I was a rambunctious, energetic child. It was hard for me to sit still for anything, but if you gave me a box of Lego and a good set of instructions, I could sit for hours. I had Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, K’Nex, model cars, you name it.
There’s a wonderful zen to quietly assembling something. But then, what do you do after you’re done? The true test of a building toy is whether you find creative ways to play with it once it’s finished. Toys like K’Nex could always be repurposed for games or rebuilt in perpetuity. Models and electronic Technozoids (yes, they were a real thing on the other hand tended to end up in the closet or on a garage sale table sooner rather than later.
As crazy as my little building projects got, nothing from my childhood was as ludicrously weird and inventive as the new Nintendo Labo. Nintendo’s latest nutty idea is a trio of Switch games that each come with more than two dozen sheets of corrugated cardboard. To play the included games, you must first spend at least an hour snapping and folding together what Nintendo calls Toy-Cons: cardboard controllers.
One kit comes with smaller Toy-Cons you can use on a table, like a piano and fishing rod, another lets you create steering wheels to control three types of vehicles, and the last lets you spend hours making a wearable robot backpack and suit. All the step-by-step instructions are on your Switch, and when you finish a Toy-Con, a mini game is unlocked. You slide the Switch touchscreen into its designated slot in the cardboard, then slip in the Switch’s two motion control Joy-Con controllers into, say, the handle of the fishing rod you just assembled, and off you go. Before you know it you’re reeling in digital fish.
I’ve built some forts out of cardboard and opened my share of boxes, but I never realized how serenely thrilling corrugated cardboard is as a material. I found myself in a state of pure calm freeing the cardboard cut-outs and punching out the little holes and chads as I went (I leave no hanging chads).
Much of the fun comes from the quirky way each cardboard Toy-Con is designed. No build is predictable and it’s fun to figure out precisely how the odd mess of cardboard will ever come together, but it always does so in surprising, brilliant ways. After a few days with Labo, I feel like I’ve already learned a bit about construction and how to fortify a cardboard creation. I can only imagine what a creative kid who normally plays Minecraft might dream up after getting a taste for Toy-Cons.
The on-screen instruction manual for each Toy-Con also adds to the fun. The sometimes snarky, often amusing instructions, feel like a part of the experience, not just a prerequisite before the real game starts. I don’t remember Lego instructions ever telling me to choose “whichever [shortstrap] speaks to you in your soul,” encouraging me to take breaks after finishing sections, or making up rhymes like “Dum diddly dum dade! Not long ‘til the arms are made!” to keep me engaged.
Each set of instructions walks you through every fold and snap, complete with sound effects for every touchscreen tap. Each step clearly lays out which pieces you’ll need to snap out of which cardboard sheet and 3D models let you zoom in or move the camera with the Switch touchscreen. Most of the projects tend to take at least a half hour, and some last as long as 4 hours.
The only thing that occasionally broke my zen was the Nintendo Switch itself. The most comfortable way for me to get to work was with the Switch on my dining room table, propped up with its kickstand. Unfortunately, the Switch is wobbly and fell down more than a few times, and ran out of battery in the middle of long projects. Hopefully Nintendo will make a Switch with more than 3-5 hours of battery life someday.
Which Labo Should You Buy?
There are three Nintendo Labo kits, and they each include multiple cardboard Toy-Cons to build, games to play with them, and a Discover section, where a group of kooky characters with suspiciously appropriate names like “Professor Gerry Rigg” and “Lerna Lotte” will teach you tons of tips and tricks, and unlock extra modes, customizations, and doo-dads in the games. All of three kits are fun, but they’re made for different kinds of players.
The Vehicle Kit ($70) is the newest Labo Toy-Con, and my favorite (probably yours, too). It’s just hitting shelves in September, about five months after the Variety and Robot Kits debuted. This kit is all about steering and piloting, and has a pretty deep and wacky exploration game attached to it.
You can build a spray can, gas pedal, an airplane joystick, a double-handed submarine steering box, and an extremely robust steering wheel. The steering wheel looks polygonal, like it’s from an old Nintendo 64 game, but it’s packed with features, including a jet boost cord you…
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