Nintendo have unveiled Nintendo Labo, a fascinating hybrid of buildable cardboard toys, games and experiences that use every inch of the Switch console’s more quirky features. A cardboard remote control car powered entirely by the Joy-Con controller’s precise rumble, a fishing rod complete with extendable line, an interactive doll’s house, even a fully-functioning piano.
Even from the short announcement video below, there is a palpable sense of fun, invention and potential in Nintendo Labo. It is a project aimed at children (and kids at heart, of course), combining a love for video games with building, creativity and even a light smattering of technological engineering.
After a successful first year for the Switch, built on a catalogue of fantastic traditional games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Labo is Nintendo looking to broaden the console's appeal with the kind of audacious inventiveness the gaming giant is known for.
Getting your hands on the kit and playing with its possibilities, as we did at Nintendo’s Windsor office, you get the feeling that this is one of the most Nintendo things the company has ever done. Labo is an extraordinary feat of technical invention mixed with the right amount of barmy eccentricity, elevating humble cardboard into fully-functioning toys using a healthy dose of technological wizardry.
Labo is coming in two separate packs when it launches on 27 April, a ‘variety’ pack —complete with a selection of different toys— and a separate robot pack. There is also a customisation pack being released for you to add your own flair to each toy. The packs will come with the Labo software and several sheets of cardboard that will make up the ‘Toy-Cons’ you play around with. Each sheet is pre-cut into templates, with you pushing out separate pieces of each Toy-Con with all the gentle satisfaction of popping bubble wrap.
On the Switch’s screen, Labo will give you animated instruction videos as you fold, crease and combine each piece of cardboard to make the complete toy. Each comes with the kind of precise detail you might expect from Nintendo, slotting together to make something that feels delightfully homemade. But how each toy works in tandem with the Switch and the Joy-Cons is the real showstopper.
The first toy we get to play around with is the remote control car. With its pointed ‘legs’ at the front, it looks more like a skittering winged insect as I fold and connect each piece. This is one of the more simple Toy-Cons to build and the instructions are easy to follow, with you scrubbing back and forth on the video to make sure you are on the right track. And in a nice touch, each video will recognise which colour Joy-Cons you are using to help getting them in the right place.
I slot a Joy-Con in the ‘wings’ on either side and place the bizarre little thing on the floor. On the touch-screen, I have two buttons to rumble each controller which buzzes the car to life. Press one side and it will turn and judder forward slightly, press both and it is propelled along (at a moderate pace) purely by the vibration of the controllers.
At a glance | Nintendo Labo
It is a pleasing physical trick, but Nintendo are encouraging you to get a bit more creative with some of its other details. You can customise your cardboard toys as you see fit. Here we are asked to turn our cars into Robot Wars-esque battlers in order to take part in a sumo match, red tape stuck to the table to create a ring.
I am victorious in the first match against two opponents with their own cars, my now fox-faced and pipe-cleaner attired assassin shoving my foes out with a hastily constructed grabber made of leftover cardboard pointers and some sticky tape. In the second match, the winner topples the rest of us over with a smartly constructed cardboard plough.
This exercise demonstrates Nintendo Labo’s clear aim to encourage invention of your own rules as you would with any other physical plaything. There’s plenty of facilitation on Nintendo’s part along the way, of course. The RC car software also uses the right Joy-Con’s infra-red sensor to display a small night-vision display on the Switch. The demonstrator quickly throws together an obstacle course with paper cups and covers it with a box, asking us to locate a hidden Kirby figure using only the camera.
Nintendo seem to be aiming for a mixture of freeform toys and more focussed games. We team up to build the fishing rod, which is a lot more intricate and constructed with real attention to detail. The cardboard pieces slot together to make a fully telescopic rod complete with string and a reel in which the motion-sensing Joy-Con sits. The pièce de résistance with the fishing rod is a tiny piece of cardboard that fits so that, as you turn the reel, it makes a delightful clacking sound like a spoke clicker on a bicycle.
You then build a stand in which the Switch console sits upright, the fishing line reaching from the rod and disappearing down the back of the stand, but reappearing in digital form on screen. You lower the line into the sea with the reel, wiggling the rod as a lure for the fish before flicking it up to hook them in and try to wrangle them to the surface. It is responsive and terrifically physical, with the string giving just enough resistance. While the Toy-Cons are made out of cardboard, they are sturdy and mechanical. The game has it nuances too, with you able to hook smaller fish as bait for bigger seafaring creatures like sharks.
But perhaps the most technically impressive Nintendo Labo Toy-Con we see is saved for last: the piano. In Blue Peter style this is one Nintendo made earlier, as it is one of the most complex and time-consuming builds, but it is quite the thing. The keys are chunky and responsive, with the proper resistance at each press. The Switch sits in the middle, belting out each keystroke you make in perfect time. Run your fingers across the whole board and it rings out a perfect glissando.
It is quite boggling how this all works, with just one Joy-Con slotting into the back of the piano. Open up the top and each key has a small infrared sticker on the back, hidden by a stretch of cardboard until you press, kicking the corresponding key up into view of the Joy-Con’s sensor and the correct note playing immediately. There are also dials and levers that use the same method to bend notes or change the tone (to a cat’s mewl, for instance). You can even draw and cut out your own sine graph, slot it into the piano and when you hold down a key, the sensor will ‘read’ the shape and the pitch will undulate accordingly.
The Joy-Con's VR sensor, which up until now has gone largely unused, is key to Labo. The robot Toy-Con, which we didn’t get to see at the demo but appeared in the trailer, looks to be another extraordinary contraption. You will build a wearable visor, jet-pack and attachments for your wrists and ankles. Joy-Cons attach to the visor and backpack, while strings reach from your hands and feet to pull the same infrared stickers from the piano around in the pack. Essentially giving you almost full body control over the robot on screen using simple cardboard and an IR sensor.
If this is the oft-touted Nintendo magic on the surface, the ‘Discover’ section of the Labo software allows you to get into the nitty-gritty of how the Toy-Cons actually work. A team of interactive cartoon characters with names like Lerna Lotte (geddit?), talk you through some of the aspects of how the Toy-Cons use the different aspect of the Switch and what you can do with each toy.
In the case of the piano, it shows you what the IR sensor is ‘seeing’ and how the hit-boxes for the keys appear in its vision. This is not an educational tool, but allowing children (and inquisitive grown-ups) to delve into the guts of the bewildering technological engineering that makes Labo work is a brilliant touch.
If there is a doubt that lingers over Labo, it is how long each Toy-Con can hold the attention once the initial wow-factor following its construction has faded. Nintendo has clearly considered this by encouraging further customisation and experimentation, while in the initial reveal there was a glimpse at scores of different Toy-Cons that go beyond the initial packs. Steering wheels, chickens… even at this early stage, the possibilities seem comprehensive to say the least.
But, of course, giving Labo longevity with regular new Toy-Cons could mean a significant outlay for its audience. Nintendo have revealed the variety pack will cost £59.99 in the US and the robot pack will cost £69.99, but striking the right balance long-term will be key at making this the roaring success it could be. Similarly, how will Nintendo deal with replacement Toy-Con sheets or templates if over-enthusiastic play causes some damage? The cardboard is sturdy, but hardly indestructible in the hands of excitable five year olds. Or thirty-five year olds, for that matter.
These important but more mundane details will come. For now, after seeing Labo in action it is easy to be swept up in the brilliant, barmy audacity of it all. From the building, to the playing to finding out how it all works, I know my own son is going to go bananas for it. He will not be the only one.