Back in the bygone era before videogames, “playing” meant screwing around with physical toys—action figures, dolls, bugs, whatever. In my house it mean turning wrapping paper tubes into swords and hitting your father with them. (Sorry, Dad.) When gaming consoles came along, though, play for many kids, myself included, got a lot more sedentary. Nintendo’s latest set of Switch peripherals—known as Labo—attempt to rectify that problem, using the same sense of engineering that inspires kids to turn packing materials into toys.
The idea behind Labo is simple, if a bit counterintuitive. Sold as kits, each Labo comes with “Toy-Con” projects—cardboard pieces that can be assembled into various objects and festooned with the Switch’s console and controllers to create interactive games.The first, the Variety Kit, contains a fishing pole, a house, a motorbike, a piano, and two RC cars. The second, the Robot Kit, gets assembled into a backpack with a series of pulleys that when moved by users’ hands a feet manipulate a robot in an onscreen battle. Think of these like the old-school Power Pad, Mario Kart wheel for Wii, or Duck Hunt gun for NES—just with some assembly required.
All these peripherals are a little goofy, quite fun, and even a bit unexpected for the latest offering from one of the world’s biggest videogame companies. But they’re also very intuitive. I haven’t played a videogame system regularly since the Wii—which, TBH, I only got because I missed Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64—but I picked everything up right away.
Part of this stems from the fact that 50 percent of the fun of Labo is just assembling the parts—an exercise in creativity that one of my demo-mates rightly referred to as “IKEA-meets-origami.” (That’s more enjoyable, and less frustrating, than it sounds.) The other 50 percent is rooted in the fact that Labo games are loosely based on real activities: riding a motorcycle, playing around on a piano, fishing. Something like the Labo-assisted motorcycle race might feel a little more intuitive to Mario Kart players like me, but anyone who’s ever twisted a throttle should be able to pick it up.
“Playing” with Labo goes like this: Each kit comes with sheets of cardboard roughly the size of a placemat. The Toy-Con pieces are stamped into the cardboard, ready to be popped out. (Side note: The aftermarket, black market for knock off Toy-Cons has the potential to be huge.) Instructions for building each piece are provided on the Switch’s screen. Simple items, like RC cars, take less than 10 minutes; something like the fishing pole can take upwards of an hour, depending on your speed. Because they’re almost entirely cardboard, they’re very customizable—doodle on ‘em, add jewelry, whatever. (I tricked out my RC car with a pair of bunny ears made out of pipe cleaners and a puffy sticker of a bear in a cow suit. I’m not what you would call artistic.) Once the item is folded together, it’s time to game.
For Labo’s fishing simulator, the Switch screen sits on a dock in front of you. One end of a string is connected to your pole, the other to the dock. Fish show up on the screen when one nibbles on your digital line, you reel in the physical one. Easy. It’s also weirdly addictive. The RC cars, one the other hand, can be driven around or, if you have four controllers, made to fight each other (or race, if you’re non-violent). The piano mostly just lets you play, but a series of insertable cardboard knobs changes the tones from standard piano to cat meow. (Yes, seriously, you can play a chorus of kittens. Internet, you’ve been warned.) The motorcycle rig lets you race and ride on a track on the Switch screen while manipulating cardboard controls, a sensation familiar to any kid who ever twisted the handlebars of their BMX and pretended to be on a Harley.
Robot Kit’s offerings are a little more complex. The assembled parts create a backpack and four peripherals—two sticks to be held in each hand and two straps to go around each foot—all connected to the backpack via string. Oh, and a headpiece. When you wear it, you’re transformed into a robot on your TV screen. Stomping your feet makes it walk; punching with the handles makes it smash; tilting your head changes his direction. There are also moves to make him turn into a tank and fly. It’s fun, and a helluva good stress reliever.
What makes this all possible—besides, well, cardboard? Actually, it’s the Joy-Con controllers infrared sensors. Though largely unused by a lot of Switch games, Toy-Con devices harness them to work. Inside the piano, for example, IR stickers placed on the keys send signals to the Joy-Con sensors each time they move—strike a key and the Switch senses it and plays a note. Similar stickers are attached to the strings in the Robot Kit backpack, signaling the Joy-Con each time you pull on its handles and foot straps. On the RC car, the IR sensors get turned into night-vision or heat-vision cameras that send a feed back to the Switch screen.
All of this, you might have gathered by now, makes Labo incredibly customizable, and not just because you can add stickers. An additional feature called Toy-Con Garage lets users program their own games and tools, so anything the standard Labo gadgets can do can be harnessed for other creative projects. Use the motorcycle controller to drive and RC car? Sure. Use one controller to make the other vibrate some weird doodad you invented? Indeed. You can even turn Switch’s screen into a soundhole that you can play on your own homemade guitar. (I didn’t ask if it could be programmed to meow.) And those are just a few of the things Nintendo showed off at the demo. Presumably, hackers will have a field day figuring out new things to make.
Make no mistake: Nintendo’s Labo is a good time. Smart, creative, open to interpretation. But more than anything it brings a sense of, well, whimsy that’s normally not associated with gaming consoles. And that feels fresh. Will the novelty wear off? For some, yes. There’s only so many digital fish one can catch before the idea of actual fishing sounds more exciting. But for those who want to make things, who used to turn their cardboard tubes into swords, the possibilities are myriad. Labo is a trip, and it’s got me thinking it might be time to upgrade my system.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
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