Nintendo’s wild new experiment is one of the coolest things you can do with a video game console.
The first time a video game floored me was when I, a wee lad, saw my uncle pop a copy of Sonic & Knuckles into his Sega Genesis, only to flip open the top of that game and put Sonic 2 in it Voltron-style, letting you play through the whole game as Knuckles the Echidna. My tiny brain could not comprehend how a game could do that. Video games weren’t supposed to work that way — and yet they did! In a lot of ways, being into games is about chasing that high, letting those brilliant moments where you see something that seems impossible guide you through years and years of games and consoles where everything seems kind of the same. Decades later, Nintendo Labo has floored me again, and I can’t quite believe what I have in front of me.
Like a lot of Nintendo products, Labo has a weird name and a function that almost seems silly: It is, simply put, mostly cardboard. Cardboard that’s precut for you to pop out and construct remarkably elaborate contraptions with moving parts and buttons, like a fishing rod with an actual reel, or a motorcycle handlebar with a working throttle and handbrake. Then you put your creations — called Toy-Con — together with a Nintendo Switch, and things get wild, in ways that you can probably imagine (combining the fishing rod with the Switch screen for a fishing mini-game) and ways that will blow your freaking mind, like making a fully-functional toy piano. Here’s a video Nintendo put together to show you how it works.
Last week, I got to check out Nintendo Labo for myself at a hands-on event in Manhattan. Cheery Nintendo reps held what was styled to be an arts-and-crafts session where we assembled two Toy-Con. The first was a very simple RC car that’s mostly just one piece that folds in two places so it has legs to stand on, with slots for each Joy-Con controller on each side. Slide those Joy-Con in, grab the Switch screen, and you can use the touchscreen to make the “car” go forward or turn by causing one or both of the Joy-Con to vibrate. The other Toy-Con was far more elaborate, a telescoping fishing rod with a working reel and a dock for the Switch screen. Both these and every Toy-Con comes accompanied with clear, easy to follow animated instructions that you navigate via the Switch’s touch screen, which you can manipulate and scrub through to make sure you get the trickiest parts right.
I don’t consider myself terribly dextrous and was never inclined to building anything delicate, but for as elaborate as some of the Toy-Con seemed to be, constructing them wasn’t all that hard. Granted, I was only able to build two of the simpler Toy-Con — it’s possible the more elaborate ones are a nightmare to put together. I don’t think that’ll be the case, but they’re definitely time consuming. While the best way to experience Labo is just clearing out a whole afternoon to build and play with the Toy-Con you create, the software instructions seemed to remember where I was when I accidentally closed them out, so turning Labo into an ongoing project is also an option.
After some time building the Toy-Con, the Nintendo reps let me and other reporters out onto the show floor where I could play with the initial Toy-Con available at launch, which will ultimately be packaged in two kits: a variety kit that includes the RC car, fishing rod, piano, motorcycle, and house Toy-Con (that will cost you $70) and a Robot kit that lets you build an elaborate robot suit that allows you to control a robot that you’ll see on your TV (that one costs $80).
Reading about it on paper, it’s tempting to maybe see Labo as a weird gimmick not worth checking out, but trust me: This shit is cool. As the Toy-Con lineup ramps up the complexity, it challenges your skepticism to the point where you’re briefly stunned into wondering, How the hell does this work? For me that moment came when I saw the Toy-Con piano, which is fully functional, with little cardboard widgets and switches you swap out and toggle to change the sound effects and tweak the pitch and record yourself. It’s astounding.
Just as impressive is the robot suit: a cardboard backpack attached to canvas straps with elastic bands running to each of your limbs and a visor you can flip down. Kit yourself out with this, dock the Switch’s touchscreen, and you’ll be able to puppeteer a robot and wreck your way across a digital city. As far as mini-games go, it’s extremely rudimentary and not going to engross you for very long. But the way that it works — stomp your feet to march forward, use your fists to punch, crouch to turn into a tank or hold your arms out to turn into a plane — feels like a marvel. Again: You’ll flip out trying to figure out how the hell it all works. And laugh a bit at how ridiculous you look in it.
The answer, as it turns out, is ingeniously simple. The simpler Toy-Con, the ones that are neat but won’t sell you on the idea, function like any number of plastic peripherals you might have got if you owned a Wii: You just slot a Joy-Con into the thing you’ve built and it turns your controller into something else entirely (like a motorcycle handlebar). The truly impressive Toy-Con (like the piano and the robot) make clever use of the infrared (IR) sensor built into the right Joy-Con that comes in every switch. With special IR stickers that sensor can read, and you can make the Switch do certain things, like play a particular note when you press a cardboard key on a piano and the sticker on the other side is pops up into the sensor’s range.
Or in the robot suit’s backpack, when you move one of your limbs and the elastic cord lifts a pulley with an IR sticker on it, telling the Joy-Con which limb you moved.
Once you know how it all works, Nintendo Labo comes with the ability for you to program your own inputs, turning the Switch and all of the cardboard trinkets you can build into a full-scale skunkworks for your own contraptions and a goofy intro to programming.
Does Nintendo Labo seem like it skews a little young for a grown adult? Sure. A lot of my time with Labo was spent thinking about how much more I would love it if I had a kid of my own to play with — the genius of the whole thing is how it takes the Switch’s ethos of shared-play and makes extends it further into the real-world, asking you to meet it halfway with a little bit of imagination. You know what kids have lots of? Imagination. You know what kids love? Cardboard. It’s a natural fit. I wouldn’t get it for myself, but if you consider yourself the crafty type — or have craft-loving friend or partner — it’s a wonderful idea that feels a little bit like magic. I play dozens of video games every year, and I never really feel like I’m truly playing; having fun in a way that I did as a kid. If you can share that with someone, I wouldn’t miss out on it.
Nintendo Labo is available for pre-order now and goes on sale April 20