Nintendo Labo Hands-On Preview – Flexible Fun, or Board Stiff?

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Apr 19, 2018
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I still vividly remember first watching the Nintendo Labo trailer and being sufficiently bemused and confused. I’m in my 20s, and most of my life video games have been my primary hobby or distraction, so when faced with, well, cardboard, I was just as doubtful as everyone else.

But, it’s fine. It’s not for me. It’s a child-oriented product, that much is clear, and there’s potential for younger kids to interact with games that are age appropriate, and will convince parents that video games aren’t a mind-numbing distraction, but are, instead, something that can be educational and bring in a world of new experiences, not just limited to being sat in front of a TV with a controller in hand.

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But then I played it, and suddenly, I’m thinking I don’t want any hands of filthy urchins either damaging or dirtying my precious Nintendo Labo creations.

I knew well in advance that I was going to enjoy putting Labo together, but when I was there actually doing it, I couldn’t help but smile all the way through, while getting excited about how my creations would come together. I had been reduced to a big kid playing pretend with cardboard boxes, but the intuitive design of the cardboard kits, and of course the feedback from the games themselves, elevate this beyond any exercise in imagination.

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And Nintendo have conveniently summed up Labo with three words; Make, Play, Discover.

Make

The process of making Labo ToyCons is loads of fun, though I would be lying to you if I said I’m hopeful about this aspect. Simply because, how long can it last? The Variety Kit allows you to make five ToyCon, of which I made the two simplest creations, the RC Car and the Fishing Rod. The process of making them was incredibly enjoyable, but frankly, once the RC Car is up and going and you’ve had a “sumo wrestling” match with a friend’s RC Car, well, you kind of feel like you’ve seen all there is for that, and move on to the next creation.

Luckily all of the other ToyCons have more robust games to go with them. The Fishing Rod in particular took much longer to make, although I definitely enjoyed the time I spent doing it. While the RC Car is, well, just a bit of cardboard, the Fishing Rod and other ToyCons feel much more robust, in both building and playing with them. The way the Fishing Rod slowly came together, and the way each part working in tandem – including a small piece of cardboard only there to make a clicking sound when winding the line in – was wonderful to see.

Of course, still, this is primarily going to be something for younger children. They are, without a doubt, going to enjoy this part more than anyone else. But having said that, I can’t deny the fun I had making and customizing ToyCon. Definitely fun, regardless of how old you are.

Play

It’s hard to be too enthused when playing with the RC Car, watching it slowly vibrate across the table. Hardly intense action. But for anyone that has ever enjoyed a fishing minigame, well, the Fishing Rod game is surprisingly robust. Rotate the reel in one way and your line will sink into the ocean, and the other will reel it up. You can go deep down to catch big fish, but then have to carefully pull it to the surface without the line snapping, with you pulling at and moving the rod to ease the fish to the surface.

What’s impressive about Nintendo Labo is how intuitive all of these games are to play, no tutorial required. Even the Motorbike ToyCon felt so natural that I watched others improvise and discover new things about the game. Simply twist the handle to accelerate, rotate to turn, but then you can also wheelie by pulling the entire ToyCon back. It’s small, intuitive moves like that which elevate each game from being a weird demonstration of how cardboard can work with games, and turn them into genuine, bitesize, gaming experiences. These aren’t just tech demos, they can be considered proper minigames.

The Piano might be the most interesting though. This Piano can be used to record what you play and play it back. Forget about how good this will be for kids trying to learn music, this has the potential to be the kind of “instrument” that YouTube musicians will make full songs on just because they can. Give it a week after launch and search for Labo Piano Music. I guarantee it.

Discover

When I was a kid I loved taking things apart to see how they work. Simple mechanisms clicking together – I always loved taking a look and trying my best to understand how they come together. With Labo, you are finally taken through every step of the journey, and this gives you a real appreciation for how well Nintendo have designed the kits and games that work with them.

But more than that, the space to improve, adapt and customize your ToyCon is limitless. Whether you’re a child with a stack of crayons, colouring your favourite designs into the Robot ToyCon, or whether you’re in your 30s and you’re 3D printing pieces to improve the sturdiness of your creations, the understanding Nintendo deliberately gives you of Labo makes these things not only simple to do but incredibly tempting. There are even rough instructions on how to repair your Nintendo Labo with things you can find at home. It’s training for tomorrow’s engineers, today.

But far more interesting and enticing than that is the ToyCon Garage, the interesting software which allows you to dictate how your JoyCon interact with one another. The examples shown have been compared to baby’s first coding, a simple set of “If X = true, then Y = true” etc. But this can be pushed in a variety of ways, by using sound synthesizers and making JoyCon behave in different ways. The possibilities, right now, and hard to comprehend, and we’ll take a deeper dive once we can try it for ourselves, but as of right now, it’s a fascinating feature – it just remains to be seen how flexible the software will allow us to be.

I feel like I understand the intent behind Nintendo Labo so much better now, but I still have to ask a few questions. The longevity of the games, the sturdiness of the ToyCons after some heavy-handed children have them for a week, how flexible the ToyCon Garage will allow us to be, it’s all up for debate right now, but once I have the kits at home I’ll be putting them through all the stress tests I can think of. Until then, I have to say, I feel positive about the potential Nintendo Labo has right now.

You can pre-order the Variety Kit here and the Robot Kit here.

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