Nintendo Labo Wins You Over, One Crease At a Time

By Rich Stanton on at

Nintendo has always followed its own hardware instincts, and the beauty of Switch's success is that it gives the platform holder breathing room to try some of the wilder ideas. It can afford to swing and miss. With the Wii there are examples like Wii Fit and Wii Music, one of which was a sensation and the other sadly underappreciated. For what it's worth, I think Labo will sell like hotcakes, but at the same time it's so out there, so unusual, that you simply can't imagine it coming from anywhere other than Nintendo.

This is an industry where the wilder elements of the community condemn particular software genres as 'not games', and now we are faced with a pile of cardboard, sticky tape and googly eyes from the most storied developer on the planet. An essential tool for enjoying Labo is a glue stick. Nintendo has little truck with conventional thinking about video games but, even so, Labo marks anew level for one of the core pieces of Switch's concept.

The idea is that this console can be used to get people playing together in real life, focusing on each other rather than the console, and it is most obviously seen in the launch title 1-2 Switch. This didn't get a great reception generally, though it did from us, and part of the reason why is that the appeal is counter-intuitive to experienced gamers. The point of 1-2 Switch is to make players look at each other while playing, and away from the console screen, responding in some games purely to sound and rumble cues. The pared-back visual style goes alongside constant encouragement to make eye contact, and the game overall lacks any kind of wider competitive structure or progression — it is, in a literal sense, party software.

Labo seems to have come from leftfield but, at the same time, you can see how well it slots into this aspect of Switch. Nintendo is trying to make this console into something with social value, not in the simple sense of you and a friend enjoying a round of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but in using it to enable inter-personal play where the software's role is frictionless and minimal. It's worth reminding ourselves that play is one of humanity's innate characteristics, not least because of its importance in learning, and few lose that basic enjoyment of fooling around and joshing with others. Labo is about folding cardboard to make things and play around with them, in other words, but that's also something of a pretext for the ultimate goal of freeform play.

One thing that interested me before I touched Labo was the nature of cardboard — sturdy up to a point, but of course it's gonna collapse, get torn, and things will go wrong. That's what happens when you're playing around and building stuff. How does Nintendo deal with the nature of selling a product for £60 (and upwards for other sets) that kids and klutzes will pretty easily destroy? Labo simply accepts this, and builds into the software regular little prompts about repair — alongside encouragement to customise beyond the basic models. Scissors and a glue stick are essential tools. Indeed it's almost irresistible not to go wild with the pipe cleaners and felt pens. Faced with a bare piece of cardboard folded into a shape, your first thoughts are about giving it a dash of personality.

There are a bunch of different modes to the Labo software, which I'll come to, but the building part comes down to prepared and perforated cardboard sheets, alongside step-by-step on-screen demonstrations of what and where to fold. The instructions are extremely clear, the user controls the pace at which they move on, and it's all a little bit Blue Peter. In a good way. The RC car I built is the most basic Labo toy (shamefully, I raced ahead of the instructions and misplaced one of the flaps) but even then there's a little nuance to it, alongside the unmistakably precious moment when you observe your handiwork — and then get to slide in the engines.

By which I of course mean Joy-cons, but that's the feeling. You've been building this dinky cardboard toy, it's done, and then comes the moment when you can make it do something. The RC car has a groove on either side that loosely fits the Joy-cons (the looseness is part of what makes it work, the software informs you) and, once they're in, you can vibrate either or both at the same time — and lo, it lives!

I don't want to just skip over that moment, because to me it seems to be the most important thing about Labo. The sense of a discovery. Of something out of the ordinary, something that feels a little more concrete because of the real-world involvement you had in assembling it. It's not that Labo is necessarily going to make engineers out of all of us, but it creates a feeling that reminds me of soldering circuit boards in school, and my delight when the little LEDs would flash as intended. 'It works!'

One detail about the RC car is especially striking. As well as the main body of the toy, the cardboard sheet includes an 'antennae' shape which requires minimal folding before sliding atop your Joy-con-less Switch. This has no function whatsoever. But the impact of it, the little flourish of garlanding your console before the first test drive, is no small thing.

Such cool details, most of which have a more functional role, are built into every Labo toy. The piano's loose and surprisingly springy keys are accompanied by a hole on the instrument's top, into which you insert little cylinders that change the nature of the keys. With nothing inserted it's a straightforward piano sound, but this cylinder turns it into meows and this one is wailing ghosts. The motorbike handles are used to play a simple first person Excitebike-style game, by turning left and right and leaning into corners with your body, but also have a functioning brake and start button to flick at the beginning of a race. You push cubes into different walls of the house to make things happen in the weird interior you can see on-screen. The fishing rod has a working reel handle, while the robot backpack thing has you pulling strings from your feet and over your shoulders like some gleeful puppet.

All of this stuff is just fun and, I can only imagine, feels even moreso when you've spent the time required to assemble the more complex options. Each of the toys also has a complementary piece of software. You use the fishing rod while seeing fish on-screen, sending your lure up and down then reeling 'em in. The lovely touch here being that, when you finally reel the fish out of the water, you just pull the rod towards yourself to make the catch. The motorbike game's controls are simple but nuanced, and the mode features progressively more difficult collections of tracks. The house has a gentle sim-lite thing going on, where you can poke and prod this odd little creature and, with the right prompts, send it out on adventures.

The RC car, fishing rod, house, piano and motorbike are included alongside the software in the Labo variety pack. Apart from this there are more elaborate contraptions incoming, one of which is the robot kit. Given the cost of this one, currently around £100 on Amazon, I'd have to say that caution should be exercised before getting too excited - but at the same time the toy itself is ingenious, and I loved bashing stuff and, especially, flying.

The robot kit is essentially a large backback, which the Joy-cons strap into, connected by string to handgrips and foot loops. You 'punch' forwards to punch, stomp up and down on the spot to march forwards, tilt to turn, and best of all stick out your arms to take off into the air. I don't want to oversell this. The robot game is basic and, while I'm sure there are many more levels and challenges than I've seen so far, I do think about the price and longevity with this one much more than the variety kit. With all of that said, I had a go and then immediately had another go. In these admittedly short bursts I adored it, and taking off gave me a tiny frisson of excitement every time.

Each toy can also be used in other parts of Labo outside of its own dedicated software, so it may be that much more is planned for this robot kit. To give an example, in the piano's case there's a funny little option to insert a piece of cut-out paper in the top, which is then scanned by the Joy-cons to create a basic fish shape: that fish can then be given eyes, and found in the fishing minigame. Little touches like this add up to the bigger picture.

The software divides itself into three categories: Make, Play and Discover. The former two we've covered, but it's in Discover that Labo's potential lies. Nintendo's releasing Labo with a bunch of cardboard prefabs it has designed. But the software is designed, through a part of it called Labo Garage, to allow people to build their own things, work out how the Joy-cons might operate with these, and then get it running through basic logic instructions.

So for example, in the room in which I played around with Labo, there was a Joy-con sellotaped to the back of the door. Every time the door opened, the IR beam was broken, and the Joy-con's speaker let out a great meow. That's as simple as it gets, but in action it was hilarious.

Who knows where this will end up. Labo surely marks the beginning of an unofficial collaboration between Amazon and Nintendo, where the former's omnipresent cardboard packaging finds new life as the template for a hundred new Labo toys. To digress, haven't you ever noticed how Amazon designs its packaging to not only be easy but fun to open? It's a stretch to say the company 'gamified' it, but there's real thought there. Books and games arrive swaddled in cardboard folds, loosened by ripping a little strip down the back then flipping out the top flap. I see Amazon boxes in every other household recycling box I pass, and the most popular Labo designs will undoubtedly make ingenious use of a major and standardised source of waste cardboard. Cereal boxes aren't strong enough, and Labo hobbyists will crave the brute strength of the Bezos.

I'm half-kidding, of course, but the most exciting part of Labo is undoubtedly what people will come up with. Nintendo has always been a toymaker as well as a games developer, but often commentary skips over just what it means to make toys. The best toys are multipurpose, adaptable things that a given child's imagination can turn to a dozen different roles before dinner. The Ultra Hand, Gunpei Yokoi's brilliant 1960s invention, wasn't a hit because of the three coloured balls in the box. It was because of all the other things you can envision grabbing with it.

Maybe Labo will be a commercial flop, but a beloved cult hit. Maybe it's a smash, and spawns a whole subgenre of crafting video games — which would be great! Maybe no-one knows what to make of Labo for a while but, over time, it and its successors come to be a part of many peoples' childhoods. I look at this and the line to the crude cars I used to make out of whatever boxes were lying around seems so obvious that I find myself, a common feeling, jealous of the kids who'll grow up with this generation of video games.

The mainstream games industry rarely confronts its pretty traditional notion of just what 'play' is, or what a video game can be. Plenty of that goes on at the fringes, of course, as this great piece on experimental hardware shows. One of the characteristics of technology is that it makes things more abstract and impersonal. With most of the games we think of as multiplayer now, you're playing against people you'll never meet and probably aren't communicating with. Labo feels so fresh because it strips away all the abstraction and gets you back to using your hands and talking to people. Cardboard might not be the most robust of building materials, but what Nintendo has crafted from it is rock-solid.