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Nintendo Labo Review: Throwing Fun into the Fold

Nintendo has always been about offering new and inventive ways to look at things, and its latest offering, Nintendo Labo, is no different. The concept is unique, to say the least: A series of Nintendo Switch-based peripherals that, instead of being cast out of plastic like all those Wii Sports toys you remember seeing everywhere, are made out of cardboard. The kicker is that you build them all yourself.

Yes, that means you're paying for a box full of cardboard sheets, the special Nintendo Switch cartridge required to help you learn how to build each item, and the miscellaneous odds and ends like rubber bands and string to bring it all together. While it may sound like a lazy cash grab to some, it's a world of possibilities for others, especially anyone looking for creative ways to interact with their family or learn a little more about coding and maker-themed gaming on their own. Labo is an interesting monster, and one that will continue evolving into bigger and better things as time wears on.

Out of the Box

There are currently two Nintendo Labo kits you can purchase at present: the Variety Kit and the Robot Kit, both which need to be bought separately. The Variety Kit includes five projects: two RC cars, a piano, a motorbike (two "handlebars"), a house, and a fishing rod. The Robot Kit is a lot bigger project that requires a lot more doing, as it's a far more challenging process to complete than any of the smaller toys in the Variety Kit. It comes with enough materials to make a backpack-like device that hooks up to your hands and feet by way of string so that you can control a giant robot on-screen. If it sounds frustrating, know that it absolutely is -- and this could be the make-or-break moment for some users if they happened to begin with this project first. It will absolutely wear on you, as it did me, but it's the most nuanced of the Labo projects and one of the coolest things to show others when you've finally gotten it completed. 

The Variety Kit is the easiest to put together and the most appropriate for solo players or anyone looking to add kids into the mix. It starts life out as a set of cardboard sheets with perforated patterns that you need to punch out. This is where you need to be careful, because even though you're dealing with cardboard, it's not the most durable thing I've ever worked with. If you're planning on making these projects with kids, you'll want to supervise their cardboard-punching -- and even your own, because if you're not careful, that's a project ruined. Same goes for the items like rubber bands, grommets, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac necessary to put these items together. Lose any of them, and you'll be in for a frustrating afternoon, unless you've got a suitable replacement or easy access to a replacement kit.

Give Me Some Variety

When you have all your cardboard items punched out, you simply need to follow along with the Switch's instructions -- that's where the game card comes in. It serves as your guide to putting together all the pieces as you make your way through the kit. The Switch software acts as an interactive model of what you're attempting to do with the cardboard, including panning, zooming, and pinching to see more of what isn't immediately clear with the Joy-Con controllers or touch screen. The Switch component makes for an excellent guide, with clear and concise instructions, so at no point will you be fumbling around thanks to the Switch or the directions given.

No, if you mess up, that's on you. Popping out, folding cardboard, and assembling it in the correct fashion is where things get a little frustrating. Some projects, such as the RC car, can take 20-30 minutes on your first try to assemble, but if you're spending time with kids expect that it could take far longer. The entirety of the Variety Kit can even take an entire afternoon if you're not handy with cardboard or paper or you have guests who can't pay attention very well. But your mileage will certainly vary, and some the most frustration can come from simply trying to build things when you're just not great at it. The bottom line is, not everyone is good with things that require them to be handy. And while it's not difficult per se to build Labo projects, it can be frustrating, and it can certainly be time-consuming.

But when it all comes together and you test out the adorable yet functional Labo toy piano for the first time or watch the RC car you made on your own rattle across the floor, you're filled with a sense of accomplishment that's not easily matched. Even if there's a sense of frustration that comes along with some of the projects, there's also pride that goes along with it, because you've crafted something of your very own. Sure, it came from plans and schematics that you needed to follow, but you assembled it, and that's something worth celebrating. After spending the better part of a day doing my best to get the Robot Kit up and working, I can tell you from experience that it was a monumental achievement, or at least it felt like one. If you ever need to embark on a day-long journey that's guaranteed to come with some gratification at the end, then set out to create the Robot and see how fantastic you feel at the end of it all. It's a haul, and if you come out at the end of it alive, you're going to feel like a champ. 

Tinkering Around

Unfortunately, building your Toy-Con projects and the robot are the main focus of the entire Labo collection thus far, as the games that you can actually play with them are small, largely uninspired arcade-type experiences that don't have much longevity. You're not going to want to leave your RC cars built, for example, to watch them continue to putter around the room.

The appeal is very obviously in the fact that these are creations you put together on your own, not the fact that you can play short games with them. The Toy-Con house, for example, pays host to a mini game where you take care of a small animal, depending on what you attach to the house. There's bowling and racing with mine carts, but neither feel like fully-fledged games at all. The motorcycle game is a little cooler, but given its small selection of race tracks (though you can scan in items to create your own) and short length, you'd be better off playing a racer on the Switch. The fishing rod got me the most mileage in terms of gaming, but the Toy-Con Piano gave me the biggest smile aside from the Robot, which was more of a few minutes of clomping around my living room and scaring my dog.

Luckily, there's a lot more to Labo than what comes prepackaged with the set. The Toy-Con Garage is the coolest part of the entire set, and undoubtedly what will keep players coming back for more long after the honeymoon period with these cute little iniquities comes to an end. The Toy-Con Garage lets you make your own creations via the Labo's node-based programming language. It takes some getting used to, but as you crack it open and learn the ins and outs of the language, the world becomes your oyster. You can reprogram existing Toy-Con projects, create your own objects, and more. The sky's the limit, so long as you know what you're doing, and that's what will ultimately keep Labo owners on board.

Making Your Own Fun

Nintendo Labo isn't perfect, but it's certainly on the right track, especially when it comes to getting kids interested in coding and science. Adults will breeze through some of the projects, but others are ridiculously challenging and can take up most of the day, which means you definitely get your money's worth with both sets. Kids who can stay on task will get to play with their own custom creations, and parents can be happy that their children are learning important skills along the way.

I'd love to see more of Labo coming down the line, in the form of new kits and even cooler ideas as the year wears on, but I'm still reeling over what a great job I did getting through it all and running the gauntlet with its debut products. If Nintendo can tweak the included games to make a more substantial set of electronic components, Labo will evolve into a near-perfect experience. The adult in me is totally here for that. The kid in me, however, just wants more fish to catch. 

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Nintendo Labo

8
very good
  • Wide variety of projects to create on release.
  • Toy-Con Garage lets you create just about anything you want.
  • Rewarding creations that you feel good about making.
  • Sturdy building materials.
  • Simple to pick up and get started with.
  • The "games" feel like little more than tech demos.
  • It's annoying to disassemble everything and put it away.
  • Kids will almost definitely lose the smaller pieces required for building.