Nintendo was truly firing on all cylinders during the Switch’s launch year. The company introduced a take-anywhere-and-everywhere console that gamers have flocked to for its portability and a strong early showing of games. But new Mario and Zelda games don’t come along every year, so to keep the momentum going for 2018, Nintendo came up with something else: cardboard.
Last month we got our first glimpse of Labo, a DIY set of cardboard accessories (and accompanying software) that, once assembled, interact with the Switch and let you play various mini-games. Nintendo envisions parents working alongside their kids to turn these flat sheets of cardboard (with perforated pieces that you pop out) into creations like an RC car, a piano, a fishing pole, and even a robot suit that straps to your body.
You should definitely read Andrew’s impressions if you haven’t already. This week, Nintendo gave press another hands-on opportunity with Labo ahead of its April 20th release. I went in with an open mind; I’m not jaded enough to have outright dismissed Labo as some silly, overpriced gimmick. And after three or so hours spent building and playing with the $70 Variety Pack and $80 Robot Suit “Toy-Cons,” it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would feel that way. Nintendo has applied a surprising level of ingenuity and creativity to pieces of cardboard.
Our first project was the “RC Car,” which frankly looks way more bug than automobile. This build is the simplest of all; all the required pieces are in a single pane of cardboard, whereas more ambitious projects like the fishing pole are spread across multiple, lettered sheets.
It took around 10 minutes from start to finish. Nintendo’s Labo software on the Switch is tremendously helpful throughout the assembly process. You get step-by-step instructions, reminders to be careful with your creasing and folding, and the ability to rotate the 3D cardboard models on screen to see every possible angle if you get confused at some point during the build. The pieces you’ll need to pop out for each phase (the bigger projects are split into several parts) are highlighted in yellow.
Everyone knows what a drag putting together IKEA furniture is thanks to the awful instructions. This is the complete opposite of that. Nintendo’s execution is really on point. And there’s never any cutting or gluing to worry about. It’s cardboard origami to varying degrees of sophistication. Nintendo is also encouraging users to personalize the Toy-Cons with markers, stickers, and so on to give the cardboard a bit of flair.
Once a Toy-Con is all folded and pieced together, you’ve successfully completed the “Make” portion of Labo’s Make/Play/Discover mantra. Then it’s time to play. There’s no motor in this “car.” The vibrations of the Joy-Con controller slotted into each side make the cardboard move. (You’re using the Switch tablet to activate each Joy-Con.) If just one is vibrating, the Toy-Con will turn in that direction. When both controllers vibrate simultaneously, the car moves forward — though it’s hard to keep it on a straight path for long. You’re not going to be turning this RC car on a dime or doing any fancy handling tricks, but it’s a cool, fast demo of Labo to get you started. Two RC cars are included in the kit, and there’s a two-player mode in the mini-game if you want to race a friend.
The most impressive thing about the RC car is that it takes advantage of the infrared camera at the bottom of the right Joy-Con. You’re shown a feed of what the camera sees on the Switch’s display, and there’s an Auto mode that will tell the Toy-Con to follow any source of heat in the frame. So you can have the car chase your hand (or maybe a pet) without having to control it directly.
That IR technology is the secret sauce behind a lot of Labo’s tricks. For example, on the backside of each piano key is a reflective IR sticker that helps the Switch identify which one you’re pressing. The Joy-Con controller and camera point inward, and it’s genuinely impressive how quickly the Switch processes what’s happening. Hitting the keys feels great and the notes ring out without delay. You never forget that you’re pressing on cardboard; the keys can be pushed around or even pulled out with little effort. But the experience more than makes up for that. And Nintendo actually explains how all of these parts work together in the Discover phase of Labo.
The piano was definitely the most mind-blowing Toy-Con of them all in my first run-through. There’s just so much you can do, and every little cardboard button and lever on the thing does something different like adjust the pitch or launch a song tutorial you can play along with. You can also insert a series of numbered knobs to change the traditional piano tones to cat meows or voices from a choir. Each of those knobs has multiple strips of the IR tape, so just turning them with your hand will have a different, unique effect on your piano session. You can even record your compositions!
All of that functionality made me wonder just how long it must take to put the piano together. Some Toy-Cons will take several hours of assembly, so parents would be wise to break up the process to prevent their kids from getting burned out on all that folding and creasing. We couldn’t even finish putting together the fishing rod in the span of an hour. I got the telescoping pole section together, but didn’t make it to the reel or attaching the string. The fishing Toy-Con also has its own speciality pieces like plastic washers. Again, Nintendo’s software does a terrific job guiding you along with animations and 3D models, but some of these things are just going to demand a significant chunk of time. There’s no getting around that.
The fishing rod Toy-Con is definitely worth the effort, with an excellent game at the end that makes it feel like the fishing line actually extends into the Switch’s screen. Successfully reeling in a big fish requires a certain kind of finesse, and you’ll feel an extra tick of pride having done it with the cardboard fishing pole you just spent over an hour crafting.
I enjoyed pretty much everything included with the Labo Variety Pack, which gets you the RC Car, Fishing Rod, Motorcycle, Piano, and House projects. Twisting the right motorbike handlebar (with a Joy-Con inside) for the throttle is good for a rush of excitement, at least. I’m not convinced I’d play more than a race or three, though.
The one Toy-Con I felt iffy about was the most expensive one: the Robot mech suit. It’s undoubtedly the most complicated Labo build of them all and involves a big cardboard backpack, a pulley system for the controllers in your hands, a flip-down cardboard visor for your head (that holds a Joy-Con), and even parts that strap to your feet. It’s... quite an ensemble.
I didn’t have to be delicate with my movements once strapped in, either. Durability is a reasonable concern when you’re talking cardboard, but the robot suit didn’t show any signs of damage after a 5-minute round of punching, squatting, and stomping my feet everywhere. But the game itself, which consisted of destroying buildings and other nearby objects in the environment, wasn’t as much fun as the others. Movement felt imprecise and I found it difficult to change direction and go where I wanted to. But it was Dami’s favorite, and I’m sure younger players will get a lot more fun out of it. The automatic transition into first person mode when you pull down the visor is pretty neat. Still, the Variety Kit seems like a much wiser introduction to Labo. You’re getting much more for your money.
At the end of our demonstration, Nintendo gave a brief demo of Toy-Con Garage, which basically lets you program your own Toy-Con games if you’re willing to invest the time in learning about the Switch’s various buttons and hardware sensors and then chaining together different scenarios.
With Garage, Nintendo is going several steps beyond just teaching kids how the Toy-Cons function. It’s giving them (and parents) the ability to create their own interactive experiences from scratch. If it can attract some inventive minds, this feature could help extend Labo’s utility far beyond what you get in the box.
Based on what I saw today, I’m pretty excited about these imaginative cardboard accessories. Labo feels refreshing. It’s clever. It’s educational! And yes, it’s all very Nintendo. I hope Switch owners give this a chance. Three hours with Labo sparked a kind of wonder that I haven’t felt in while, and I’d think a parent and their kid sharing in that joy and teamwork would be worth $70 — even if it doesn’t last. There are questions that still need answering around replayability and just how long cardboard peripherals can hold up. We’ll get to those closer to launch.
Photography by Chris Welch.