Nintendo Labo has released, and it turns out my initial misgivings of the product have been dispelled; it is an absolute delight. Join me as I break down my impressions of this new Nintendo product, as well as my children’s experiences.
Spoiler alert, if you can’t tell from the adjectives being used, I REALLY liked it.
When the Nintendo Labo was initially announced I balked at the idea of the product, unsure how cardboard was supposed to hold up to repeated uses and not really clear on who the audience was. Some of that was Nintendo’s fault, for waiting until the day of release to post the prices for replacement pieces, and for not showing off the Toy-Con Garage earlier. However, in an attempt to curb my Nintendo fanboy tendencies, and not just think everything they create is pure gold, I adjusted in the opposite direction a little too hard.
In this case though, everything you’ve come to know and love about Nintendo is on full force, and applied in such a way that it makes a brilliant overall package. First up: the packaging. The logo, the colors they choose, the designs of the cardboard itself, everything absolutely nails it with the overall aesthetic of the package. If you see this box on your store shelves it catches the eye immediately, and all of it just feels so high quality once you get your hands on it.
The software that acts as your instruction manual, alongside various mini games that employ the Toy-Con creations you will make, has way more charm then I expected. Sure, this is Nintendo, so perhaps I should have expected clever writing and goofy jokes, but instead I was pleasantly surprised by quips during the building process; whether they were telling me “Hey, take a break, you just built a whole ocean” or making some pun filled quip about my newest build, I found my children and myself smiling throughout.
When we first opened the package we were greeted by the software itself, which allows a child to put their name on the front cover if they so wish, giving the whole thing a decidedly DIY slant right from the start. Once booting up the software it makes you familiar with the product by having you build a very simplistic piece, and showing you how to progress through the instructions.
My son is a Lego manic, and I’ve built every sort of Lego, Megablox, and other off the wall model building toy you can think of, and these are by far the most clear instructions I’ve ever used. Interacting with the screen is amazingly intuitive, either using touch or the Joy-Con itself. With touch you can rotate the model to see it from every angle as you build, go forward and back at any time (with cleverly animated options), and fast forward through the instructions by stretching out the tab at the bottom of the screen that says forward.
We preferred building using the Joy-Con because the Switch can be a little wobbly on the kickstand, so simply holding A moves forward, Y moves back, the joystick rotates the model, and holding the ZR button and A fast forwards.
Some of these models can get a little complex, but the way the instructions present themselves made it so neither I, nor my children, were ever confused by them. That on its own is a feat, as my kid’s ages are disparate, my son being twelve, and my daughter being five. The pieces pop out easily, and everything is clearly marked as to where to fold and how.
There is a consistency across all of the builds on what constitutes folds, and what items you throw away that makes it extremely easy to discern. Making a product that all three of us could easily engage with together is a fantastic first step that colors the entire experience, and is consistent throughout.
Our first build was the extremely easy RC car, which takes a total of about ten minutes. Once it is built you will slot your Joy-Con controllers into each side, and then go into the play menu. Here touching the screen on either side will cause the left or right Joy-Con to vibrate on that side, moving across the table in that way. Though it is very simplistic at first, the depth continues to grow as you press the center button, and realize that the little IR camera on the Joy-Con can see far more than you might have expected.
My kids got a kick out of that feature, using it to navigate with all the lights turned off and other such shenanigans, but ultimately when you have two of anything with siblings it came to the most reasonable conclusion play could have: they had to battle. Built into the functionality of the RC Car is the ability to press a bell that starts some fight music and a timer, and when one of the cars is knocked over it sounds a large explosion.
While these are neat little toys the real genius comes once it encourages you to click the discover button, which introduces you to three wacky characters with pun filled names, that breakdown in an easy and fun to digest manner how the RC car works. Then as you delve deeper into the topic you find out different variations you can do, and it instantly sparked my son’s creativity in building courses. You can even put it in a self-drive mode using IR stickers, and when the camera sees the sticker, it will stop.
The RC Car is just the simplest of the builds, we also tackled the house and fishing pole, and these were far more fun for me to build considering the complexity of some of them. It was a real treat to see these things slowly come together, watch the instructions encouraging my children to ask questions, and then reward them with an end product that they built. Seeing it come to life with clever software is just the icing on the cake with these kits, it is the discovery at play that is the real treat.
The fishing pole kit cleverly uses the inserted controller’s motion sensing capabilities to recreate a fishing experience, complete with a string dangling off the front of the pole. That string could have just been attached to something in the base section, instead it is attached to a device secured with rubber bands and it provides a resistance and springback due to the way it is built. Along with the vibration, the motion sensing, seeing the real string change into a digital one, and mimic its movement, it creates an arcade like experience in your home; one you built out of cardboard.
I truly fell in love with Labo while building and playing with the house, where the use of IR stickers really kicks off, and the why and how it works really started turning gears in my children’s head. Inserting one Joy-Con into the top of the chimney, it reads movements within the house itself. The Switch screen is nestled snugly in the front of the house, so as you insert these different attachments into the house with a little creature, they pop into existence and have different functionalities. Each combo of these boxes changes the game, and leads to a whole host of rewards for the little cyber weirdo.
It was charming, mind-boggling fun, and my children learned from it. The RC Car and fishing game were simple enough they were passed over immediately when the house was built. Several times now they’ve killed the Switch battery playing with it, and it was snug enough in the house I never felt worried about them breaking my Switch.
Which leads to the only drawback of the Labo product, and really it is down to the hardware itself. Originally I built these kits using the kickstand in portable mode, but what I found was after close to two hours building it was often so drained that we didn’t have tons of time to play before plugging it in. Since you can’t charge the Switch while the kickstand is down, that means you have to lay the Switch down. However, we just started building in front of the TV instead, using the Joy-Con to progress instructions. It gets around the battery issue, and while it isn’t quite as tactile or portable, it is an option if the large screen is available.
We still have two more sets to build, which are the most difficult and complex of the five you start with. I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the way my kids have engaged with Labo, but I also found myself smiling near the entire time we played. I was charmed by the instructions in a way I didn’t expect, and constantly delighted by the way Nintendo made the entire package so incredibly accessible. With the backups for repair being so well priced, I can’t fault the construction. While my children were careful–they are still children–and it is easy to get swept up when playing. However, after repeated play none of the items are any worse for wear, and I can see them lasting for quite a long time.
If you have children, or you simply want to have fun with an engaging and innovative product, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to get Nintendo Labo. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this makes the Switch far more appealing for families in a way it hasn’t before, and thinking about all the amazing things that Nintendo could do with it in the future is extremely exciting. When you add in the Toy-Con garage, which allows you to do light programming for your own cardboard creations, the fun extends far beyond the five projects included in the Variety Kit. When you’ve graduated from that, you can always buy a giant robot kit, because who doesn’t want to dress up like a giant robot?
The future is bright with Nintendo Labo, and all of the jokes about Nintendo selling us cardboard turned out to be completely true, especially if that cardboard is going to be so expertly crafted into a learning and play experience that delights the young and old alike.