I’d encourage her to play around with the digital model on-screen, and in most instances, she was able to figure things out. When the creation was a bit too intricate, which is true for some of the internal pieces on kits like the motorcycle, we’d swap roles.

The only issues I had during the building process were due to the limitations of the Switch hardware. I found that the most natural way to create a kit was to prop the Switch up on a table or desk and then use a Joy-Con to flip through the instructions. This way, everyone could easily see the screen, and we still had access to the touchscreen for playing around with the digital models. But there are two problems with this. One is that the Switch’s kickstand is notoriously flimsy, so it would fall over constantly over the course of a build. But what’s more annoying is that, in this mode, you can’t keep the system charged. On average, my one-year-old Switch gets about two hours of battery life. This is about how long it takes to put together the more complicated kits, which means that you have to put it on the charger right at the point when you want to start playing games.

The games are perhaps the least interesting part of Labo

The games themselves are perhaps the least interesting part of Labo. That’s not to say they’re bad; they’re just not as imaginative as the rest of the process. For the most part, they’re somewhat simple arcade-style experiences. What’s amazing is how seamlessly they all work. Take the fishing kit, for instance. The cardboard creation consists of a stand that sits on the ground and houses the Switch tablet. This is then connected to a fishing rod, which houses two Joy-Con controllers, by a long piece of string. When you play the game, you can turn the reel to make the line in the game go up or down in the digital ocean, and when you move the rod back and forth, you see the line on-screen mimic your actions. It prompted my five-year-old to ask exactly how the orange string from the cardboard fishing rod we just built moved exactly the same way as the orange string on the screen. And it’s here that Labo really shines.

Most gadgets today are sealed boxes. When a kid plays a game on a tablet, they don’t have much indication of how it all works. Usually, the thought doesn’t even cross their mind. It’s all just a magical world hidden inside a rectangle made of metal and glass. Labo, on the other hand, encourages users not only to build their own accessories but also to understand how they function. It’s the antithesis of the Apple philosophy. There is a section in each kit called “discover” that essentially serves as a series of tutorials. They’re presented as a chat conversation with a few cute characters, and they help teach you about the various elements of each kit, like how they work and what the Joy-Con controllers are doing. They even offer tips on how to decorate your cardboard creations and troubleshoot repairs should you accidentally squash a button or tear off a tab.

For the most part, the included Labo kits rely on three main features of the Joy-Con controllers to function: the infrared camera, motion-sensing gyroscope, and vibration. These high-tech features are then used in clever, low-tech ways. In order to make the RC car drive, for instance, you slot a controller on either side. When you tap buttons on the Switch’s screen, it causes the controllers to vibrate. To turn, you vibrate one side, and to move forward you make both rumble at the same time. Something like the piano is more complicated. During the build process, you’ll place a number of reflective stickers on the back of each key. When it’s time to play, you slot a controller into the back of the piano and its IR camera can see those stickers, so it knows exactly what you press. This, in turn, results in sounds coming from the Switch.

Since this is Nintendo, these features are also used in increasingly playful ways, and each Toy-Con has much more to it than it first seems. Take the simple RC car. It’s quick to build and easy to understand. But when you tap a button on the Switch screen, it opens up a new menu that lets you adjust the intensity of the vibration, and thus change the speed of the car. You can even see a live feed from the IR camera. That tiny cardboard creation becomes a nighttime spy tool. Similarly, when you build the piano, you also put together a series of small knobs, each of which has a different pattern of reflective stickers on it. When you slot these into the top of the piano, it completely changes the sound. Instead of a typical piano, each key now sounds like a cat or a singing man, and you can twist the knob to further alter the pitch. There’s also a studio mode where you can record your own tracks and use a punch card to create your own backing drum beat.

The ingenuity on display is impressive, and so is the way that Labo encourages you to understand it. The repair tutorials are a great example of this. They show you how to fix common issues, but also help you pinpoint what the problems are in the first place. A tutorial might start with an unclear issue — nothing happens when I push this button — before giving you ways to figure out what exactly is wrong. Instead of just giving you specific fixes for specific problems, this system instead gives you an understanding of how things work so you can fix other problems by yourself.

Virtually every aspect of the Labo experience feels designed to encourage this kind of curiosity. Kits like the piano can be opened up so you can look inside and see exactly how they operate while you’re playing with them. The robot kit, by far the most complex thing you can build so far, features a series of weighted boxes inside, each of which is connected by a string to your hands and feet. It works similar to the piano: when you move your right hand, it pulls the string connected to the right-hand weight and lifts it up, while the Joy-Con’s IR camera sees the markings on the back of the weight and knows which limb you’re moving. To really drive this point home, the back of the robot you play as in the game reflects the inside of the backpack you’re wearing. When you punch your hand, you can see the corresponding weight rise on-screen.

The creative element is where the real power of Labo lies

This all comes to a head with a somewhat hidden feature that’s actually the most powerful tool available in Labo. Tucked away at the bottom of the screen in the discover section is a little manhole cover. When you select it, you’re taken to a part of the game known as the Toy-Con Garage where you can build your own creations and games. At the heart of this is a simplified and very visual programming language. Using the touchscreen, you can create and connect nodes, with an “if this, then that” structure. One node could be “if you shake the left Joy-Con,” and the other could be “the right Joy-Con vibrates” or “it makes a guitar sound.” You can test these things out immediately as you put them together, and the process of adding them and moving them around with a fingertip is much easier to grasp than punching code into a computer. The idea is that you can use these functions to create new ways of playing with the Toy-Con you’ve built — or even build new ones altogether.

For instance, you could make it so that when you turn the accelerator on the motorcycle, it makes a musical sound or it vibrates the controller hooked to the RC car. One of the simplest tutorial creations involves turning the Switch tablet into a guitar. You start by making three touchscreen buttons on the Switch that create guitar sounds, and then wrapping three rubber bands around the tablet, overlapping those buttons on the screen. Then, as you strum the rubber bands, you’ll also touch the buttons, and it sounds as if you were playing a guitar. Each of the Labo kits also comes with a number of extra pieces that you can use to build new Toy-Con, though there’s really no reason you can’t use other cardboard or really anything for that matter. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what people who are much more creative than me can come up with. But for kids, it’s also a gateway into this world. My daughter had a lot of fun figuring out how to turn a fishing rod into a musical instrument, and a gun that makes clapping sounds when you fire it. They’re useless, sure, but the act of making them was fun.

This creative element is where the real power of Labo lies. Once you build the kits and play through the games, there’s not much else to do. A simple arcade fishing game is fun to play every so often, but it’s not the kind of experience you can lose yourself in for long. But figuring out ways to make and record your own music, or new uses for the various Toy-Con is much more engaging, and Labo gives you a surprisingly robust toolset to do just that. (This is also the reason I’d recommend the variety kit over the robot kit. The large number of toys you can build means more flexibility for creating new things.) Labo is an experience where creating and building are just as much fun as playing. It eases you into this world: at the beginning, you’re simply folding cardboard. But just a few hours later, you’re trying to figure out how to turn a box into an interactive drum kit.

My living room might never look the same again.

Nintendo Labo Variety Kit and Robot Kit are available on Nintendo Switch.