In recent days, my living room resembles a game room in the mid-1990s. There is a fishing game in a corner with a physical rod so you can roll up a digital capture. Next door is a motorcycle racer where players can use their bodies and hands to navigate a winding racetrack. There is also a piano where you can record your own tracks and manipulate sounds with a series of strange knobs. Smack dab in the middle is a massive, angular backpack that you can use to control a heavy screen robot, swinging your arms in the real world to smash buildings in the game. The big difference between these games and the arcades of my youth is that each and every one is made of cardboard, and I built them myself.
Earlier this year, Nintendo unveiled a new and strange initiative called Labo, a series of accessories for the Nintendo switch with a decidedly DIY inclination. They are building games together with games: you put the accessory yourself and then use it to play the accompanying game. Labo was intriguing for some reasons. First, there is the playful nature of Nintendo fusing the worlds of physical and digital play, encouraging children to use their hands to build things.
But there is also an educational element. Labo not only allows you to build things like a cardboard piano, but it also allows you to take a look behind the curtain on how these strange accessories really work. This is combined with a more free "garage" mode, where you can use a rudimentary programming language to create your own interactions and design your own Labo kits from scratch. Everything is wrapped in the distinctive charm of Nintendo, which makes the repeated returns of small cartons feel fun.
Labo's motto is "make, play and discover". Each of these elements is an equally important part of the experience, but the most impressive aspect of Labo is how the lines between the three are blurred. You play while you build, you discover it while you play, and it's amazing no matter what you're doing.
At launch, Labo presents two forms: a "variety kit" and a "robot kit". The kit variety is cheaper and more expansive, with five different projects to build, compared to the robot. (Nintendo calls these Toy-Con projects, a move by Joy-Con controllers that work with the Switch). They vary a lot in terms of complexity, starting with a simple RC car, before moving on to a fishing rod, house toy, piano and motorcycle. Of course, the first thing you have to do is build something.
The process of creating a Toy-Con is intuitive and entertaining. The Switch serves as an interactive instruction manual where you can touch the instructions step by step. The real object in your hands is represented on the screen with amazing details, and you can scroll and approach the digital version to verify it from all angles. This attention to the minutiae is important because most Toy-Con kits are very precise creations that must be assembled in a very particular way. But the interactive nature of the Switch manual means that it is easy to track what you need to do and how you should do it. You can always see the position in which a piece of cardboard should be, and how it should be bent or connected to something else. I am the kind of person who struggles to build an Ikea bookshelf, but I never found myself struggling or confused with any of the Toy-Con.
No tools are required for any of the Toy-Con, but the What you will need to build them is the time. Apart from the RC car, an introductory kit that takes just 10 minutes to assemble, the other sets can take more than two hours to build. This depends on who is building them, of course; I discovered that, of course, things went much faster than the estimated construction time when I set up the fishing equipment by myself, and it took a little longer than estimated to create the piano with the help of my two and five year old children . It also becomes faster the more you do it, as you begin to understand how everything works. (Never get disordered when it comes to folding correctly.)
Each set starts as a bunch of cardboard sheets, which contain a series of smaller pieces that can come out. (Some also use other accessories, such as elastic bands or stickers). The instructions on the screen tell you exactly which parts you need to use at any given time. It is very organized; There are different colors and labels to make sure you are using the correct parts. And you can touch the directions using the touch screen or use a button on a Joy-Con controller to skip them. For some of the more complex kits, things can become repetitive. To construct a piano implies to fold 13 very similar keys, whereas the robot backpack presents a series of heavy bricks in its interior, each of which is packed with folded cardboard. Fortunately, you can fast-forward through the digital brochure so you do not have to repeat the same instructions more than once.
For an adult, the construction process can be a little tedious at times, although not especially challenging. But with a child, experience acquires a new dimension. I found the construction of Labo kits with my children to be much more intuitive and collaborative than, for example, putting together a Lego game. Part of this is due to the instructions, which are wonderfully funny. The game will regularly remind you to take breaks and even make jokes when things become repetitive. At one point, after making four almost identical pieces in a row, the instructions said: "There is something simply magical about the feeling of folding cardboard … is not it just me?"
My oldest daughter often the building, while I was driving following the instructions, following its rhythm. When she got stuck or was not sure, she encouraged her to play with the digital model on the screen, and in most cases, she was able to solve things. When the creation was a bit complicated, which is true for some of the internal parts in kits like the motorcycle, we exchanged roles.
The only problems I had during the construction process were due to the limitations of the hardware switch. I discovered that the most natural way to create a kit was to place the switch on a table or desk and then use a Joy-Con to review the instructions. In this way, everyone could easily see the screen, and we still had access to the touch screen to play with the digital models. But there are two problems with this. One is that the foot of support of the Switch is notoriously weak, so it would fall constantly during the course of a construction. But what is more annoying is that, in this mode, it can not keep the system loaded. On average, my one-year switch has approximately two hours of battery life. It's about how long it takes to assemble the most complicated kits, which means you must place it in the charger right at the moment you want to start playing.
The games themselves are perhaps the least interesting part of Labo. That does not mean they are bad; they just are not as imaginative as the rest of the process. For the most part, they are somewhat simple arcade style experiences. The amazing thing is how well everyone works. Take the fishing kit, for example. The creation of cardboard consists of a support that rests on the ground and houses the Switch tablet. This is connected to a fishing pole, which houses two Joy-Con controllers, by a long piece of rope. When you play, you can turn the reel to make the line of the game rise or fall in the digital ocean, and when you move the rod back and forth, you see that the line on the screen mimics your actions. He urged my five-year-old son to ask exactly how the orange rope of the cardboard fishing rod we just built was moving in exactly the same way as the orange rope on the screen. And this is where Labo really shines.
Most of today's gadgets are sealed boxes. When a child plays a game on a tablet, they do not have much indication of how everything works. Usually, the thought does not even cross your mind. Everything is just a magical world hidden inside a rectangle made of metal and glass. Labo, on the other hand, encourages users not only to build their own accessories but also to understand how they work. It is the antithesis of Apple's philosophy. There is a section in each kit called "discover" that essentially serves as a series of tutorials. They are presented as a chat conversation with some cute characters, and they help you to teach you about the different elements of each kit, how they work and what Joy-Con controllers do. They even offer tips on how to decorate your cardboard creations and fix repairs if you accidentally crush a button or pull out a tab.
For the most part, the included Lab kits are based on three main features of the Joy-Con controllers for function: the infrared camera, the gyroscope motion sensor and the vibration. These high-tech features are then used in intelligent, low-tech ways. In order to make the RC car drive, for example, slot a driver on either side. When you touch the buttons on the switch screen, it causes the controllers to vibrate. To turn, you vibrate one side, and to advance you make the two rumors at the same time. Something like the piano is more complicated. During the construction process, you will place a series of reflective stickers on the back of each key. When it's time to play, insert a controller on the back of the piano and your IR camera can see those stickers, so you know exactly what you press. This, in turn, results in sounds coming from the Switch.
As this is Nintendo, these features are also used in an increasingly playful way, and each Toy-Con has much more than it seems at the beginning. Take the simple RC car. It is quick to build and easy to understand. But when you touch a button on the Change screen, it opens a new menu that allows you to adjust the intensity of the vibration, and thus change the speed of the car. You can even watch a live stream from the IR camera. That little cardboard creation becomes a nocturnal spy tool. Similarly, when you build the piano, you also assemble a series of small knobs, each of which has a different pattern of reflective stickers. When you place these on top of the piano, it completely changes the sound. Instead of a typical piano, each key now sounds like a cat or a singer, and you can turn the knob to further alter the tone. There is also a study mode where you can record your own tracks and use a punch card to create your own accompanying drum beat.
The ingenuity displayed is impressive, and that's the way Labo encourages you to understand it. The repair tutorials are a great example of this. They show you how to solve common problems, but they also help you identify what the problems are in the first place. A tutorial can start with an unclear problem: nothing happens when I press this button, before giving you ways to find out what exactly is wrong. Instead of simply providing specific solutions for specific problems, this system offers you a better understanding of how things work so you can solve other problems yourself.
Virtually every aspect of the Labo experience feels designed to foster this kind of curiosity. Kits like the piano can be opened so you can look inside and see exactly how they operate while playing with them. The robot kit, by far the most complex thing you can build so far, presents a series of boxes with weights inside, each of which is connected by a string to your hands and feet. It works similarly to the piano: when you move your right hand, pull the string connected to the weight of your right hand and lift it, while the Joy-Con's IR camera sees the marks on the back of the weight and knows what limb you are moving To really take this point home, the back of the robot that you play as in the game reflects the inside of the backpack you are wearing. When you hit your hand, you can see the corresponding weight gain on the screen.
. All this comes to a climax with a somewhat hidden feature that is actually the most powerful tool available in Labo. Hidden at the bottom of the screen, in the discover section, there is a small manhole cover. When you select it, they take you to a part of the game known as Toy-Con Garage, where you can build your own creations and games. At the heart of this, is a simplified and very visual programming language. Using the touch screen, you can create and connect nodes, with a structure "if this, then that". One node could be "if you shake the left Joy-Con", and the other could be "the right Joy-Con vibrates" or "makes a guitar sound". You can test these things immediately when you join them, and the process of adding them and moving them with your fingertip is much easier to understand than punching the code into a computer. The idea is that you can use these functions to create new ways to play with the Toy-Con you have built, or even build new boards.
For example, you could do it so that when you turn on the accelerator the motorcycle, it makes a musical sound or vibrates the controller hooked to the RC car. One of the simplest tutorial creations is to turn the Switch tablet into a guitar. Start by creating three touchscreen buttons on the Switch that create guitar sounds, and then place three elastic bands around the tablet, superimposing those buttons on the screen. Then, while strumming the elastic bands, you will also play the buttons, and it will sound like you are playing a guitar. Each of the Labo kits also comes with a number of extra pieces that you can use to build Toy-Con, although there really is no reason why you can not use another card or anything else. It will be very fun to see what people who are much more creative than I can think. But for children, it is also a gateway to this world. My daughter had a lot of fun discovering how to turn a fishing rod into a musical instrument, and a weapon that makes sounds of applause when you shoot it. They are useless, of course, but the act of making them was fun.
This creative element is the true power of Labo. Once you build the kits and play through the games, there is not much else to do. It's fun to play a simple arcade fishing game every so often, but it's not the type of experience you can miss for a long time. But discovering ways to make and record your own music, or new uses for the various Toy-Con is much more attractive, and Labo offers you a surprisingly robust set of tools to do just that. (This is also the reason why I would recommend the variety kit on the robot kit.The large amount of toys you can build means more flexibility to create new things.) Labo is an experience where creating and building is as fun as playing . It makes it easier for you to enter this world: at the beginning, you are simply folding cardboard. But just a few hours later, you're trying to figure out how to turn a box into an interactive battery.
My living room may never be the same again.
Nintendo Labo launches on April 20.