Sometimes, wacky Nintendo is the best Nintendo. From the Wario Ware series, to Elite Beat Agents, to the world-shifting Wii Sports, their free-thinking approach can blaze the trail for others to follow. On the other side of that same coin are duds like Wii Music, the Wii U, or the e-Reader; ideas that couldn’t overcome their own insanity. By virtue of including cardboard into the mix, the Nintendo Labo put itself on the fast track to one of those two extremes.
Having now made and played with three of the five Toy-Cons in the Variety Kit, I think I have a better idea of where it fits on that scale.
While we are free to judge Labo on any criteria we so choose, I think you have to at least acknowledge the context in which Nintendo presents it. They’re not positioning this as the next mainstream hit like Wii Sports. They are not positioning this as the next hardcore gamer title. Instead, Nintendo has explicitly said this line is specifically meant for kids. If the core concept of playing games with cardboard doesn’t resonate with you for whatever reason, that’s fine. However, to outright dismiss it for all is a bridge too far. I digress.
The Labo Variety Kit kit comes with five different Toy-Cons to build and play with. They are the RC Car, Fishing Rod, House, Motorbike, and Piano. Thus far, my wife and I have completed the RC Car, Fishing Rod, and House.
The RC Car serves as an introduction to the concept. Nintendo isn’t using magic cardboard that is indestructible, but it is surprisingly sturdy relative to its thinness. You can still mess this stuff up with a really bad fold or an accidental rip, but you probably won’t encounter cardboard of this quality in your everyday travels. You’re free to build new or replacement parts with whatever you want, but I probably would resort to ordering Nintendo’s extra sheets for their premium cardboard.
Using only a handful of pieces, you can build the RC Car in about 15 minutes or less. The in-game tutorial does a great job of communicating the instructions while allowing players to move at their own pace. Once it was done, I had control over a quirky toy that skittered around my table.
There’s a little more going on than meets the eye. Yes, you have control over how it moves by controlling the vibrations of the controllers from the tablet, but you can tune the frequency of each individual controller to make it move differently depending on the situation. You can also use the combination of the Joy-Con camera and reflective tape to allow the car to move automatically. You have a timer function along with action music for when you’re using it to race. Finally, the tablet allows for two RC Cars to be controlled at once by adjusting the interface to accommodate for two sets of controls. And yes, the box comes with the cardboard for a second car.
It makes a great first impression and shines brightest when you make a homemade obstacle course to drive around. That said, this probably isn’t going to sustain you for hours on end. It’s a neat intro to the concept though.
The Fishing Rod one was a much meatier building experience, as it required extra pieces beyond cardboard while also requiring way more cardboard. From start to finish, our build time was about 90 minutes. Little kids will probably require supervision to build this, but players of all ages will have fun taking these cardboard sheets and building out a retractable fishing rod along with a Switch stand that also provides tension to the fishing line.
Playing this game was the first time that the Labo concept really clicked with me. The pairing of a fishing game along with a close facsimile of a fishing rod felt real in a way that motion control games of the past didn’t. The right Joy-Con in the handle of the rod perfectly read the location of my rod, while the left Joy-Con on the reel perfectly tracked my reeling. Combine that with the spool, string, and rubber band combination inside the cardboard Switch dock, and there’s a level of physicality and resistance that waving a Wii Remote in the air never could provide. It’s almost like Nintendo finally realized the potential of motion controls with this implementation.
Granted, there are some legitimate concerns with the experience. For one, the fishing game is fairly shallow (no pun intended), in that it has only one mode and it doesn’t explain its nuances at all, such as how to prevent your line from breaking or how to catch the biggest fish. I had to refer to an external guide for that. On top of that, there isn’t really much to do other than catch three fish at a time. I would love to see someone build out a full campaign mode for this fishing Toy-Con, but the game we did get feels like a demo. Its target audience will probably enjoy it for longer, but I really would want to see this experience expanded further.
The last Toy-Con we’ve built so far is the house. This one is a Tomagotchi-like experience where a little critter is inside a house. You interact with it by tilting the tablet, as well as by inserting three different control pieces into different parts of the house. For example, one of them is a crank that powers a hamster wheel when inserted into the left side of the house. By placing the different control pieces into different locations and combinations, you activate different activities for the creature to play with.
This one was easily the most disappointing of the bunch. It was fun to build, particularly the control pieces. I think there’s a magic to that springy cardboard button and the key-like twisting mechanism. However, the actual software for it is a huge letdown. After about 10-15 minutes, the novelty wears off, you’ve done everything there is to do, and there’s no reason to come back. I can see how kids would stick with the fishing game for an extended period of time, but this one will be left behind far longer than it took to build the house.
The Fishing Game and House show that the software specific to the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit is a sore spot. Had these games been built with meatier experiences, this would have elevated the whole package to a level that players of all ages could get a lot out of. Instead, these games feel more like demos for something that could have been way cooler. At least the fishing game is fun and somewhat replayable in its current state, though the same can’t be said for the house.
My other concern is the durability of the cardboard. For a handful of uses from a considerate adult, this should last well enough. However, it’s probably one overzealous kid away from ripping the handle off the reel or flinging your Switch into the stratosphere. Replacement sheets are available, but it inherently won’t last as long as the plastic peripherals we got on the Wii.
That said, there are some under-the-radar perks to the cardboard. Once you’re done with the game, you don’t have to store these complete contraptions in their current state. In theory, you could unfold everything and rebuild it as needed. Or, simply recycle the cardboard and order new sheets if/when you decide to play again. You don’t have to feel guilty for throwing them out or having them collect dust under the basement like my current set of Rock Band instruments.
Three Toy-Cons in, and my skepticism is starting to melt away. While I do have some concerns with durability and the replayability of the software, when it works, it works. The first two Toy-Cons were fun to build and fun to play with, even as someone many years outside of the target audience. The third one may not be all that fun to use, but it was an enjoyable experience to build. In particular, the magic of that fishing game has to be played to be believed. With my first few Labo experiences having been more positive than not, I look forward to building out the rest of the toys and seeing where this platform can go from here!