Nintendo Labo's True Promise

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

As far back as the NES, the video game industry has been trying to sell us unnecessary accessories. (Remember R.O.B.?) Companies have occasionally come up with fun alternatives to playing with a controller - think Guitar Hero - but when you eventually finish or get bored of a game, you're left with a mountain of unwanted plastic - think Rock Band. That's where Nintendo Labo is different, it encourages gameplay experimentation, without all the guilt.

As a gamer, I've long preferred minimalist handheld systems I can easily slip into a pocket. But I'm also guilty of buying, and soon abandoning, lots of unnecessary gaming accessories for my consoles. From the Super Nintendo's Super Scope 6, to countless steering wheels, pedals, and flight sticks during my PC gaming years, to more fake plastic instruments than I care to admit.

As much as I feel guilty about buying countless video game controllers, at the same time, a gamepad isn't always the best way to play. Racing using an actual steering wheel feels far more natural, and Guitar Hero would never have been as popular without an actual guitar. With Labo, you can have your cake and eat it too - or have your cake, and then toss it in the recycling bin when you're done with it.

I'll be the first to admit that cardboard isn't as durable as plastic, but it's durable enough for my attention span. Rarely does a game hold my interest for longer than a few months, but with Labo I don't have to feel guilty about that. It can almost be described as the disposable version of gaming, without making you feel ripped off.

The most important thing to keep in mind if you're interested in trying Labo is that you're not going to be racing motorcycles, or trying your hand at virtual fishing, minutes after tearing open the box. There's a lot of building to be done - a lot. If you're an impatient person, Labo might not be for you. But if you're willing to stick it out, Nintendo has done a great job at making the hours of building as painless as possible.

Cartridges? Sorry, the Labo software isn't available for download.Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

In lieu of printed paper manuals like Lego includes with its sets, the build instructions are built into the actual Labo games, so you'll never lose them. That's great. What's not so great is that the Labo games are only available on cartridges. To date I've kept my Switch a cartridge-free, download-only system to maximise its portability, but downloading the games for the Labo sets just isn't an option. Boo.

If there's a maker somewhere inside you, you'll very much enjoy the process of assembling each of the Labo toys. Following the step-by-step instructions is easy and satisfying, maybe even therapeutic, and the use of 3D models that can be zoomed and rotated at any time is a great way to double-check that you've assembled things correctly.

Steps can be fast-forwarded by stretching out the 'Forward' button, but the build process can still feel slow and repetitive at times.Screenshot: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

It's all but impossible to miss a step, or make a mistake, but at times I wish there was a much faster way to breeze through some of the build steps. You can stretch out the 'Forward' button to speed things up, but when building repetitive pieces, like the piano keys, I got a little annoyed at having to endlessly tap the screen to advance - an autoplay option would have helped. To avoid getting frustrated, my recommendation is to spread out the builds, especially with the Labo Variety Kit, so you're not spending five straight hours punching out and folding cardboard.

As someone who's dabbled in the cardboard arts before, I was impressed by the building techniques used for the Labo toys. They securely assemble without the need for glue or tape, and seeing how each one uses the Switch's Joy-Cons in clever ways to translate movements into the games makes it easy to troubleshoot and repair the paper Toy-Cons. They definitely don't have the same solid heft as plastic toys do, but at the same time they don't feel frail or easy to break if assembled properly.

I thought the motorcycle racing would be my favourite Labo game, but finicky steering controls thwarted my attempts to relive my childhood spent playing Hang-On at the arcade.Screenshot: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The cardboard Labo piano is a work of art, and I'm still impressed at how responsive and playable it is. The motorcycle handlebars (with working twist throttle) was probably the most enjoyable build, but even I was surprised to find that the fishing rod and reel was my favourite Toy-Con accessory and game. I've thrashed the rod quite a bit trying to land a rare catch, and despite being made from just cardboard, I have no concerns about it not holding up through countless more fishing trips. It will undoubtedly outlast my attention span.

If you're curious about Labo, I highly recommend starting with the $99.95 Variety Kit. It provides a solid sampling of build and gameplay experiences that highlight the potential of Nintendo's latest creation. I'm still not sure it's worth $100, however. The games don't offer a lot of depth, and the novelty will wear off quickly. A price tag closer to $40 would have been a better way to introduce the Toy-Cons to the gaming masses.

That being said, there's a hidden gem buried in the Labo's 'Discover' section called the Toy-Con Garage that could more than justify the $100 price tag for some gamers. It's essentially a visual programming environment that lets you design the software to power your own cardboard creations. Using nodes you connect together like a flowchart, you can trigger sounds or on-screen actions based on various kinds of input, like taps, motions, or button presses. It massively boosts Labo's replay value, and encourages you to try your hand at building cardboard accessories.

The only thing missing from the Toy-Con Garage, and this is a big omission, is an easy way to share your programs, and download them from other users, the same way Super Mario Maker lets you share levels online. I've often found programming easier to learn by dissecting and studying other people's work, and an online database would help quickly foster and build a community of Labo Toy-Con Garage developers.

Like many, I was sceptical of Nintendo's attempt to sell gamers what first appeared to be just a stack of cardboard. But I've come to realise that if that's all you see when you look at Labo, you've completely missed the point. Nintendo has a long history of innovating gameplay, and the motion-control technology it developed for the Wii years ago is now being cleverly harnessed in the Toy-Cons for more than just virtual bowling. It's opening the doors for cheap and disposable accessories perfect for gamers with ever-shrinking attention spans, while also allowing anyone to design their own accessories by just hacking up an empty cereal box.

When I'm inevitably bored with my cardboard rod and reel in a few weeks, I won't feel guilty about it. I'll be excited to see what Toy-Cons other people have come up with. Now where's my glue stick?

README

  • At $99.95, the Labo Variety Kit is a little expensive for the simple games included, and a stack of cardboard.
  • There's a significant time investment needed to assemble each Toy-Con accessory, but Nintendo's building instructions make it a frustration-free process.
  • The Labo software is only available on cartridges, which is a bummer if you prefer to download all your Switch games.
  • The Toy-Cons won't last forever, but they're surprisingly durable and sturdy given they're made from cardboard. And when they do break, Nintendo already sells deeply discounted cardboard replacements.
  • Toy-Con Garage could be the breakout hit for Labo, giving users a lot of power to design their own toys and games. Now if only we could easily share our creations online.