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Nintendo Labo Review – Creativity For A Specific Audience

by Kyle Hilliard on Apr 27, 2018 at 02:45 PM

Labo is a Nintendo product, but it’s not for every Nintendo (or even video game) fan. If the idea of a part-craft, part-video-game toy that is also a programming tool made of cardboard makes you scoff indignantly, having it in your hands won’t suddenly make you a believer. Labo is a bizarre product meant to inspire creative play, and in that regard, it succeeds. For those enamored with toys like Lego, where much of the fun relies on your own creativity, then Labo is absolutely worth your time (or at least one of the two kits is).

Labo Variety Kit
The Variety Kit is the introductory Labo pack and it offers the most to do, both in terms of video gaming and creativity. It includes the cardboard and software necessary to build the RC car, the fishing rod, the motorcycle racing wheel, the house, and the piano (which is the crown jewel of the kit). Every Toy-Con, as Nintendo has dubbed them, takes about an hour to build, though the piano is the exception, clocking in at about two and a half hours.

The building process is fun, and the time goes by quickly. The instructions walking you through the process will be familiar to Lego builders, but the interactivity is elevated to a new level. It works like a video, where you can fast-forward and rewind at variable speeds, and rotate and zoom at any time. This was particularly helpful when it came down to tiny little details like determining which of two available tabs I should lay down first.

Along with folding and connecting tabs, you also have to place an assortment of reflective pieces of tape in specific places so that the right Joy-Con's camera can recognize it. This is the most tedious part of building, but I appreciate how it shows exactly how each piece of the total build works.

Beyond the step-by-step instructions, you have access to a series of conversations with characters created for Labo. They walk you through how everything works in more detail, talking you through troubleshooting topics and helping you decorate the Labo creations without warping the cardboard. These chats are entertaining and well-written, and do a good job teaching the player more about Labo.

The software accompanying each Toy-Con ranges from solid entertainment to surprisingly versatile. The fishing and racing games don’t have a lot of depth, but they are enjoyable and work well with the Labo accessories. The house is a virtual pet and minigame collection, and it also serves as a bizarre showcase of what the Switch can do by incorporating the Joy-Cons’ motion controls, IR camera, and the Switch’s screen into games. You can, for example, use one of your created tools as a tap to fill up the house with water, and then tilt and shake the house to see the water react realistically.

The piano is easily the most interesting and versatile tool in the Variety Pack. You can create and record music with a surprising amount of options. It also cooperates with the fishing game by letting you insert shapes you’ve cut from paper or cardboard into a slot on the top, which can be scanned to create fish. Those created fish can then be stored in your aquarium alongside the other fish you’ve caught. The piano demanded the majority of my attention based on its music and recording applications, and it is also the most impressive build of all the creations.

The durability of Labo is an important question, and though I was impressed by the stability of each of the creations, they are not indestructible. A footfall can easily demolish a Toy-Con. But Labo holds up well through regular play, and it can even withstand a few frustrated tosses of the fishing pole by a six-year-old set on catching a bigger fish than her dad.

Included with both Labo kits is the Labo Garage. With the Garage, players can manipulate all functions of the Switch and the Joy-Con controllers. You can make things happen on the screen or use it to control the right Joy-Con’s IR camera, motion capabilities, and HD rumble functions. The visual programming language is easy to understand, and I was able to make some things that were exciting. For a stupid-but-entertaining example, I programmed the piano so that when I shook it, it would meow like a cat. At the time of this writing, Labo has only been out for a week, but players are already coming up with fascinating applications using the Garage tools, and those creations will only get more interesting and detailed as people spend more time with the Garage.
Grade: B

Labo Robot Kit
The Robot Kit offers many of the same elements that make the Labo Variety Kit an attractive acquisition. The building is fun, the step-by-step guides and tutorials are equally well-done, and the full Labo Garage suite is included.

Unfortunately, the Robot Kit is the inferior of the two Labo options. Following the directions and folding it all together is enjoyable, but the final result is underwhelming. With the Variety Kit you are building recognizable things – a piano, a fishing rod – but here your final result is basically a box. The innards offer some impressive engineering, but it’s still just a box with straps and strings hanging out of it.

The Robot Kit also offers a more traditional video game. You wear the box like a backpack and attach the strings to your feet and hands using straps and handles (made from cardboard, naturally) and pull the strings to manipulate an on-screen robot as it tries to destroy a city. Suiting up for this activity is time-consuming, and surprisingly difficult to do without the assistance of a friend. The gameplay is reminiscent of early Kinect experiences in that you are using your body to play a game, and it just doesn’t work well. I had to pause often to reattach the foot string, and actions like raising one leg and one arm to leap into the air don’t work consistently.

On the creative side of things, in one mode you can set each arm and leg to output a different sound to create music by moving your body. However, even with the game docked on the TV with the sound turned up, I struggled to hear anything I was doing over the sound of cardboard and strings scraping together.

The Robot Kit is the strangest use of the cardboard, but the fun ends after completing the build. Including the Garage in both kits is the right call, but the Robot Kit is unquestionably the dud.
Grade: D

The Final Verdict
The time I enjoyed most with Labo was the time I spent building the Toy-Cons and using them to be creative. Making music with the piano was easy and rewarding, and experimenting with cutting out slips of paper to scan for fish creation lead to laughs with my child. Labo’s legacy and longevity rests in the hands of the Garage and what people do with its tools, but even just out of the box, without the intention to create something original, Labo offers an undeniably novel and enjoyable experience that feels more like a toy than a video game.