Nintendo Labo is far more than just cardboard decoration, it’s the frontier of educational gaming.
Nintendo Labo is the best peripheral ever made by the Japanese company. On the surface, it’s little more than a set of cardboard curios allowing you to build a fishing rod, a piano or even a robot suit, yet beneath the surface, Labo is so much more.
Nintendo Labo is a new platform for learning and creation – and it could well be the most exciting thing to come along from the games industry since Minecraft.
When an adult looks at a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con, they’ll simply see a controller. To a child it could be a car, a plane, a submarine; perhaps a pistol or a wand, maybe even a set of drumsticks. Labo taps into that childlike imagination, looking at the Switch as, fundamentally, a set of sensors.
Nintendo Labo’s individual Toy-Cons work so well with the Nintendo Switch itself, it’s clear Labo isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan idea. Nintendo has been meticulous in its attention to detail, factoring in ways that the Switch’s constituent parts can be used to create a myriad of different contraptions.
Nintendo Labo review: Cardboard creativity
Nintendo Labo isn’t a single game or release from Nintendo, it’s essentially a new platform. At launch, Nintendo is releasing just two Toy-Con packs – Toy-Con 001 “Variety Pack” and Toy-Con 002 “Robot Kit”. The Variety Pack comes with five individual “Toy-Cons” – RC Car, Fishing Rod, Motorbike, House and Piano – with Robot Kit simply containing Toy-Con Robot, a wearable cardboard robot suit.
Despite the fact each Toy-Con is little more than an elaborate housing for the Switch’s Joy-Cons, the charm of building and using them is undeniable. The Toy-Con Piano, for instance, easily takes around two hours to build and, if you’re not nearly 30 like I am, certainly requires a level of adult help. Finishing it, however, is wonderful. You’ve built yourself a working 13-key piano, all by yourself!
Even when build times are shorter, the complexity and ingenuity of Labo’s Toy-Cons mean every stage feels like an accomplishment. It’s akin to earning an in-game Trophy or Achievement, except this time it’s a physical object. It’s even more enjoyable when you work together with a friend.
Nintendo has also thought about what comes after construction. Building is only part of the package and, once you’ve begun to tire of the initial set of games packaged with Labo as standard, you suddenly discover that items work with each other. The Toy-Con Piano can be used to create fish that can then be caught in the Toy-Con Fishing Rod’s fishing game, and you can use the Toy-Con Motorbike’s special scanning tool and mini motorbike to build your own racetracks and environments. It’s fantastic stuff and will be there to keep both kids, and big kids, busy for hours after they’ve finished constructing all of Labo’s cardboard creations.
The Robot Kit is a little different, in that it’s just one Toy-Con, which comes with its own set of Labo software. However, just because it’s a single contraption doesn’t mean it has limited uses. Not only are there multiple gameplay modes on offer, but it’s built for adaptability and, combined with Labo’s Toy-Con Garage mode, can be used for myriad self-made games.
Nintendo Labo review: Toy-Con Garage
Tucked away in Nintendo Labo’s “Discover” section is, quite possibly, the Labo’s most exciting feature – Toy-Con Garage.
Just as its manhole cover icon indicates, Toy-Con Garage takes you beneath the surface of how Nintendo Labo works. Here you’ll be presented with a wonderfully basic interface where everything is in black and white.
In Toy-Con Garage you’ll find Nintendo has handed you the keys to how Labo works. You can outline an input command from any one of the Switch’s many sensors and combine it with a desired output command to make your Switch do whatever you want it to. Fancy making your Left Joy-Con vibrate every time you touch the screen of your Switch? You can. You can even make your switch mew like a cat when you shake a Joy-Con or let out a yell whenever you shake it. You can combine these sensor inputs with a multitude of modifiers that create and/or states to build if-that-then-this commands for complex creations.
Once you understand how each Toy-Con actually works – such as the Fishing Rod simply using motion sensors to replicate effects, or the piano playing sounds based on IR-sensor readings – you can replicate it in Garage. Nintendo’s own Labo creators built an entire band using Labo thanks to some elastic bands, a Joy-Con and the Switch’s touchscreen. In time, Nintendo hopes that people will utilise Garage as a means to build their own creations, perhaps even fabricate their own Toy-Cons out of cardboard or 3D-printed materials.
It may sound like it’s a little bit too advanced for little ones, but that’s the beauty of Labo. As they play and learn to understand how each Toy-Con is simply more than just a piece of cardboard, they’ll begin to understand how it all works. That knowledge then helps them understand how to create. As they grow older – and more Toy-Cons are undoubtedly released – they’ll be able to understand more, while the logical structure of Toy-Con Garage’s programming means these lessons result in transferable tech skills.
In many ways, you can think of Labo as a fun way to get kids interested in coding. It’s certainly not as advanced and flexible as learning a new programming language, but it’s the first step towards segueing to the likes of a Raspberry Pi and undertaking projects on a much bigger scale.
To help foster this sense of creativity and exploration with Labo, Nintendo plans to start releasing videos on its official Nintendo Labo YouTube channel. Here it’ll feature Garage-created games and different ways to play Labo’s games, direct from Nintendo’s own team and – they hope – highlight projects from creators all around the world.
Nintendo Labo review: Verdict
Games industry analyst Michael Pachter once said that Nintendo could slap its name on a cardboard box and people would still buy it. Nintendo has instead provided players with the means to build their own boxes, and a means to stamp their own marks of creativity on Nintendo products.
It’s through the introduction of Nintendo Labo that the Japanese company’s history as a toymaker shines through. Long gone are the days of Nintendo’s original Japanese toys, replaced by consoles and video games but that sense of playfulness the company has instilled in people for hundreds of years hasn’t been diluted.
Those concerned about the price need only to look at what Nintendo has built. There’s hours of entertainment here, countless more of learning and experimentation. The fact everything is made of cardboard shouldn’t be a deterrent either, it means that it’s fixable, customisable, re-creatable. If it breaks, you can just repair it, and Nintendo even shows you how.
My hope is that Nintendo continues to push Labo with new Toy-Cons on a regular basis. Ideally, by the end of the year, we’ll have another two packs on store shelves – another way for kids and adults to interact with complex programming tools in a clear and straightforward way. Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case and we’re left waiting another year for more Toy-Cons, Nintendo Labo is still the freshest idea to come out of video games in a long time and proof, yet again, that nobody does it better than Nintendo.