Nintendo Labo: The Gunpla of Gaming, or a Hard Sell?

Nintendo Labo is a thing, and frankly, I had to sleep on it. I saw my Twitter feed buzzing anxiously at 10:05 pm last night (five minutes after the trailer made its debut here in the UK) and I quickly clicked on to YouTube to witness whatever kooky idea Nintendo had now. But nothing prepared me for Labo.

The instant reaction was ‘are they seriously selling cardboard?’ and that was pretty swiftly followed by ‘oh my god, I want to wear cardboard.’

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In case you haven’t had a minute to go see, Nintendo’s new Labo initiative is basically the Gunpla of gaming, as instead of buying awkward peripherals to strap your JoyCon into, such as steering wheel grips or lightguns or whatever, you carefully pop out cardboard sheets to fold and snap them into place. The seemingly simple fold-out nature of the card make Nintendo Labo seem like fun, but it doesn't look much like a videogame, honestly.

There’s hesitance within me. I was a Nintendo fan throughout the life of the Wii, which means I saw how people (especially those with children) quickly amassed completely awful bits of tat. Plastic shells for Wii Remotes, turning them into tennis rackets, fishing rods, golf clubs, boxing gloves - I think there’s even a knuckle duster attachment out there in the world somewhere. These bits of plastic were useless then, and people looked just as stupid swinging them around then as they would do now.

Seeing the Labo trailer, it’s difficult not to be reminded of those days with the Wii. I sure as hell don’t want a pile of plastic rubbish in the corner of my gaming room, and somehow substituting the plastic for cardboard isn’t making me magically more excited. But, then the applications of Labo come to the fore.

Using the IR camera in the bottom of the right JoyCon (something most of us had forgotten about) many of Labo’s contraptions actually work by reflective strips inside the devices, flashing up against the IR camera. This tells the Switch which notes are being played on a keyboard, how the player is moving with the Robot Kit, and much more. Add into the equation the strong, accurate JoyCon motion sensing and gyrometers, and you can actually start to see how Labo is a game changer. Instead of merely being plastic (or cardboard) shells to immerse the foolhardy into thinking they’re getting a better gaming experience, Labo is actually intrinsic to the gaming experience. This actually changes something, creating a variety of cardboard accessories for a variety of games, instead of simply selling us an expensive plastic controller of some kind.

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And make no mistake, Nintendo could’ve sold us a big plastic controller. They’ve done so many times before, the DK Bongos are still in my gaming corner after all. But now Nintendo could’ve made those bongos out of cardboard. Heck, the Wii Balance Board just might’ve been able to work from cardboard if the JoyCon camera could detect how much our body weight was crushing a pile of corrugated card…

But what’s most interesting here isn’t the construction material, it’s the fact that you can make your own. Of course Nintendo’s own kits are the ideal way to go, but Nintendo have said that you’ll be able to download and use your own design templates for the devices, printing them out, cutting out your own, and adding your own interesting designs to them. We’ve seen the kinds of things cosplayers and prop makers can create from foam and card, and I guarantee it won’t be long until we see a full Nintendo Labo mech suit. Heck, if I find enough cardboard I might be the one to do it.

This isn’t going to be some transformative gaming experience. This clearly isn’t going to be for everyone - heck, I imagine most adults who are likely to enjoy it are still going to get on board (heh, like cardboard, get it?) after a few hours. After all, can the software truly be good enough to keep you plugged into cardboard peripherals for that long?

However, I have to admit that it makes me wish I were a kid again. I mean, I probably will already put all the kits together and have loads of fun playing with all of the contraptions, but the hours of customisation, improvement, play? I’m unfortunately too old to enjoy sitting down with crayons and stickers these days, but I know if I were 15 years younger, I would be going absolutely mad for Nintendo Labo.

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