Nintendo Labo: turn your Switch into a cardboard toy box
Part craft kit, part toy, part videogame, all awesome
You can always count on Nintendo to think outside the box. Okay, usually – this time, they're intentionally thinking inside the box.
While the gaming tech companies continue to try to wow us all into picking up the latest 4K HDR sets, VR headsets or boosted consoles, Nintendo's latest peripheral venture is... well, it's a cardboard box full of cardboard boxes.
That's an overly reductive summation of Labo, sure, but it's still accurate. For those new to Labo, it's essentially a selection of cardboard building kits where the Lego-like build projects eventually turn into surprisingly robust and inventive Switch accessories that each come with their own original mini-game to play. Labo currently comes in two flavours – the five-project Variety kit, and the more expensive Robot kit that forms a wearable full-body controller for a motion-controlled mech game – and while we decided it was technically more craft kit or interactive toy than videogame and elected not to give Labo the 'traditional' review treatment, it's still very much worth talking about. So let's just do that instead, eh?Labo is part project, part toy, part game, part lesson, part hobby... it's a lot of parts, basically (and literally), and the thrill of each is going to differ significantly from person to person based on all manner of factors. Kids might play with the daft little house mini-game for hours (its attention-holding capabilities for those with wrinklier hands can be measured in seconds), while those who are fascinated by its inner workings will spend far more time dissecting it for science and building something of their own using what they've learned. We'll come to that creative side of things shortly as it's an amazing inclusion that warrants more detailed discussion, but let's begin by breaking down the set menu projects that come in the two starter packs.
As mentioned earlier, the Robot kit is the simpler of the two in terms of contents (it's just the one project), but it makes up for that with a significantly longer build time and the most involved game of the lot so far, though that's not saying all that much. With lots of intricate parts and mechanisms to get right, the interactive build guide comes into its element here. On the Switch itself, 3D models of each construction step can be spun, tilted, zoomed and animated to make progress that much clearer, although this build in particular could still take a fair few hours for an adult, and kids will likely need a fair bit of assistance and supervision – 20-odd large perforated cardboard sheets is a more daunting sight than you might expect.VR experience with extra dress-up fun for younger folksThe end result will (or at least should) be a large backpack unit attached to four pulley-based systems that track the wearer's limb extensions, and a simple visor. Into each of the two primary parts is inserted one of the Joy-Con controllers, the pair able to between them provide surprisingly effective movement tracking and responding by sending the relevant in-game actions to a docked console. The game itself is basic but entertaining enough, particularly for younger players that might not have been spoiled by VR yet – it's the VR experience with extra dress-up fun for younger folks, effectively. Still, if you're the kind of person embarrassed by the idea of people walking in on you playing a VR game, you probably won't want to even consider the amplified shame factor of having them see you dressed up like a Gundam that lives in a bin.As its name suggests, the Variety kit features a broader selection of simpler projects. There are five in total, each with its own little Switch game – a fishing rod, motorcycle handbars, a house, a piano, and the curiously-named 'RC Car', whose design suggests that nobody at Nintendo has ever seen a car. Builds vary hugely in terms of complexity, from a matter of minutes for not-car to several hours for the piano, and the lasting appeal of the resulting Toy-Cons (as Nintendo calls the finished articles) is just as variable. This, however, plays perfectly to the selection box nature of the pack – you can move on and make the next thing as soon as you're bored with the last. Builds themselves are a lot of fun thanks to a surprisingly amusing manual (a combination of words we don't often get to use often) and the general thrill of turning a few sheets of card and the odd rubber band into a functioning game interface device, so even if you only made the kits and put an hour or two into each, you'd still be getting decent value-for-money in videogame terms. More if one or two go down particularly well, which they probably will. Kudos to the design team, too, who make smart use of the Joy-Con's IR camera to achieve some quite complex results, and you could do the same if you put your mind to it.You see, there's more to Labo than simply what comes in the box. Arguably, that's not even the tip of the cardberg – Discover mode breaks down how each build actually works, then Garage mode offers deep yet easy-to-read modular programming to let you apply that knowledge to your own custom builds. If the base builds can be equated to Lego kits then this aspect is like going off-menu with a big ol' bucket of Lego Technic bits, only here they're hand-made and corrugated. It's an aspect of Labo that'll be lost on younger kids or the impatient as it can get pretty involved, but the potential is enormous for crafty types willing to spend a good while designing and building their own creations and slave over the complex strings of logic commands that power them.
You hear a lot of talk about the 'Nintendo magic', like it's some kind of actual, tangible thing. Now, though, we know that it must be, as the only other things in this game box are some sheets of card and a few random bits and bobs. Yet from these humble beginnings, you get to experience the joy of creation, the thrill of experimentation, the wonder of learning and developing, and more. The tech behind bringing cardboard to life will seem like actual magic to young kids and the young at heart, while dreaming up new uses for the clever tech tricks that make the many interesting Labo projects operate will keep creative minds busy for ages. Most top Nintendo first-party titles make for easy universal recommendations, but this is something a little more targeted, more specific. It requires a playful, open and curious mind, and/or a creative young one to share it with to really shine, but the sheer novelty factor allows it to reach a little beyond that demographic as well. Considering it's just a bunch of cardboard, Labo is off to a rock-solid start.
There are a variety of Labo kits available to buy on Amazon.
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