Score: 8/10 Platform: Switch Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Release Date: April 20, 2018 ESRB: E
The best way for parents to look at Labo – Nintendo’s ballyhooed new cardboard-construction-cum-video-game experiment – is not as a game but rather a crafting kit for kids.
Most moms and dads buy dozens of little craft projects for their sons and daughters as they grow up. Some involve paint, some involve yarn, some involve those little round plastic beads that melt into mosaics. In my experience, these kits typically run between a few bucks and maybe $30. That makes the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit – which runs a whopping $90 – a pretty pricey proposition by comparison.
But Nintendo works hard to justify that cost.
First off, the quality of the cardboard punch-out models is outstanding. Nintendo hasn’t cheaped on the cardboard stock, providing dozens of firm and durable sheets. And the hundreds of individual pieces contained on these sheets pop out with almost no effort at all. If you follow the terrific video tutorials – which lead you through every single fold, tuck, and connection with detail and even a bit of wit – you’ll end up with several wonderfully sophisticated mechanical contraptions that you probably wouldn’t have thought possible to make with just cardboard, a few plastic eyelets, some nylon string, and stickers.
The Variety Kit includes a retractable fishing rod with working crank, a motorbike handlebar, a skittering remote control robot, and a toy house loaded with switches and buttons. My favourite model, however, is an intricate piano that includes cardboard springs for the keys and makes use of the Joy-Con controller’s infrared motion camera to detect which keys are being pressed. There’s maybe seven or eight hours’ worth of curated cardboard crafting fun here, and it’s an absolute blast – for kids and grown-ups – from start to finish.
God of War review: Swapping revenge for redemption in old MidgardSea of Thieves review: A great pirate adventure for those who have a few friends with whom to share itFar Cry 5 review: Potentially controversial sequel plays surprisingly safe
These construction projects alone might not be worth $90, but Labo isn’t just about building. It’s also about playing and experimenting with the things you make via companion software. This is where the Labo offer gets a little dicey, though. Because while the games and activities included have Nintendo’s signature style and polish, they’re also a bit slight. Unlike Switch games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there’s little here likely to keep your kids’ free time filled for months, weeks, or even a few days – with the possible exception of the Toy-Con Garage, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The motorbike racing software, for example, lets kids use the working handlebar they’ve created to race in a short series of Mario Kart-ish events and spend a bit of time using a rudimentary track designer to build their own circuits. The piano software, meanwhile, sees kids messing around on the keyboard and altering the sound of notes via a pitch lever and little interchangeable knobs. A bonus activity called Studio lets kids author, record, and play back their own simple songs. The fishing game is perhaps the most challenging, tasking kids to cast, lure, and then reel in a variety of fish viewed on the Switch screen, some of which are actually pretty tricky to land.
Fun activities all, but little in the terms of depth – which, in the end, might be for the best, since these cardboard peripherals aren’t really designed for endless hours of play. The models are surprisingly sturdy, given their materials with which they’re made, but if a kid were to, say, fall or step on the piano, I’m pretty sure it’d be done for. You should go in expecting that the stuff you make won’t last forever.
There is one more part to Labo, though, that could endure beyond the building and playing phases, and that’s an entirely separate module dubbed Toy-Con Garage, found in the Discovery menu. Toy-Con Garage is where kids can begin really tinkering with – and even learning from – Nintendo’s unique crafting kit. It teaches a simple visual coding language that allows players to program how the Joy-Cons inserted in their models respond to various inputs. It takes some imagination and a willingness to experiment (and probably some extra cardboard scrounged from around the house to make new things), but ambitious kids could use the Toy-Con Garage to create everything from duelling cardboard robots to a new kind of instrument.
Still, I suspect this part of the experience will prove a bit much for most people. Neither my daughter nor I were able to think of much to do with it beyond being impressed by the tutorial. But I’d not be surprised if, 10 or 15 years from now, I found myself reading an interview with a prominent game designer who said her career was sparked at a young age by time spent fooling around with Nintendo Labo’s design tools.
Even if no one in your family gets into the Toy-Con Garage, the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit should still provide plenty of fun. My family was amazed while making these ingenious, multifaceted models and delighted as we watched them come to life with a little digital magic.
It’s worth noting that Nintendo has also released a second product in its initial Labo line-up – Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Robot Kit – that has kids build a wearable robot suit that lets them use intuitive movements to play a game in which they can rampage through a city. However, it offers less building time, fewer activities, and not as much opportunity to create and discover. Plus, it costs $10 more.
My recommendation is to start with the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Variety Kit. If you’re lucky, you might even get to build one or two of its cardboard construction projects yourself after your kids go to sleep.