Nintendo Labo hands-on preview

Nintendo Labo teaches you to fold cardboard into magic

Nintendo’s Labo turns mundane cardboard into creative fun.
Nintendo’s Labo turns mundane cardboard into creative fun.
Nintendo’s Labo turns mundane cardboard into creative fun.

Highs

  • Incredibly intuitive
  • Making Toy-Cons is simple fun
  • Uses Switch features in surprising ways
  • Joy-Con garage opens the door for creativity

Lows

  • Cardboard will degrade over time
  • Appeal of Labo games may not last

Last month, Nintendo announced what may be strangest thing it’s ever produced. It unveiled Nintendo Labo, an educational sub-platform for the Nintendo Switch that allows you to build cardboard peripherals, including controllers for minigames and remote control gadgets, which Nintendo calls “Toy-Cons.”

It is, quite simply, magical

Though it’s unique, it may not be interesting for everyone. Labo is specifically for kids (and families), so if it seems too simple or quaint for you, the “hardcore gamer,” you’re not mistaken. It wasn’t made for you. If you’re willing to indulge its childish disposition, though, Labo can open your mind.

Labo’s Toy-Cons feel more like creative toys, a la Lego or an erector set, than video game peripherals. Though many of them have companion games with which they interact, those games are not especially interesting on their own. Instead, the joy of Nintendo Labo — and it is a joy — comes from the act taking a piece of cardboard, making it look like a real-world object, then playing with it and seeing your play come to life. It’s imagination made manifest and, quite simply, magical.

Make

Building a Toy-Con, to indulge a cliché, half the fun. Each one is a guided origami exercise. You punch out pre-scored pieces of cardboard, fold in the right places, put ‘em together, and voila! You’ve got a Toy-Con. There is no cutting, gluing, taping, or anything that would make a parent weary, and the instructions are such that most kids ages 8 and up could probably build their own Toy-Cons with little or no help. Nintendo says Labo is meant for ages 6 and up. We think a 6-year-old would have fun, but they may need some parental assistance to finish a project.

It helps that each Toy-Con comes with thorough, step-by-step interactive instructions. The guide, found in the Nintendo Labo game on the Switch, pairs text instructions with a 3D visual model of the Toy-Cons. You see exactly how each piece is supposed to fold, and where each tab inserts. Ikea could learn a lot from Nintendo.

Julian Chokkattu

The instructions also clarify and account for mistakes easily. You can work through them at your own pace, pressing clearly marked “forward” and “back” buttons on the touchscreen to advance. If the image isn’t clear, you can rotate the model using the Switch’s touchscreen, which makes it easy to clarify steps.

Ikea could learn a lot from Nintendo

Don’t be fooled, though. While building the Toy-Cons has been rendered simple thanks to the game’s guidance, it is a time-consuming activity that demands your attention. Since you’re making the Toy-Cons out of cardboard, you must press each fold down hard and hold it for a couple of seconds to make sure there’s a good crease. Each “step” include many folds, and the process of watching each step, then performing it, demands a careful, deliberate pace.

The simplest Toy-Con — called the “RC Car” — took us about 10-15 minutes to make, but we spent more than an hour building a more complex one, the fishing rod, and only got about a third of the way through. The time spent will vary from person to person. We moved slowly – it was a press event, after all – but in any case, this isn’t something you will breeze through. If playing with cardboard doesn’t sound fun, this may not be for you.

Play

After you make, it’s time to play. All six of the Toy-Cons available at launch were on display at the event. As we mentioned at the top, all the Toy-Cons have a standard mode of play that incorporates the Switch. In some cases, it’s a full-blown game, and in other cases, it’s simply an interface. All of them feature slots for your Joy-Cons and/or a place to “dock” your Switch, making your console a part of the toy.

The RC Car

The simplest Toy-Con — you can build two with a single sheet of cardboard — the “RC Car” looks more like Nintendo’s Joy-Con Grip controller holster than an actual car. It’s a small rectangular box with six long, thin legs. Once built, you slide both Joy-Cons into slats on the main body and use the Switch tablet to control the car by pressing two buttons that correspond to them.

Nintendo Labo claw
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

By now you’re probably wondering how the car goes without wheels. Cleverly, Nintendo drives the RC Car using the Switch’s fabled HD Rumble feature. Somehow, the vibration of the controllers let you drive the car with some accuracy. You won’t be taking corners at Daytona, but you can drive from one specific spot on a table to another.

If you think that’s cool, hold on to your seat. The RC Car interface on the Switch also features a small “car’s eye view,” projected using the IR camera in the Switch’s right Joy-Con. It’s a thermal camera, which means it can see in the dark and can detect heat. Nintendo showed us that the car will automatically travel to “thermal stickers” it sees, which sets up the ability for kids to build tracks and make other games around leading the car on its own.

The Fishing Rod

The more complex Toy-Cons have more rigid uses. The fishing rod, for example, is made for playing a very simple fishing game on the Switch. The Toy-Con comprises an extendable fishing rod, which is attached to a vertical dock for the Switch by an elastic thread. Inside the dock, there’s a spool that allows you to reel in and lower your fishing line without moving the dock.

Nintendo Labo fishing fun
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The game is simple, but fun. You lower your line, wait for a fish to bite, then reel it in. If the fish starts to swim away, you must pull in the opposite direction to give the line some slack. There is very little customization — even features you’d expect to see in fishing minigames, such as lures and baits, do not seem to be a factor. Still, the line reels in as fast as you can turn the handle on your fishing rod and squirming around in equal and opposite ways of your catch feels good in the moment.

The Piano

The piano Toy-Con is the most complex. It’s a fully functional miniature keyboard. You play a key, and the right Joy-Con’s camera detects movement from an IR sticker on that key’s back side, triggering a noise on the Switch.

Nintendo Labo piano
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There’s basic ways to expand your musical range. You can “tune” the piano, making the keyboard’s musical range higher or lower. You can use special cardboard keys to change the sound each key makes from standard piano tones to other sounds, such as cats meowing or people making yodel-like “OO” sounds.

There’s also a simple recording feature. Press and hold the button on the top-right of the piano, and you’ll be able to record your composition. Press the play/pause button on the top-left to play it back. We asked if there’d be a built-in way to export or share your recordings, but Nintendo said we’d have to wait for an answer on that.

The Motorbike

The motorbike is the steering column of motorcycle or, more realistically, a moped. Pressing the base of it against your stomach, the handlebar tilts left and right, turning your bike. The handles also twist, as you’ll need to rev your engine to start moving and speed up.

Nintendo Labo racing
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

You can use the motorbike to play a very basic racing game. It’s basically Mario Kart without any of the stuff. There are no power-ups or beloved characters but, like Mario Kart, you select a set of races, and set the baseline speed — 200 cc, 400 cc, or 600 cc. There are some basic racing mechanics, like drafting behind other racers to gain speed, but the fun comes from the act of turning a racing wheel you built yourself.

The House

The house Toy-Con is more of a toy chest than a game. Slide your Switch into the slot in the front of the house, and the “game” shows the messy, toy-filled house inside. Shake it, play with it, and you’ll see the stuff inside move around.

It feels more like playing with a toy than a video game.

As with the piano, there are a set of cardboard keys, which you can insert into slots in the sides and bottom of the house. Using any one or combination of them either adds new items to the house, or transports you to an entirely new minigame. One pair of keys conjured up a mine-cart platforming game like the mine levels in Donkey Kong Country. Another pair created two portals that sucked objects through the house.

It’s the least engaging play experience and meant for younger children. The interactivity of the house makes it feel more like playing with a toy than a video game.

The Robot

The robot toy-con is substantially larger than the others, which is why it’s sold separately, and costs more than the rest of the other Labo Toy-Cons combined. The robot is a backpack, with elastic pulleys that connect to your hands and feet. Moving your leg or arm pulls the string, raising an IR sticker for the Joy-Con’s camera to detect, which in turn makes the giant robot in the companion game walk forward, or punch, respectively.

Nintendo Labo robot
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

We didn’t get to test the robot, so we can’t account for the feel but, at a glance, the control seemed responsive. Also, based on what we saw, it was hard to tell what exactly your objective would be in said giant robot game. Still, a lot of kids would be thrilled just to run and stomp around as a mech the size of a skyscraper.

Discover

The Toy-Cons, and their games, have a limited shelf life. They have standard uses, and those uses all have a certainly novelty, but the novelty will degrade as sure as the cardboard the Toy-Cons are made from. Nintendo Labo’s true potential is not in the games that Nintendo makes, but in the games you make for yourself.

Nintendo has announced that, in addition to the instructions and Toy-Con minigames, the Labo game will include a simple toolset for programming the Switch and Toy-Cons, called Toy-Con Garage.

The Garage gives you the ability to program and chain simple “if this, than that” instructions for the Switch, Joy-Cons, and Toy-Cons. Nintendo showed us, for example, that you create a control scheme where pressing a button on the left Joy-Con made the right one vibrate. These instructions can be combined to create a potentially infinite number of games and ideas, depending on your command of the Switch’s hardware tricks, such as using the IR camera, IR stickers, vibration, and the Switch touchscreen.

You could, in theory, make your own Toy-Con from scratch, and program its functionality using these tools. We didn’t have time to try it ourselves but, given the mechanical simplicity of Nintendo’s Toy-Cons, it seems you could make something amazing if you put your mind to it and think it through. We’re sure you’ll see more than one Toy-con viral video in the near feature.

That’s the promise of Nintendo Labo. It could inspire a new generation to think about interacting with technology in new ways. It will, hopefully, foster creativity in people, and may even serve as a gateway into science and engineering for those who take to it. There’s no guarantee that any toy or game can inspire a child, but Labo is the safest bet we’ve seen in a long time.

Nintendo Labo hits stores April 20, and will come in two kits. The starter pack, which will include the games and cardboard for the RC car, piano, house, motorbike, and fishing rod, will cost $70. A separate kit for the Toy-Con robot will also be available at launch for $80.