In an industry where we sometimes see the same things over and over again, Nintendo has seemingly always been that company that marches to the beat of its own quirky drum when it comes to the products it develops. And while some of their innovations don’t always quite hit the mark (shout out to all you red-eyed folks who owned a Virtual Boy), Nintendo is nonetheless a uniquely creative company, and an undeniably influential one at that. The latest in their line of innovations are cardboard DIY projects under the name Nintendo Labo, which was first revealed back in January of this year and has just recently been released. I haven’t had the opportunity to get hold of Labo myself, but it greatly intrigues me and it is absolutely worth talking about.
Admittedly, when I first saw Labo, I was under the impression that these cardboard projects were merely aesthetic peripherals to be used with Switch software. Much like the Wii wheel was made for racing games like Mario Kart, or plastic clubs and rackets were designed for Wii Sports, the Labo gave off a similar vibe and purpose. And to an extent that is what Labo is, but there is so much more to this beautiful cardboard than just being simple and gimmicky peripherals. Whereas products like the Wii wheel come packaged ready-to-go out of the box, Labo requires some assembly, hence the aforementioned DIY. Right now there are two Labo kits available for purchase, both containing the materials needed to build various “Toy-Con” projects. The first kit includes five Toy-Cons, those being an RC car, a fishing rod, a house, a motorbike, and a piano. The second kit contains one, more complex Toy-Con, that being a robot suit. Some projects are simple and can take as little as 10 minutes to build, though others can take far longer, notably the robot Toy-Con with an estimated time of 3-4 hours. All projects come with easy to follow step-by-step instructions displayed on the Switch. They feature an example model of what you’re currently trying to build, and even allow you to rotate the model around to give a better perspective. Other than the Joy-Cons, these projects don’t contain any electronics, so there is no need for wires, batteries, circuitry, power adapters or anything of the sort. All the Toy-Con projects are powered by some combination of rubber bands, pulleys, Infra-Red sensors, reflective stickers/tape, the Joy-Cons’ rumble feature, and other mechanisms. Labo is quite akin to Lego in these ways, with the added bonus of each project having a game to play when you’ve completed building them.
The RC car Toy-Con doesn’t really have a game attached to it, rather the Switch turns into the remote control for the car. Pressing the left and right sides of the screen activates the associated Joy-Con’s rumble feature, which moves the cardboard car. You press left to turn left, right to turn right, and both sides simultaneously to move forward. You can also set up reflective stickers and have the car drive itself across a specific path, made possible by the right Joy-Con’s IR sensor.
The fishing game places you out on the open water with the task of casting your line and catching all the fish you can. Moving your rod moves the in-game fishing line accordingly, and cranking the reel raises and lowers your line. When the rod vibrates, it means you’ve got a bite and you have to start reeling in the fish up to the surface by turning the crank, which satisfyingly clicks as it turns. Fish varieties range from a tiny mackerel to the mighty great white shark. One feature also allows you to cut a design into a piece of paper, scan it, and turn your design into a custom-modeled fish in the game, which you may then find and catch as you can any other fish.
The house game has you insert blocks into the three input holes of the house Toy-Con to interact with a Tamagotchi-esque pet on the screen. All but one block feature a different mechanism to physically interact with, those being a crank block, a button block, and a wind-up block. Different blocks spawn in different toys and gadgets within the game, and inserting multiple blocks at once will completely change the room you are in. So instead of the default living room you start off in, you may find yourself in a mine, a bowling alley, or a room with a hamster wheel, depending on what combination of blocks you used. In these rooms you get to play games with your pet which reward you food or candy on completion, which can be fed to the pet.
The motorbike game puts you behind the handle bars of a motorbike, complete with buttons and mechanisms to start up the engine, accelerate the bike, make turns, engage the breaks, and sound the horn. Leaning your body will turn the motorbike more tightly, and lifting the Toy-Con upwards will perform a wheelie. The Toy-Con features a variety of races against computer players to claim first place, a stadium mode tasking you with collecting as many balloons as you can within a certain timeframe, and a track editor to build your own custom tracks.
The piano game lets you tack away on cardboard piano keys to create music. It’s not really a “game” but a musical sandbox, and comes with a surprising number of physical modules and buttons to change the sounds the piano produces. These include changing the sound board the piano uses (e.g. normal sounds, cat sounds, old man sounds), adding reverb, and altering the pitch of notes. This Toy-Con also features a comprehensive recording/mixing studio. The studio allows you to record multiple tracks and layer them on top of one another, add custom drum backing to play along to, use a Joy-Con as a conductor’s baton to influence the tempo of a song you made, and more.
Finally is the robot game, which gives you control of a destructive robot as it smashes through a city. Via the various mechanisms of the robot suit you wear while playing, the robot mimics your movements. It punches when you thrust your arms, stomps forward when you raise and lower your feet, changes direction based on which way you lean your body, and looks where you look when in first person mode. Using different body motions, you can also turn into a car, take to the skies with a jetpack or as a plane, shoot your fist as a projectile, and become a gigantic robot. Other game modes and features are available apart from destroying the city, including a two-player versus mode, a hangar for customizing the look of your robot, and a challenge mode.
What makes Labo so unique is that playing these games becomes this strange blend of physical and digital. Now, the melding of the real world and a game world isn’t exactly a new concept. Some notable attempts at this include the Wii’s motion controls, the Kinect, and modern VR headsets. While playing Wii Sports tennis for example, you swing your physical controller to have your character in the game swing their digital racket to volley back incoming tennis balls, meaning that your physical inputs have influence on the game’s virtual environment. Heck, you can even slot your Wii remote into a plastic tennis racket peripheral to further boost the illusion that you are part of this world. However, while the experiences had in Wii Sports and Labo share similarities, Labo’s approach is more refined. Speaking more generally, though the industry has previously explored blurring the line between the player and the game world, Labo tackles this differently than we’ve seen before. You way you use the cardboard hardware to interact with the digital software feels satisfying and “real”, and lends to a more immersive experience than just waggling around a plastic racket with vague motion detection (no hard feelings Wii Sports, I still love you). For example, in the house Toy-Con game, a block that struck me in particular is one that spawns a sink faucet on the wall it is inserted into. When you turn the wind-up mechanism on the block, water begins to pour from the faucet in-game, slowly filling the room with water. If you turn the mechanism back, the water flow stops, and with seemingly great responsiveness as well. It’s a minute mechanic, but the level of immersion here is such that it truly feels you have influence over this little world, that you are actually directly interacting with it. You popped a block into the house’s side and bam, now a faucet is there just barely past your fingertips, as if you actually put it there. Turn the block one way, water flows. Turn the other way, it stops, and all with seemingly great responsiveness as well. The Switch seems less a screen, and more an extension of the physical cardboard house. To that effect, Labo greatly succeeded in its implementation of virtual interaction. This isn’t necessarily to say that Labo is the industry’s absolute best attempt at blending physical and digital worlds, especially when taking VR into consideration. Regardless, Labo has done so quite effectively and uniquely.
But what gets me particularly excited about Labo is what’s called the Toy-Con Garage, an amazing workshop feature that allows players to use a drop-down menu interface filled with inputs and outputs in order to program their own projects. Now if we know anything when it comes to creativity among gamers, it’s that it is limitless, regardless of the community. Take Mario Maker’s endless pool of (sometimes soul-crushing) levels; Minecraft’s plethora of maps, mods, command creations, and texture packs; or Halo’s infinite selection of player-made maps and game modes created through Forge. Gaming is host to some of the best creative talent, and I’d love to see what people can come up with using Labo. The drag-and-drop-like coding system is super basic and incredibly easy to get the hang of, but also has potential for the construction of complex programs using a wide array of conditions and results. If a certain button is pushed for example, then you can have a sound be played, vibrate one of the Joy-Cons, or have the Switch’s screen light up a certain way. But you can also add more than just one condition using an AND gate to create more complex situations. So say for a sound to be played, a button must be pressed and the Joy-Con’s IR sensor has to detect a certain object in front of it. Or maybe you use a NOT gate instead to dictate that in order to play a sound, a certain button must not be pressed. That’s all obviously quite basic, but it demonstrates the awesome creative potential of Toy-Con Garage.
Toy-Con Garage is also fantastic for young kids to engage in as an introduction to programming, getting into such concepts as if and then statements, logic gates, and the basic framework and ideology of designing code. There are great lessons to be learned here about programming, and this is the kind of stuff that spawns child programming prodigies. Though I consider myself just an okay coder, I do thoroughly enjoy the rules and logic behind programming and would love to have been exposed to something like this when I was growing up. Programming sandboxes are exceptional tools, both for entertainment and education purposes, so it’s great to have Labo around.
What we can take away from Nintendo Labo is that one, cardboard is suddenly really cool now; and two, Nintendo is brilliant at subverting expectations and delivering products we didn’t know we wanted. Labo combines physics, building, engineering, programming, and playing games into an incredibly unique and ingenious little product. Like me, you may scratch your head for a second or wonder “Just…what even is this that I’m looking at?”, but get past that and you’ll see what this corrugated material has to offer. I’ve already got an idea or two for Toy-Con Garage, and I’d love to get the chance to try them out. And with an essentially infinite number of games and applications that can be made with Labo, it seems you’ll never become board with it. This concept isn’t just
paper-thin, and shows that Nintendo has really thought outside the box for this one.