For several days my living room has been like an arcade from the 1990s. There is a fishing game in a corner with a physical rod, so you can catch a digital catch. Next to it is a motorcycle racer where players can use their bodies and hands to navigate a spinning race track. There's also a piano where you can record your own tracks and manipulate sounds with a bunch of weird knobs. Smack dab in the middle is a massive, square backpack that you can strap on to control a lumbering screen robot that swings your arms in the real world to destroy buildings in the game. The big difference between these games and the arcades of my youth is that each one is made of cardboard ̵
Earlier this year, Nintendo unveiled a weird new initiative called Labo, a range of accessories for the Nintendo Switch with a decidedly DIY look. You build sets associated with games: you assemble the accessories yourself, and then you use it to play the game. Labo was fascinating for a few reasons. First, there is the playful nature of Nintendo, which brings together the worlds of digital and physical game and encourages children to use their hands to build things.
But there is also an educational element. Not only does Labo allow you to build things like a cardboard piano, it also gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how these weird accessories actually work. This is combined with a freer "garage" mode, where you can use a rudimentary programming language to create your own interactions and to make your own Labo kits from scratch. The whole thing is associated with the unmistakable Nintendo charm, which makes the repeated rolling of tiny cardboard boxes somehow fun.
The slogan for Labo is "make, play, and discover". Each of these elements is an equally important part of the experience, but the most impressive aspect of Labo is how the lines between the three blur. You play in building, you discover it while you play, and it's an explosion, no matter what you do.
At launch, Labo comes in two forms: a "Variety Kit" and a "Robot Kit" kit is cheaper and more extensive, with five different projects to build compared to those of the robot. (Nintendo calls these projects Toy-Con, a game on the Joy-Con controllers that work with the switch.) They're quite complex, ranging from a simple RC car before turning into a fishing rod, toy, house , Piano and motorcycle. The first thing you have to do is of course to build something.
The process of creating a Toy-Con is both intuitive and entertaining. The switch serves as an interactive user guide, where you can go through step by step. The real object in your hands is displayed on the screen in amazing detail, and you can easily pan and zoom the digital version to view it from every angle. This attention to detail is important because most Toy-Con kits are very precise and need to be assembled in a specific way. However, the interactive nature of the Switch manual means that you can easily track what you need to do and how to do it. You can always see the position in which a piece of cardboard should be and how it has to be folded or connected to something else. I'm the kind of person who's struggling to build an Ikea bookshelf, but I've never battled or messed with the Toy-Con.
No tools are needed for the Toy-Con, but the one thing you have to build is time. Apart from the RC Car, an introductory kit that only takes 10 minutes to build together, the other sets can take more than two hours. Of course, that depends on who builds them. Of course, I found things much faster than the estimated construction time when I set up the fishing set myself, and it took a little longer than estimated to make the piano with the help of my two- and five-year-old kids. You also get faster the more you do when you start to understand how it all works. (Never mess up when it comes to folding properly.)
Each set begins as a bunch of cardboard sheets containing a number of smaller pieces that can pop out. (Some also use other accessories such as rubber bands or stickers.) The instructions on the screen show you exactly which parts you need to use at a given time. It is very organized; There are different colors and labels to make sure you are using the right parts. You can either tap the directions on the touchscreen or use a button on a Joy-Con controller to jump through them. Some of the more complex kits can repeat things. When building a piano, 13 very similar keys are collapsed, while the robot backpack contains a series of weighted bricks, each filled with folded cardboard. Fortunately, you can flip through the digital brochure so you do not have to go through the same instructions more than once.
For an adult, building up can be a bit tedious, but not particularly difficult. But with a child, the experience takes on a new dimension. I found that Labo kits with my children are much more intuitive and collaborative than putting together a Lego set, for example. Part of it is due to the instructions, which are wonderfully playful. The game will regularly remind you to take breaks, and even joke when things repeat. At one point, after making four almost identical pieces in a row, the instructions came to the conclusion: "There is something magical about the feeling of folding cardboard … or is not it just me?"
Often my older daughter would build the building while I was busy following the instructions and following her pace. If she was stuck or insecure, I encouraged her to play with the digital model on screen, and in most cases she was able to figure things out. When the creation was a bit too complicated, which applies to some of the internal parts on kits like the bike, we swapped roles.
The only issues I had during the build process were the limitations of the switch hardware. I found that the most natural way to build a kit was to put the switch on a table or desk and then use a Joy-Con to flick through the instructions. That way everyone could easily see the screen, and we still had access to the touchscreen to play around with the digital models. But there are two problems with that. One of them is that the stand of the switch is notoriously thin, so it would constantly fall over during a build. But even more annoying is that you can not keep the system charged in this mode. On average, my one-year switch has about two hours of battery life. It's about how long it takes to put together the more complicated kits, which means you need to charge it at the time you want to play games.
The games themselves are perhaps the least interesting part of Labo. That does not mean that they are bad; They are just not as imaginative as the rest of the process. In most cases, these are simple arcade-like experiences. It's amazing how seamless they all work. Take the fishing set, for example. The cardboard position consists of a stand that sits on the floor and houses the switch tray. This is then connected by a long piece of string to a fishing rod containing two Joy-Con controllers. As you play the game, you can rotate the reel so that the line goes up and down in the digital ocean game, and when you move the wand back and forth, you can see the line on the screen that mimics your actions. It caused my five-year-old to ask exactly how the orange string of the cardboard rod we just made moved exactly like the orange string on the screen. And here Labo really shines.
Most gadgets today are sealed boxes. When a child plays a game on a tablet, they do not have much idea of how it all works. Usually the thought does not even think about it. It's all just a magical world hidden in a rectangle of metal and glass. Labo encourages users not only to build their own accessories, but to understand how they work. It's the antithesis to the Apple philosophy. There is a section in each kit called "discover," which essentially serves as a series of tutorials. They will be presented as a chat conversation with a few cute characters, and will help you get to know the different elements of each kit, how they work, and what the Joy-Con controllers do. They even offer tips on how to decorate your cardboard creations and repair repairs if you accidentally press a button or tear off a tab.
The contained Labo kits are largely based on three main functions of the Joy-Con controls: the infrared camera, motion detection gyroscope and vibration. These high-tech features are then used in a clever, low-tech way. For example, to run the RC-Car, put a controller on each side. If you tap buttons on the screen of the switch, the controllers will vibrate. To spin, you vibrate on one side, and to move forward, you make both of them jumble at the same time. Something like the piano is more complicated. During the creation process, place a series of reflective stickers on the back of each key. When it's time to play, plug a controller into the back of the piano and its IR camera can see these stickers, so it knows exactly what you're pushing. This in turn leads to sounds coming from the switch.
Since this is Nintendo, these features are also used in a playful way, and every Toy-Con has much more to offer than it first seems. Take the simple RC car. It's quick to create and easy to understand. However, if you tap on a button on the switch screen, a new menu will open where you can adjust the amount of vibration and thus change the speed of the car. You can even watch a live feed from the IR camera. This little cardboard creation becomes a nocturnal spy tool. Similarly, when you build the piano, you also put together a series of little buttons, each of which has a different pattern of reflective stickers on top of it. When you plug these into the top of the piano, the sound changes completely. Instead of a typical piano, every key sounds like a cat or a singing man, and you can turn the knob to change the pitch further. There is also a studio mode where you can record your own tracks and use a beat card to create your own backing drum beat.
The ingenuity of the display is impressive, so Labo encourages you to understand it. The repair tutorials are a good example of this. They will show you how to fix common problems, but also help you identify the problems. A tutorial could start with an unclear problem – nothing happens when I press that button – before I can show you ways of exactly what's wrong. Instead of giving you specific solutions to specific problems, this system gives you an understanding of how things work, so you can fix other problems yourself.
Virtually every aspect of the Labo experience is designed to promote this kind of curiosity. Kits like the piano can be opened so you can look inward and see exactly how they work while you play with them. The robot kit, by far the most complex you can build to date, has a series of weighted boxes inside, each connected by a cord to your hands and feet. It works much like the piano: when you move your right hand, it pulls the string attached to the right weight and lifts it up, while the Joy camera's IR camera sees the marks on the back of the weight and knows which limb you are moving. To really bring this point home, the back of the robot you play in-game reflects the inside of the backpack you are wearing. If you hit your hand, you will see the corresponding weight on the screen.
This all comes to a head with a somewhat hidden trait that is actually the most powerful tool available in Labo. Hidden on the bottom of the screen in the discovery section is a small manhole cover. If you choose it, you become part of the game, known as the Toy-Con Garage, where you can build your own creations and games. The centerpiece is a simplified and very visual programming language. Using the touch screen, you can create and connect nodes with a "If that, then the" structure. One node might say, "If you shake the left joy-con," and the other could "vibrate the right joy-con," or "it will produce a guitar sound." You can test these things right away when you put them together, and the process of adding them and moving them with your fingertip is far easier to grasp than punching code into a computer. The idea is that you can use these features to create new ways of playing with the Toy-Con that you built – or even build new ones.
For example, if you turn on the accelerator pedal, you might do it on a motorcycle, make a musical noise, or vibrate the knob attached to the RC car. One of the simplest tutorial creations is turning the switch tablet into a guitar. They start with three touchscreen buttons on the switch that produce guitar sounds, then wrap three rubber bands around the tablet and overlay those buttons on the screen. Then, when you hit the rubber bands, you will also touch the buttons, and it sounds as if you were playing a guitar. Each of the Labo kits comes with a number of extra parts that you can use to build new Toy-Con, though there's no reason you can not use another card or anything else. It will be a lot of fun to see what people who are much more creative than me can muster. But for children it is also a gateway to this world. My daughter had a lot of fun figuring out how to turn a fishing rod into a musical instrument, and a weapon that makes clapping sounds when you fire it. They are useless, sure, but the act of making them was fun.
The true power of Labo lies in this creative element. Once you've built the kits and gone through the games, there's not much else to do. A simple arcade fishing game is always fun, but it's not the kind of experience you can lose yourself in for a long time. But finding out how to make and record your own music, or new applications for the various Toy-Con is much more interesting and Labo offers you a surprisingly robust toolset to do just that. (That's why I would recommend the Variety Kit through the Robot Kit.) The large number of toys you can build provides more flexibility for creating new things.) Labo is an experience where the Creating and building is as much fun as playing. It makes you easier in this world: In the beginning you just fold cardboard. But only a few hours later you try to figure out how to turn a box into an interactive drumset.
My living room may never look that way again.
Nintendo Labo launches on April 20.