Review: Nintendo Labo is Way More than Just Cardboard

Few people know that Nintendo actually has a history before video games—notably, the first product they produced were Hanafuda playing cards. With Labo, they’ve gone back a bit to their printer roots, intertwining imagination with real-world results. Labo, it turns out, is more than a toy, a model, or a project to spend an afternoon (or a few!) completing—it’s essentially a beginner practical engineering kit being sold as a game. Right now there are two kits: the Variety Kit, which contains a few different projects, and the Robot Kit, which contains one large project broken down into a few smaller projects. It really is magical how these boxes of cardboard sheets transform themselves into both works of imaginations, and practical play.

Nintendo Labo. Image courtesy Nintendo.

Just as their marketing says, there are three main phases to Labo. Make, play, discover. The first step is to make the cardboard Toy-Cons, a play on the system’s Joy Con controllers. No matter which of the kits you go with, building the Toy-Cons can be very time-consuming. They don’t come with traditional booklet instructions, like you would get if you were assembling Ikea furniture. Instead, the game card itself gives you extremely robust, step-by-step instructions. Not only can you pause and rewind the video at any point, it isn’t actually a video in the traditional sense—instead, the instructions are given with 3D models of cardboard being snapped together satisfyingly. You can rotate around, zoom in, and get different angles on every  piece, so there is no confusion as you build. There is music in the background to keep the momentum going, and once you’re done with a large project piece, you are given a satisfying little tone and accompanying “finished” animation to congratulate you on your progress. Not only is it satisfying folding, creasing, and snapping tabs into place, there is lots of motivational encouragement even coming from the instructions themselves.

Nintendo Labo. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

There are estimated completion times for each of the Toy-Con projects in the Variety Kit, but the estimated times, we found, are a little on the long-end. The projects won’t take as long once you have some Toy-Con building experience under your belt. We opted to build the variety pack not in the order of the Toy- Cons we were most excited for, but instead in the order that they’re presented in the software. We were hoping that it would start with simpler projects and work into larger, harder projects—and that’s exactly how it seems to be in practice, starting with the Toy-Con car and ending with the Toy-Con piano. By the time we got to the more complicated piano, we had the confidence and cardboard constructing expertise necessary—which greatly helped when we moved on to the Toy-Con Robot Kit, which is a single project that has the scope of almost the entirety of the Variety Kit.

Nintendo Labo RC “Car.” Photo by Marielle Shaw.

The Variety Kit consists of a few Toy-Cons: a “car,” a fishing rod, a motorbike, a house, and a piano. The car was the first project we tackled, and it immediately put us in awe and set the tone for the rest of the builds. Using the Joy-Con HD rumble vibrates the car in the direction you want, based on your input. We were extremely surprised to discover the car used the attached IR camera as an actual camera. It’s not a great one, and it has very low frames-per-second and resolution, but the fact that it’s an actual usable camera blew us away. It even detects heat! Each of these kits has separate instructions, so you can tackle them in any order, but as I mentioned previously, they seem to start simpler and get more complicated. Each project within the Variety Kit feels sufficiently unique, almost as if they were designed by different people or they were designed intentionally to be different. This removes a lot of the tediousness of the building; only on a couple of occasions do you have to build the same object more than once.

The Nintendo Labo Robot Kit. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

The Robot Kit is a lot like the Variety Kit, but instead of working on a bunch of disparate Toy-Con projects, each of the projects connects into the larger whole, eventually giving you a full blown, pulley activated robot-controlling suit.  The Robot Kit was our favorite, probably because it felt like a full-blown model kit with the inherent complexity of many small parts coming together to make a larger unit. If you have no interest in the Variety Kit, the Robot Kit does a good job of easing you into the construction much the same as the Variety Kit.

Nintendo Labo in progress. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

The biggest question we kept hearing from friends with children was if it is possible for kids to build these Toy-Cons. We say, tentatively: yes. There are caveats, of course: lots of supervision, encouragement, and patience by all parties should be employed even before the first bit of cardboard is removed from a sheet. Though, the cardboard pieces are surprisingly resilient. Despite working on Toy-Cons for two days straight, only a single unintentional tear happened—and that was easily fixed with scotch tape. There are some moving parts that come under stress that we worry about, but it seems as though Nintendo had maintenance in mind when designing their Toy-Cons, making most of those pieces fixable or replaceable.

Nintendo Labo. Image courtesy Nintendo.

Our biggest complaint about building the Toy-Cons is how solitary it can feel at times. Even with someone controlling the video, only one person can actually do the construction if you follow the video instructions. We wish Nintendo would allow others to download the Labo software onto their Switches for free, or that you were able to share software like the 3DS’s share play, but alas, you can only have one project being built at once. That means even with all of the Toy-Cons built, even with a multiple Switch household, you can only really be playing with one Toy-Con at a time—because you only have one copy of the software.

Nintendo Labo Variety Kit. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

Playing with the Toy-Cons is a blast, and a needed reward after spending so long building (and decorating!) them. The games are surprisingly well made, but they aren’t so good you would spend hours building cardboard Toy-Cons to play with them. They’re the practical bit that supplements the imagination that goes with using cardboard toys. And wow, some of them are truly great supplements. The fishing game is incredibly satisfying, and the motorbike game uses HD rumble to simulate the engine, while motion controls are used to increase throttle. The house was probably the Toy-Con we were least thrilled about, but it ended up being the one we liked the most. It consists of a little guy in a room that you can play with by tilting the screen, etc. There are also a series of buttons you created for it: the different combinations yielding different minigames. The piano is also surprisingly fun and responsive.

Image courtesy Nintendo.

Our biggest disappointment with the Toy-Con games was probably with the Robot Kit, but that’s maybe because we hyped it up in our heads so much. Despite the fun we had constructing the robot controller, the actual game felt a little underwhelming. The cardboard construction mixed with the stompy, punchy nature of the game led us to feel like the suit was extra delicate, something we didn’t really get from playing with the other Toy-Cons. It is also harder to get others into your robot backpack, as the arm and leg controls must match the individual for it to work properly—something that can be awkward to adjust by yourself. Nintendo did have both adults and children in mind though, and one size fit the biggest and smallest amongst us alike. As the stompy robot you can turn into a tank, and fly, as well as walk and punch, using nothing but body movements. There’s even a calorie tracker, which is nice, because punching down buildings is quite a workout. The software doesn’t just include the game though–there’s also a robot garage that allows you to customize your robot as well as the discover suite that teaches you more about the robot kit and how to maintain and repair it.

Image courtesy Nintendo

All of the Nintendo Labo Toy-cons are made possible by the magic of the Joy-Con HD rumble, accelerometers, and IR camera. Nintendo does a great job of teaching you how each of the Toy-Cons work as you’re putting them together, with explanation of how the IR tape is used so the software knows what to do, etc. There is even a robust “discover” section that teaches you how to play with each Toy-Con, as well as how to repair them if they get damaged.

Image courtesy Nintendo.

Perhaps the biggest deal with the Discover section of Labo is the fact that you can create your own homebrew Toy-Cons, using existing parts or leftover parts (which the instructions encourage you to save).  We haven’t made any games ourselves yet, but the internet is already brimming with examples of ingenious Labo creations.

Nintendo Labo. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

We all used to play with cardboard boxes as kids—whether we turned them into forts, spaceships, weapons or even armor, it’s something all of us probably did at some point. Nintendo Labo does a great job of invoking the child-like sense of play and imagination. It isn’t a traditional game, but instead should be approached like a model kit. It’s built with adults and children in mind, so it can be fun for adults and kids alike. Some might balk at paying over $70 for a pile of cardboard, but it’s a pile of cardboard with endless magical possibilities. And the Toy-Cons really do feel like magic sometimes, even after you learn how they work.

Image courtesy Nintendo.

Nintendo Labo is more than just a game, or a toy. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen something educational that has almost completely covered up the fact that it’s not supposed to be fun. We had a blast putting together our Toy-Cons, and even after a few hours-long marathon sessions, we were dreaming of what Discover projects we can create, and wondering which Toy-Con kit Nintendo might release next. If you want to add extra flair to your Toy-Cons, Nintendo also offers a Nintendo Labo customization set with stickers, stencils and decorative tape to add extra color, though we had the most fun decorating with a set of paint markers we already owned. The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit and Robot Kit are available now.

Antal Bokor
Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian.
He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.

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