Nintendo Labo is not a video game. Sure, the kits may be powered by the Switch, come with a Switch video game cartridge that contains a selection of varying mini-games, and it’s primarily constructed around the notion that you build these special cardboard containers known as Toy-Cons to be used with said mini-games, but Nintendo Labo is not a video game. It is something much bigger than that.
Nintendo Labo wants to be the new generation of LEGO.
The main concept of Labo can be boiled down to the home screen you see when you insert one of the Labo cartridges: Make, Play, and Discover. The following is a breakdown of each piece of that de-facto motto of Labo in relation to how the user will interact with it.
From the idea of building a Toy-Con out of cardboard to the potential end result of using them to play mini-games, it’s no surprise that Nintendo knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to design. The idea of building something that can transform a few sheets of cardboard and a couple of nylon strings into a working robot suit can provide a wonderful sense of satisfaction to kids. And while the commercials for Labo make building any of the models look way too easy, it’s safe to say that it actually can be that easy thanks to the incredibly intuitive and detailed manuals that can be followed on the Switch console. The instructions are clear, concise, colour-coded, and even come with an animated clip of each step to show you exactly what to do and how to do it. You’re able to take cardboard and nylon string and develop an intricate pulley system that sits on your back in a matter of hours.
Aside from the Robot Kit is the Variety Kit, which includes the components to build a fishing rod, a house, motorcycle handles, and a small piano. Each of these Toy-Cons have their own games to play, my personal standout being the fishing game, simply because of the progression of getting better fish the more you play, as well as the clever use of tactile feedback (the Joy-Con vibrates when you get a bite, and the way the cardboard sits on top of each other gives a satisfying clicking noise similar to real fishing rods).
The Joy-Cons (not a typo, this time I mean the Switch controllers) are utilized in a multitude of fashions. Anything from vibration intensities to the accelerometer is used in multiple ways, like as the throttle and feeling the acceleration of the motorcycle Toy-Con. The most interesting use of a Joy-Con feature is via the Robot Kit. Each of the strings within the pulley system have a light reflector attached to them. Any movements of the light reflector are registered by the IR camera in the Joy-Con that is holstered in the back of the backpack. This is the (pardon the pun) backbone of the entire design of the kit, and is the reason that the Switch is able to recognize the difference between punching, crouching, and imitating Iron Man by extending both arms out and flying around in-game just by pulling a few strings strings.
The best designs in the world might not mean a whole lot if you can’t do anything with it. With LEGO, you’re able to build, appreciate, and then break down and start again. This isn’t something that can be done with Labo, and instead you’re encouraged to use your creation to play a couple of mini-games. I keep saying mini-games because this is what they are: these games lack depth, progression, narrative, and any other quality that full-fledged video games may immediately bring to mind. That isn’t to say that the games aren’t fun; there’s a sense of wonder the first time you play with the Toy-Cons. After hours of building something, you can finally put it to practical use. But after a few tries of the arcade mode of the Robot game, or fighting your friend in Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em-esque matches a few times, it can get stale. Even with the variety of game modes, like the challenge mode that teaches new abilities with each level, there’s a strong chance that kids and adults alike will get bored of the Robot Kit. The lack of depth or deep engagement within the mini-games might leave many with a ‘that’s it?’ feeling after investing so much time building the device. Around four hours to build, and about the eight hours of gameplay (if that).
The depth of the Variety Kit is significantly less than the Robot Kit, but there’s also a whole lot more to build and create. The main allure of this kit is the different types of Toy-Cons you’re able to build, and the major differences between them. And while building them is definitely part of the fun, after everything is built and decorated to your liking, you’ll find that there isn’t a whole lot else to do. The fishing game is fun, but shallow after you get bored of the same mechanics over and over again. The motorcycle game is neat to go around once or twice, but it’s also frustrating to play at times, depending on your playing style. Making sharp turns, or turns at all, can be anywhere from inconvenient to downright dangerous depending on how hard you decide to turn the handlebars. Since most of the weight is in the main housing unit on top of the narrow base, you’ll find the entire unit sliding around the table you rest it on, that is unless you decide to push the unit against your chest to get a better hold on it. After some time, this feels awkward and uncomfortable, mainly due to pushing a piece of cardboard against your body for extended periods of time.
The mode with the least amount to do is definitely the House Toy-Con, which allows you to replace certain cardboard modules around the outer edge of the house to change what happens on screen. It’s a neat idea, but it’s definitely the least engaging of the games, as it feels like Nintendogs, but you know, without the dogs. Immediately this may be a comically bad comparison, but what I mean by this is that there are different rooms in a virtual house and little easter eggs found within that you can unlock depending on what modules you have attached.
So, Nintendogs without the dogs but with modules, guys.
While the built-in games of the Labo aren’t exactly deep or immersive, there’s plenty more to Labo than one might assume. If you cut out a piece of paper in the shape of a fish, you’re able to scan that shape using the IR camera and have that fish appear in either the Aquarium or Fishing game. You can even change its colour or give it stripes. It’s a neat little addition to the Variety Kit, and gives kids a bit more creative freedom within the games.
However, the most important aspect of Labo is arguably the Discover section, which allows you to basically change what your Toy-Cons are used for. You can use the Motorbike peripheral to control the Joy-Cons in the RC Toy-Con. You can change how your Robot suit works, you can even create whole new Toy-Cons.
In simpler terms: Labo has an entire section that allows you to tinker with the coding of how Labo works.
This may sound daunting, but Nintendo has made this section incredibly easy to use while keeping the customization incredibly varied. Using the same kind of logic in software development, you’re able to figure out how performing an action on the Switch or with the Joy-Cons can lead to a specific result you want. For example, you can add an action that will output a specific sound. Make a few more and you can create a cardboard housing unit for a guitar. The possibilities are vast, and that’s what makes this aspect of Labo so interesting – and even educational.
It is this aspect of Labo that may keep it relevant in the coming years. The ability to tinker around with the core structure of the game is what has the possibility of keeping children engaged and imaginative just as LEGO did when it was first introduced. There’s no doubt that Nintendo will be releasing more iterations of Labo, which will hopefully push the capabilities of the Discover section even further, giving kids more freedom to discover new ways to play (pardon the pun again, but Nintendo really nailed naming these things).
I want to stress again that Nintendo Labo is not a video game, because it really just doesn’t feel like one. There are plenty of games, a few of things to do in the games, but they’re just not satisfying. The scope of the games doesn’t really feel worth the price tag, even when you take into account the cost of designing the whole thing and the cut-outs. If it wasn’t for the Discover section of Labo, it would feel like an expensive birthday/Christmas gift at best. But the ability to develop your own Toy-Cons and the ability to change how existing Toy-Cons work adds a whole new layer to Labo that gives kids the ability to make their own fun through the power of creativity.
Then again, I’m not the target audience, and I still can’t understand how Shrinky Dinks was a thing (and still is) so what do I really know?
Oh yeah, and Bill Nye the Science Guy was at Nintendo’s Labo launch event. Look, I got a photo with him. I assure you that it’s real and absolutely not photoshopped.
Nintendo Labo is currently available exclusively on Nintendo Switch in both the Variety and Robot Kits.
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