Hands-on with every Nintendo Labo Toy-Con shows Nintendo hasn’t lost its touch
Nintendo Labo is exactly the sort of thing only the creative and playful minds at Nintendo could dream up. On paper, it sounds absurd: A set of cardboard structures to house your Nintendo Switch in and play some games with. In practice, it’s one of the most refreshing and glorious examples of the creativity that video games can bring out in people. It’s a perfect, family-friendly creation where every push of a button, turn of a dial or flick of a cardboard switch results in a gleeful smile.
Having gone hands-on with each of the six Nintendo Labo Toy-Cons, I can safely say that there’s so much more to Nintendo’s latest creation than first meets the eye. It’s more than simply just clever engineering with cardboard and the Switch’s IR sensor, Nintendo has also built a platform that encourages playfulness and creativity, giving young players an insight into how complex devices are built and how similar technologies can be repurposed in new and innovative ways. It’s as much an educational tool as it is an outlet for creative expression and entertainment.
But, before I delve any deeper…
Nintendo Labo: What is it?
Nintendo Labo is hard to really quantify in any simple and straightforward way. Its surprise announcement via a dedicated Nintendo Direct showed it to be another leftfield Nintendo idea, encouraging play through tactile toys. It’s doing what the Wii did for making gaming approachable, but instead, it’s about making gaming creative and educational.
In its simplest form, Nintendo Labo is six cardboard structures to use with your Nintendo Switch. Five of those structures, called Toy-Cons, can be found in a Nintendo Labo “Variety Pack”, or Toy-Con 01. The sixth Toy-Con comes in the “Robot Pack”, or Toy-Con 02. Buying a pack gives you access to each of the individual Toy-Con creations contained within, along with a set of games and creative software to use them with.
Nintendo has also announced that Nintendo Labo has a wonderful section that allows you to create your own Toy-Cons from the ones Nintendo supplies in its packs. You can reprogram and repurpose, and even extend their inter-compatibility beyond what Nintendo has even imagined. It’s seriously impressive stuff and a sign that you’re purchasing far more than just some cardboard and instructional videos. And also that it has more longevity than your set of GameCube bongo controllers.
Nintendo Labo release date: when’s it out?
Nintendo is releasing both Nintendo Labo Toy-Con packs on 20 April. On the same day, you’ll also be able to buy a Customisation Set for Nintendo Labo which contains a set of stickers, stencil sheets and coloured tapes to jazz up your Toy-Con creations. Because Nintendo Labo is also made of cardboard, you can create your own bits to add on too, so the Customisation Set should be a nice little addition for younger players.
Nintendo Labo price: How much will it cost?
Initially, Nintendo Labo seemed rather expensive. The Variety Pack, Toy-Con 01, will set you back AU$99.95 with the Robot Kit, Toy-Con 02, costing AU$119.95.
While that may seem steep, in reality it’s actually quite a reasonable price. The Variety Pack contains five Toy-Con creations and each one can be modified, repurposed, redesigned and their multiple uses educate children and adults about how things work. It’s as much an educational experience as it is an entertaining one.
The Robot Kit only contains the Robot Toy-Con, but it’s such a mammoth build that it takes nearly as long to create as building all five of the Variety Pack Toy-Cons combined. The software also has more modes to enjoy than simply rampaging around in a robot suit, so it’s surprisingly reasonably priced for a Nintendo Switch game.
The Customisation Set will also set you back AU$14.95.
Nintendo Labo: How does it work?
If you’re wondering how Nintendo Labo, and its many parts, all work, you’re not alone. In essence, it really is just using what the Nintendo Switch already has at its disposal. Most games revolve around the use of motion controls and the IR sensor located on the Right Joy-Con.
The IR sensor uses reflective strips to work out where objects are so they properly interact with the Switch. For instance, with Toy-Con Piano, each of the keys has a strip of reflective tape stuck to it so the IR sensor knows when a key is being pressed. Using predefined hitboxes, the Switch knows when a certain item or element is being pressed, pushed, pulled, twisted or moved in any way and reacts to it. Toy-Con Robot works in a similar way, tracking when movement happens through lifted weights and pulleys.
The other side of the action comes in the form of utilising the Switch’s motion sensors and accelerometers to understand when something is being rotated, flicked or shaken so it can produce the expected response on-screen. HD Rumble is also used to great effect to control the RC Car and offer feedback in the Motorbike racing game too.
It’s wonderfully simple technology but, when packaged up in Nintendo Labo, it really does feel like magic when an on-screen creature reacts to your actions as if you were really interacting with it.
Nintendo Labo Toy-Cons: What each Toy-Con is like to use
Nintendo Labo’s Toy-Cons come in two packages, the Variety Pack and the Robot Pack. The Variety pack contains five Toy-Con creations, while the Robot Pack contains the Toy-Con Robot creation. Each pack also, and somewhat confusingly, is also called a Toy-Con, with the Variety Pack numbered Toy-Con 01 and the Robot Pack numbered Toy-Con 02. Thankfully, individual Toy-Cons aren’t numbered and instead have names.
Having gone hands-on with each individual Toy-Con, here’s our roundup of each and every Nintendo Labo creation out there right now.
Toy-Con RC Car
The Toy-Con RC Car was the first of the Toy-Cons I used during my hands-on time with Nintendo Labo. It’s blissfully simple to build, consisting of no more than two parts, one of which is purely decoration for the Nintendo Switch itself. Once folded into shape, with the Joy-Con’s neatly inserted into either side, your RC Car is ready to use.
The main body of the Switch then becomes your controller, with each Joy-Con independently vibrating to help move your car along. Thanks to the HD-Rumble feature within each Joy-Con, you can tweak the individual frequency of the rumble allowing your RC Car to turn faster or slower. You can even tweak it to account for balancing issues that sees one side of the car moving forward faster than the other.
You can also set the RC Car to an auto-drive mode that uses the IR camera to follow a set of markers around the play environment. You can use some reflective tape to lay out a course on your table and have the RC Car follow its path. There’s also a multiplayer mode for you to battle it out in sumo matches with other RC cars, and the RC Car Toy-Con flat pack comes with a second car to make so you can use a second set of Joy-Cons you have to have multiplayer battles on the same Switch console.
The Toy-Con House is actually a rather complicated build compared to some of the others included in the Variety pack. The house, which is used as a way to hold the Nintendo Switch to act as a window into the house, contains a cute little creature you can interact with via various accessories included with the House flat-pack. The easiest way to think about this rather abstract Toy-Con is that it’s like having a bigger Tamagotchi to look after and play with.
Just like the RC Car, and the other Toy-Cons available in Nintendo Labo, it’s perfect for creating a custom home to house your little creature. There’s also a lot more to it than first meets the eye, with the Toy-Con housing plenty of mini-games to enjoy with your creature like mine cart racing, bowling and even skipping. You interact with your creature, and play mini-games, simply by using the Joy-Cons and the cardboard accessories you’ve made alongside the House.
Of the six Toy-Cons I played during my hands-on session, it was the hardest sell. However, seeing as I’m not an inquisitive child that’s yearning after a Tamagotchi, I’m not really its target audience. Your little ones, on the other hand, will likely love what Toy-Con House has to offer.
No, Toy-Con Motorbike isn’t a full-sized bike made of cardboard – as cool as that would be. Instead, it’s a set of handlebars and a support rest that lets you ride a virtual motorbike around a racecourse. You’ll rev the engine with a twist of the right handlebar and steer via leaning and turning the handlebars, just like a real motorbike.
On the surface, this seems like a neat motorbike racing game, one that lets you compete with friends and computer-controlled opponents on Excitebike-like courses. However, the real genius of Toy-Con Motorbike comes from its Stadium mode. At first glance Stadium seems like an interesting creative space for building your own courses out of predetermined pieces. You can alter the weather and time of day and drive around on your creation.
However, Stadium really becomes amazing when you whip the right Joy-Con out from the handlebar and slip it into its scanning tool. The scanning tool, which is just a cardboard housing for your right Joy-Con, allows you to use the Switch’s IR sensor to scan in your own creations, creating a course out of earth right in the centre of the stadium. This means kids can draw a course on pieces of paper and have their creations materialise in front of their eyes.
You could even create intricate courses out of Lego bricks in the real world and scan them into Toy-Con Motorbike to create a new race track. It’s a stroke of absolute genius.
Toy-Con Fishing Rod
Of the mid-level Toy-Con creations, the Toy-Con Fishing Rod is the most fascinating. The string attached to the end of the rod and into the unit that houses the Switch screen really does look as if it’s linked directly up to the Switch. It’s seamless, with the on-screen fishing line and lure bobbing perfectly in time with your hand movements, swaying across the screen as you flick the rod from side to side.
In reality, it’s actually quite a dumb device, with the cardboard telescopic rod working simply through motion recognition alone. Cranking the handle doesn’t reel in your line at all, it simply tells the on-screen line to move up or down in relation to the way you’re spinning the Joy-Con.
The Fishing Rod game is a simple one of plumbing the depths of the sea in search of big game. When a fish bites, you flick the rod up and start reeling them in, paying close attention to the strain on the fishing line. There’s also some neat tricks hidden away where bagging a smaller fish onto your line could help you snag a bigger one that’s been lured in by your initial catch. You can also use a curious slot on the top of the Toy-Con Piano to enable the Switch’s IR camera to create new fish for your aquarium and to populate the sea with your unique, custom-made creatures.
The Toy-Con Piano is, so far, my absolute favourite Toy-Con from Nintendo Labo. Having spent just over an hour constructing one myself during the hands-on event, it’s amazing to see just how intricate Nintendo’s cardboard creations are. It works in the simplest of ways, just using the Switch IR sensor and reflective strips to trigger new events, but in practice it’s truly magical. Out of cardboard, you’ve built a working piano. Nothing has ever made me feel so much like a big kid before.
In terms of what you can do with Toy-Con Piano, Nintendo has built a musical experience that’s part Guitar Hero, part Wii Music. Tap the play button on the Piano’s main screen and you’ll be treated to a colour-coded rendition of a song that you can play along to. Because it’s a real piano layout, you’ll actually be able to transfer this knowledge over to a real piano and thus learn how to play some very basic piano music.
For the true virtuosos out there, there’s a deep composer mode you can use to create multi-layered recordings with the full range of notes a traditional piano would offer you. You can even use the Left Joy-Con’s motion controls to help keep time and, with some add-on bolts included in the Toy-Con Piano build, you can modify sounds to make your songs sound like meowing cats or sighing grumpy old men.
There’s also a curious little slot on the top of the Toy-Con Piano that you can use to modify your music by altering its tempo, volume and pitch.
Toy-Con Robot is the biggest of the Toy-Cons currently on offer. This cardboard creation is so mammoth it comes in its own Toy-Con pack separate from the rest and, when you see it in action, you can understand why. This Toy-Con is huge, you wear it as a backpack with handles and foot harnesses to move your robotic arms and legs. You’ll also don a visor that’s used for enabling a first-person view and function as the sensor for turning your huge contraption.
In terms of build time, I was told the Toy-Con Robot suit takes around four to five hours to put together and, when you open up the finished suit and peer inside, you can see how intricate everything is, even though it’s made entirely of cardboard. It’s a true wonder how anybody at Nintendo actually dreamt this stuff up in the first place and worked on building these prototypes out of, well, probably cardboard.
As it’s a standalone pack, it comes with its own set of games too, and it’s likely there’s an awful lot more to it than I’ve been given the opportunity to experience. While I romped around in a high-score alien-bashing, city-smashing arcade game, I spied a VS battle mode, a calorie-counting mode and a slightly more structured gameplay mode – whose name escapes me – hiding away on the menu screen.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in time, Nintendo will open up its Robot suit to new abilities and possibly new games. It’d be absolutely fantastic if there was a way to get the Toy-Con Robot to work with Nintendo Switch fighting game Arms.
Nintendo Labo Toy-Con Garage: What is it?
Alongside all of these Toy-Cons, Nintendo Labo has a curiously wonderful creative mode called Toy-Con Garage. In its simplest form, Garage is a way to reprogram and repurpose your Toy-Cons to create new ones with different uses. Your only limit is your imagination and Nintendo really encourages you to think outside the box to dream up some wonderful new ways to experiment and play.
Toy-Con Garage really does completely change how you use Nintendo Labo, expanding its features far beyond the cardboard creations Nintendo provides for you in the first place. I’d certainly like to spend more time with Toy-Con Garage to really see what the limits of its creativity are, but in the short time I got to see it in action, it’s seriously impressive.
One example shown to me was using Toy-Con Motorbike to directly control the RC Car. It let you physically drive the RC Car buy revving the Motorbike engine and turning the handlebars. Others let you create your own contraptions simply by making your own cardboard structures and programming them through Toy-Con Garage. In the video Nintendo released alongside Garage’s announcement, we see one Nintendo engineer create a guitar out of a household broom and a bit of string.
Toy-Con Garage seems to be intuitive and powerful enough to basically justify the asking price of Nintendo Labo’s Toy-Con packs on its own. It appears as if Nintendo has finally managed to crack the tricky subject of creating educational games that can give kids the ability to understand how things work and encourage them to learn about the tech that goes behind the toys they love to play with.
Nintendo Labo first impressions:
Industry analyst Michael Pachter once said that Nintendo fans would buy a cardboard box from Nintendo if it stamped its logo onto it. As it turns out, he was right. But Nintendo Labo is so much more than simply sheets of cardboard. Here Labo’s cardboard sheets are akin to Lego’s plastic bricks – unassembled they’re little more than pieces of plastic or paper, but when constructed they can be a creative musical box, a fish-generating device, a sumo-fighting elephant or a house full of monsters.
The real beauty of Nintendo Labo comes from letting your imagination go wild and seeing it for what it really is, a window into your – or your children's’ – wildest dreams.