I spent a couple of hours messing around with Nintendo’s bold new Labo project today, and I was impressed. The pure act of assembling the cardboard to build the games’ specialized controllers is lots of fun by itself, and some of the games that come with it look promising as well.
Just a short walk from Kotaku’s Manhattan HQ, Nintendo was running a showcase for its Labo line of cardboard-enabled, Switch-powered games. The company is aiming Labo at kids and parents, and even the lobby they set up for this event gave off that vibe, with little cubbies for everyone’s coats and bags and a station for making nametags that included numerous optional stickers. The adjacent room where we’d all assemble Labo creations included tables stocked with crayons, markers and boxes of candy. Some attendees brought their kids to build the Labo works with them.
During my time at the event, I made one simple Labo creation and half-made another, more complex one. In the interest of health and ethics, I ate zero candy. I then played with all of the Labo experiences that will launch on April 20 using pre-made cardboard setups, including the big $80 robot experience that involves a backpack, goggles and even some straps wrapped around your feet. (Correction 4:46pm, February 2: I had mistakenly said that the robot cost $90. I apologize for the error.)
I left feeling optimistic about this whole Labo thing. I’d already gone in with a similar sentiment, but with some skepticism that was largely allayed thanks to actually getting to try it.
Not everything takes forever: I was able to make a small RC Car in about 10 minutes, and probably could have done it far faster. But the fishing rod that is also included in the $70 introductory Labo Variety pack was too complex for me to finish in my allotted hour. I assembled a telescoping pole and a rotating reel and crank, but I ran out of time to make the “ocean” that you dip the rod into. That ocean consists of a stand that the Switch’s main screen unit rests on vertically (both Joy-Cons go in the rod). The rod and stand are connected with a string that stands in for fishing line. The RC car used pieces that you pop out from one placemat-sized piece of cardboard, but the fishing pole experience used six placemats’ worth. The Variety Pack’s Motorbike and Piano experiences seemed to use even more cardboard.
As a kid, I enjoyed building Lego sets, following the wordless directions one page at a time as a pile of loose plastic bricks eventually came together as a sturdy little toy. Building the Labo fishing pole gave me a very similar vibe. You start with lots of sheets of cardboard and follow animated instructions that you tap through on the Switch’s screen. The instructions show you which pieces to pop out of the cardboard sheets first, and you soon have a pile of little cardboard shapes to assemble. Each piece is scored so that you can fold them at their creases more easily.
A lot of the cardboard pieces seem big and awkward, with uneven edges and all sorts of tabs and folding lines. But as you follow the directions, these things fold into compact, sturdy pieces. Pre-release versions of a product are often slicker and sharper than the real thing, so I was skeptical that what I was going to assemble using my own amateur folding skills was going to be as solid and functional as what I saw in the Labo hype reels. And who knows, maybe Nintendo was handing out special cardboard at this event that’s nicer than the real thing. Maybe I have a heretofore-unknown knack for folding cardboard really well. Or maybe there’s no “maybe,” and this Labo stuff just comes together well even for amateurs like me.
Whatever the case, my builds did not seem dumbed down from what was in the trailer, and I found it very satisfying to construct this stuff. The way many of the pieces connect is quite clever. Also, it’s not just cardboard. Some of the builds require plastic washers, strings and rubber bands, all of which are part of what Nintendo puts in the box.
If you’re playing something from Nintendo, you’re likely looking for a little something extra, some twist that makes you smile. Labo’s got that, even though it’s not always obvious. The RC Car, for example, initially doesn’t seem all that special. The cardboard build is really simple: just a single double-folded upside down taco that the Switch’s two Joy-Con slide into, plus an entirely cosmetic cardboard antenna that you attach to the main body of the Switch, since it serves as the car’s controller. The Switch screen shows big red and blue buttons that you press to make the red or blue Joy-Cons vibrate. (I should have asked if you could change the color of these buttons if you have Joy-Cons of a different color. Sorry!)
It’s somewhat surprising that the vibrations of the Joy-Cons can make the car move forward, and it’s neat that you can change the vibrational frequencies to tweak the car’s performance. The great twist is that it turns out that that black sensor at the bottom of every right Joy-Con can function as a camera and that, for the RC Car experience, can be used as a Predator-vision heat sensor. The sensor enables the car to auto-drive toward your hand or other warm things. In other words, the RC Car can be toggled to automatically chase your dog or cat or baby.
As noted, I only got through making half of the fishing setup. Even just doing that, I was impressed with how the interlocking pieces of cardboard are used to make a pole that actually telescopes and a crank that actually turns. I was then handed a finished setup and saw how string was threaded through the pole to simulate a fishing line. I noticed that the line doesn’t actually reel in when you turn the crank, and wasn’t sure what to make of that until I saw the setup for the third time, this time snapped together with a Switch. One Joy-Con goes in the handle, presumably to detect how you’re tilting the pole. One goes in the reel, presumably to track rotation.
Here’s the magical part. The Switch goes vertically into a stand and the thread coming out of your pole hangs down, feeding into the base, and then seamlessly appears to continue into the Switch screen, though in reality the screen is just showing the virtual end of the fishing line. As you tilt the pole forward, the virtual part of the line lowers deeper into the water depicted on the screen. The real physical string isn’t moving. You’re not unspooling more string into the room. But you feel that you are indeed unspooling a line because of how it all looks and feels. You wait for fish to nibble, yank the rod back to hook them, then reel them in, leaning this way and that, feeding more line to a fish that is fighting you and then cranking it in. It’s not that easy to explain how it all works, but thankfully we made a video showing it.
While the Labo demos I played today were limited, there were many indications that the software on the Switch cards aren’t just tech demos, they’re at least mini-games with challenges, goals and possibly even a sense of progression. Nintendo reps briefly flashed the Variety Kit’s main menu page on the screens at the event, and each toy experience had a number of medals associated with it, indicating that each involves some tasks or challenges.
It was obvious how some of this will work just by playing the games. The fishing demo measured the fish I caught, and it seemed more challenging to catch fish that were deeper in the virtual sea. The motorbike demo had three races available. It’s unclear how deep any of these gaming experiences will be, but the potential is there for things that won’t just be interesting to build but will also be interesting to play.
Nintendo is charging $70 for the Variety Pack, which includes the novel fishing experience, the clever RC car, the motorbike, the piano and my favorite, the unassuming but very amusing house. Based on what I played today, I see a lot of value there.
I’m far more skeptical about the $80 Robot kit. I didn’t get to build that one and only played it for a minute, but I’m so far not sold on its worth. The build itself seems complex and clever. It consists of flip-down goggles that carry a Joy-Con that can track movement, and a big backpack that is connected to pulley systems that you put in your hands and around your feet, letting the whole thing track the extensions of your four limbs.
This is all pretty neat, but all we’ve seen it used for is a game featuring a robot that can punch buildings, hover in the air, or transform into a tank. I did those things, causing some destruction while racking up points, but was far from blown away. It was amusing for a very short burst, but the game part of this Robot experience felt clumsy. All the other Labo experiences I tried felt like games that had inputs that worked, but the Robot’s inputs felt clumsy and imprecise. It could be that I wasn’t used to it yet or was too close to the TV where I was playing. It could be that the software isn’t final. Or it could be that there’s more to the Robot software than this basic building-punching game. I’m not sure, but so far I’m not seeing a good enough game in it to justify the many hours it’ll likely take to assemble all that cardboard.
Nintendo has never rushed to tell people which studio or which internal teams are making the games it promotes, but it’s unusual even for this secretive company to be as vague as they’ve been about who is the creative force behind Labo. When Labo was announced last month, we asked Nintendo who was making it, and it didn’t say. I asked again at the event and was told that’s still not something it’s talking about yet.
We’ve speculated that the big robot game is a revival of a pet project of Nintendo’s best-known game designer, the renowned Mario and Zelda maker Shigeru Miyamoto, but Nintendo has not confirmed. The Labo mini-games that are part of the Variety pack have the range of the games in Nintendo’s endlessly creative Wario Ware series, but little of the zaniness. We’re left to guess which of its many teams Nintendo has on Labo or if, like launch game Snipperclips, this is actually a production of an external team that Nintendo is polishing and showcasing. Or maybe it’s a mix. At worst, we’ll be scouring the games’ credits in April to solve this mystery.
My skepticism about the Robot aside, I’m sold on the overall Labo experience. The Variety pack appears to be a winner, as what looked great in trailers folds and plays very nicely in real life, too. Labo may still not be appealing to people who want more traditional gaming experiences from Nintendo, but it seems perfect for people who are into making Lego sets, or who enjoy Nintendo’s more experimental jaunts. It’s been wild to learn that Nintendo has been working on something this creative in secret until a couple of weeks ago. It’s wilder to know that we’ll all be able to play it in just a couple more months.