It’s no secret that I was very, very excited when Nintendo announced Nintendo Labo earlier this year. While everyone else was making jokes about Nintendo “selling overpriced cardboard”, I was genuinely overjoyed at the prospect of building cardboard models that interact with the Switch console in new, interesting ways.
Now that Nintendo Labo is out, I can confirm that it lives up to every expectation. I’ve spent most of my weekend pushing out, folding, and slotting together cardboard, and it’s been wonderful. This is, I think, the Switch’s defining product: not simply an exclusive by virtue of being published by Nintendo, but something that uses the console to its fullest potential and could only ever work on Switch.
The concept behind Nintendo Labo is actually quite simple: with sheets of printed, pre—cut cardboard, rubber bands, pieces of string, and reflective stickers, you build any of a handful of different models, which then act as peripherals for various minigames.
The execution is far more complex, though. From those basic materials, Nintendo Labo has you building all manner of different mechanisms, from push-buttons to cranks to pulley systems. I nothing but cardboard, some reflective stickers, and the Switch controller’s infrared scanner, you can make a fully functional keyboard.
The engineering that makes Labo models tick is remarkable. Each piece, individually, is quite simple—like a folded piece of cardboard that acts as a spring, or a hexagonal tube that slots into a round hole in another piece so that it can freely rotate—but every feel brings all these ideas together with creativity and meticulous precision.
The fishing rod model in the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit is among the simpler of the lot, and here’s what it entails:
- A telescoping fishing rod, with three different pieces that slot together and use overlapping cardboard tabs to lock into place;
- A hand crank that serves as the reel, that rotates fully both ways, complete with a comfortable and sturdy handle;
- A pulley mechanism that uses rubber bands to give physical feedback when you’re “fishing”;
- A cardboard tab that creates a ratchet-like sound effect when you wind the reel.
And that’s one of the simpler models. At the other end of the scale, you’ve got a mini-piano with 13 working keys, volume control and other effects knobs, a switch to increase or decrease the octave, and even recording and playback tools.
For anyone concerned about the “value” of Nintendo Labo and its “overpriced” cardboard, the sheer amount of work that’s clearly gone into designing each model more than justifies the price—I know I’d never be able to do anything that even comes close. (To say nothing of the production cost of a few dozen sheets of perfectly laser cut cardboard.)
Complex though they are in their design, building the models is quite easy (and a lot of fun) thanks to some very clear instructions. Rather than printed instructions like you get with LEGO and the like, Nintendo Labo‘s building guides are all part of the software. You can go through at your own pace, fast forward and rewind as necessary, and even rotate the onscreen model to get a better view of some particular detail.
The instructions are very visual, but they also come with helpful (and often humorous) text instructions to help guide you through. This all comes together to make putting together the Labo models as easy and enjoyable as possible.
The models themselves are only half the Nintendo Labo package, though; the software is at the heart of everything else. As well as instructions for the builds, it’s also home to the games associated with each model. In the case of the Variety Kit, there’s a fishing game, a motorbike racing game, a pet-raising game, and a music recording studio.
The fishing and motorcycle games are fairly self-explanatory, but the pet raising one is a bit more unusual. The model for it is a house, with a chimney (where the Joycon goes) and three different openings at each side and the bottom. The Switch screen sits at the front, and shows the inside of the house, which is home to a weird, cute critter. You’ve also got three different objects that you can slot into the sides of the house: a push button, a key that turns, and a hand crank.
Depending on which slots you put the different objects in, and which combinations you use, you can alter the scene or even play little minigames. A pushbutton in the side of the house becomes a light switch, but combine it with the key, and it becomes a little mine cart platformer game where the key is the accelerator and the button makes you jump. There are a whole lot of different combinations—bowling, a jump rope, a hamster wheel—and doing well in the resultant games gets you food to feed your pet.
Finally, there’s the music studio. Here, you can use the cardboard keyboard to play and record music, with a wealth of different options and settings to play around with. Putting different shaped bits of paper into a slot at the top of the piano can alter the waveform (and thus the sound the keys make), and that same slot can also be used to create a rhythm line. All of this works through infrared technology and reflective stickers: the Switch can see exactly which buttons you’re pressing and what shapes are coming through the slot, and react accordingly.
But that’s not all; one of the most interesting parts of Nintendo Labo is the Discovery Mode. Here, you can flick through extensive snippets of information about each model, getting explainers on how they work and learning more about how to get the most out of them. Each lesson is short and presented in a fun, comical way, making them nice and approachable. If actually building each model doesn’t give you an appreciation for their engineering, Discovery Mode certainly will.
It’s also here that you access the Garage, which is essentially a minimalist game design tool through which you can create your own custom Labo inventions. The interface is quite simple, involving placing and connecting nodes to link different inputs and outputs—for instance, touching the screen to make one of the Joycons vibrate.
I haven’t played around with the Garage much just yet, but it shows a lot of promise—assuming, of course, you’ve got the creative mind to take full advantage of it. I’ve already seen people on Twitter experimenting with things like using the piano model to draw things on screen, and one of Nintendo’s own examples lets you turn a simple radio-controlled tank to a shooting game with cardboard cutout targets.
There’s so much potential in Nintendo Labo, and that’s one of the most exciting things about it. As full of stuff as the Variety Kit is, it’s just the surface. As people explore the limits of the Garage software, Labo will just grow and grow, and I assume we’ll see more kits coming out of Nintendo in the future, too.
Nintendo Labo is the fun of cardboard models with the fun of video games, brought together in a way that only the Switch can achieve. It’s tactile and creative, so it’ll be a great learning tool for kids in the same way that LEGO is—and I’d even go as far as saying it’s as much fun to play with. Make no mistake, Nintendo Labo is one of Nintendo’s best inventions ever.
Nintendo Labo is developed and published by Nintendo. The Variety Kit (reviewed) and Robot Kit are available now for Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo Labo Variety Kit was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of this review.