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Nintendo Labo Made Me Feel Like I Was Playing With Lego Again

It turns out, cardboard is very fun to play with. Especially if it makes cat noises.

Danielle Riendeau

All photos taken by author

The Labo announcement a couple of weeks back certainly piqued my curiosity. It’s basically a new line of hybrid crafting toys and Switch games. A Labo project is a simple cardboard construction kit that you first build, then use with Switch Joycons and the Switch screen, alongside the freshly-build cardboard toy.

Fresh from an event Nintendo put on to showcase its upcoming cardboard/computer fantasy, I can safely say the creations themselves are ridiculously fun to put together.

It’s definitely the LEGO kid in me, the one who spent countless hours tinkering and building and playing with those creations, but taking these elaborate bits of cardboard and making, say RC cars and fishing poles out of them is very, very fun.

The first project we tackled was the simple RC car, which only had a couple of sheets to it. In order to build, you use the Switch (which has interactive, and very detailed instructions) and your cardboard sheets. You punch out the requisite shapes from the sheets in order, then fold them into the creations on the box, step by step. Then, you play with them!

You can also decorate your stuff any way you like. This was my bruiser cruiser:

The RC car works by putting a joycon on either side of the creation, then steering using the gamepad. You can do this in two player mode too: my building partner and I started messing around with impromptu races and even a sumo match. The car doesn’t exactly have precise controls (one side was always dominant), but there is a “calibration” setting that helps with that. There’s also an IR tracker mode, so you can get the little buddy to follow, say, your hand.

Next up, we tried the much-more-elaborate fishing pole, which has probably about four times the steps (and moving parts!) as the RC car. My partner and I were the first folks to finish the project, a fact that we tried not to lord over the actual children in the room (there were a bunch of real-life kids playing with the building toys).

Now this is really where things got fun. The slightly more intricate architecture of this toycon (branding!) completely brought out my latent LEGO side. I enjoyed the process of building, and figuring out what parts did before the instructions got to them, and I’m not ashamed to say I exclaimed a few “wows!” in the process.

Then, we were allowed in to try the games associated with the toy-cons. Here's where Labo's limitations started to become evident. While there’s a lot of fun to be had tinkering, nothing seemed very likely to hold anyone's interest, child or adult. The Robot game is probably the most elaborate, as you don a cardboard backpack, visor, and shoe straps in order to stomp and punch around a virtual city. It’s fun, but I imagine unless there are more concrete goals or progression systems, all but the most ardent robots will be done with the game pretty quickly.

I did enjoy the Piano toycon quite a bit, but much of that was because you can play piano notes that sound like cat meows.

I was ready to leave the Labo demonstration feeling a little mixed: the building is so much fun, but the games? Eh.

But they hit us with Labo Garage at the end, which blows open a lot of possibilities. Essentially, Garage is a simple programming tool that allows you to program or reprogram your joy-cons to interact in completely new ways. In the demo, we were shown a method to re-map the controls for the motorbike toy-con to actually drive the RC car.

Essentially, this is opening up the Switch and Joycons to experimentation, with or without the cardboard kits themselves. Our demo folks showed off the ability to program controls to a sort of MIDI sound board (used primarily in the piano kit), with a cardboard guitar—not a Labo kit, but just a piece of cardboard decorated to look guitar-like. In a short video, a broom was used in conjunction with a joycon in order to make an even more wonderfully-janky instrument.

This ability to add functionality to… anything is what gets me excited for the toy’s potential. I could imagine making a musical mini-keytar ala Dagolier, or, thinking even further outside the box, a spaceship with sound effect controls. If I were an actual kid, I’d be very excited about the possibilities for my non-Labo cardboard boxes.

I’m not sure Labo is for me, exactly, since, given my pets' taste for cardboard, the toycons wouldn't last an hour. But they are very fun to put together, and the Garage functionality is definitely something I want to play with, even if the main minigames left me itching to go back to the cardboard.

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