When Nintendo first released Labo — a line of DIY cardboard accessories for the Switch — it did a lot of things right. The kits balanced a fine line between being fun toys and useful learning tools. You could build your own cardboard piano, get a lesson on how it actually functions, and then make music with kitten sounds. Despite coming from Nintendo, however, the first batch of Labo kits weren’t exactly great games; they were simple toys without much lasting appeal. If you weren’t into learning rudimentary coding or endlessly fishing a virtual sea, there wasn’t much to keep you coming back. Even with two young kids in the house, my Labo kits sat in a closet all summer, rarely used.
With the new vehicle kit, which launches on Friday, the company may have finally solved that problem. The new collection retains all of the best aspects of the original Labo kits, but it combines them with an excellent game that’s bursting with Nintendo charm.
As with the original Labo kits, the first thing you have to do is build the actual accessories, which can take a lot of time. The Switch tablet serves as an interactive instruction manual, letting you flip back and forth between instructions and rotate the camera to clarify any confusion. It’s all very seamless and intuitive, and somehow, it makes spending hours folding little bits of cardboard an enjoyable experience. For the curious, there are also short, interactive vignettes so you can see exactly how the various creations work, and there are also helpful instructions on how to repair the kits if something breaks. One of the core conceits of Labo is that it encourages a curiosity for how things function, and this remains true with the new collection.
The vehicle kit consists of four main pieces: a steering wheel for driving a car, a joystick for piloting a plane, a strange blue box you use to pilot a submarine, and a foot pedal for controlling the speed of each vehicle. They vary quite a bit in terms of complexity, but the steering wheel is by far the most involved. It takes upwards of two hours to build (probably a bit longer if you let a five-year-old help out like I did).
The big difference is that the vehicle kits offer a much more robust video game experience compared to the original Labo sets. When you boot up the “play” section of the game, you’re presented with a few different options, including a handful of very simple races to speed through. But the best part of the new kit is a huge island space that invites exploration. The colorful island is home to a range of biomes — a swamp filled with massive dinosaur bones, a futuristic city, and a peaceful Stonehenge-like structure in a vast green field — and it’s incredibly open. There’s no linear list of instructions to follow or enemies and dangers to deal with. Instead, you simply drive or fly pretty much wherever you want and discover things at your own pace. The only limit is your fuel; you periodically have to stop at a gas station and fill up, otherwise the game resets.
This open-ended structure is combined with a very friendly tone. Vehicle movement feels loose and arcade-like — more Cruisin’ USA than Gran Turismo — and it’s improved substantially by the tactile nature of Labo. There’s something innately satisfying about turning a wheel or flipping a switch and seeing the same thing happen on-screen. Both the car and plane are incredibly intuitive to pilot; my five-year-old daughter was able to spend hours navigating the island completely by herself. The submarine takes a bit more practice. You move around by twisting large wheels on a cardboard box, which rotate fans on the submersible, pushing it any given direction. The fact that the game doesn’t punish you in any way makes the learning curve a lot more tolerable.
The island is filled with interesting secrets, but you have to explore and uncover them on your own. You’re presented with a small list of objectives that are intentionally vague, providing hints like “bird-catching” or “yeti’s last treasure.” They usually amount to finding an object or character and bringing them somewhere else on the map, but the process of uncovering and solving them is a lot of fun. This is especially true for younger players who can often get frustrated by the restrictive nature of most video games. Here, you can just mess around and play and decide what tasks you do or don’t want to do. You’d be amazed how long driving up and down the same mountain can entertain a kid.
The most magical part of the vehicle kit is also the simplest. One of the first things you build in the game is a “key,” a basic cardboard sleeve for the right Joy-Con controller. In order to use any of the vehicles, you need to slot the key inside of them. Before the key is in place, your vehicle is a simple metal frame. But when you stick the key in the ignition, the transformation is instantaneous: that basic chassis immediately sprouts wheels or wings, depending on what kit you’re using. In order to traverse the entirety of the island, you constantly need to shift between all three modes of transportation, and the speed at which you can change from a plane to a submarine to an off-road truck is very satisfying.
If you haven’t yet taken the plunge for Nintendo’s strange cardboard accessories, now is the time. The vehicle kit has everything that’s good about Labo — the tactile fun of building things, the playful learning tools, the creative “garage” for designing your own kits — and it marries it to the bright and charming kind of video game experience you’d expect from Nintendo. The island exemplifies everything that Labo is about: being open, playful, and curious. Nintendo has said that it doesn’t believe the Labo line has reached its full potential yet, and this new kit is evidence that it’s taking steps in that direction.
The Nintendo Labo vehicle kit launches for the Nintendo Switch on September 14th.