Nintendo Labo released a few weeks ago now and, while I found the experience of building Toy-Cons to be deeply relaxing, some folks feel that selling a box of cardboard and a game cartridge for £60 is a bit much. As we've been loving building Labo kits in the Kotaku UK office, we thought there was something interesting here: after all, it is mostly cardboard. Could thrifty gamers could do a bit of DIY and jump in for a lower price?
The challenge is simple. The only thing you can't realistically cobble together from cereal boxes is the software. So our budget is for buying the cart only, then acquiring whatever else is needed either for free or at the lowest cost possible. We decided the most practical proof-of-concept was to build our own RC Car, because it takes the least time to construct and we expected that testing various possible materials might lead to a few restarts.
If you look online now you can find sites and stores selling cartridge-only copies of Nintendo Labo for between £30 and £40. If you check CEX's online store you can pick up the Variety Pack or the Robot Kit cartridge with no cardboard included for £40, while an eBay search will find you solo cartridges selling in the £30 range if you're lucky, though they come and go. Yeah, it's still not 'cheap' — though things may look very different in a few months — but this is the only aspect of Labo you can't cut corners with.
Next, the crafting materials. You're going to need large pieces of cardboard, ideally with few existing folds and undamaged. The closer to the size of Nintendo's sheets, the better, because there are some official PDFs we'll later be availing ourselves of: the 'official' sheets measure 17.7 x 13.6 inches. For me this step was free, because I have quite a few Amazon boxes, and cardboard's one of those things that, if you're trying to save it, you'll soon have plenty.
Cereal box cardboard is a little on the thin side, while the Amazon cardboard is doable, but ever-so-slightly thicker than Nintendo's card, meaning you have to cut tabs a little smaller than the template suggests to compensate. Also, if you're using Amazon-thickness cardboard, you'll want to score both sides of the card on the fold lines in order to ensure a crisp fold.
In terms of thickness, the dream cardboard is (and excuse the obtuse reference point here) a Wilko six wine glass carrier, which is what I ultimately used to make the DIY RC Car. It is a near-perfect thickness match for the official stuff. I already had one lying around but I'm sure that if you go into a Wilko and ask nicely they might just hand one over.
Once you've got some cardboard, go to this link here. Nintendo's Japanese website has PDF templates for all the Labo pieces, so you'll need to print those out and stick them atop your cardboard. Easier said than done, of course, because most home printers don't handle sheets as big as these templates. It is doable though, and now we start getting into the fun side of DIY: fudging a solution. I had to print four sheets of A4 per single Labo template, and then glue them together to make one big paper sheet.
The official cardboard is pre-scored and ready to fold. Sadly even the mighty Wilko six glass carrier is not this convenient. Once my template was on I got some scissors (a nice sharp craft knife would probably be better, but I didn't have one so went for the free option), cut along the lines as precisely as I could manage, et voilá: Labo pieces. One bit of practical advice here is to start using the software and following the build instructions; it's easy to get ahead of yourself and lose track of which bit is which if you just cut the whole sheet out at once.
Then there are a couple of odds and ends. Several steps in the Labo building process advise you to place down adhesive fabric strips to protect the Switch, but these are always placed as to cushion the back of the system rather than the side with the screen. A little bit of material here might help, but if not I am confident my Switch will be fine. I lost these for one of the official Toy-Cons and it still works fine without damaging my Switch, so I wouldn't stress about it.
Then there's small elastic bands and string. I had some in various drawers, and I'm sure you do too.
Lastly, and perhaps the most tricky element to do on the cheap, is replacing the small reflective strips which allow many of the Toy-Cons to function. Labo comes with small metallic stickers to be affixed to parts of the models, which allow the IR camera on the Joy-Con to read them.
These can be replaced with small pieces of precisely cut tin foil, which will replicate the functionality, but there are no templates for the size of these. You're going to have to use the cartridge instructions as a guide towards their position, then measure that space and create foil strips to fill that area (they're of varying dimensions: those in the US can buy a sticker pack, we've asked Nintendo UK whether this will be available here and will update with any reply). This does need to be accurate because, if it's not, your Toy-con will not function.
So, how did the RC Car build go for us? This is the easiest Labo kit to test, but at the same time there are lots of things to go wrong: the RC Car needs to be properly balanced in order to function, the grooves at the side need to have the right amount of wiggle room for the Joy-Cons to vibrate, but not fall out. Then it needs to be able to move using that vibration without collapsing or falling.
I will admit right now that this took me considerably longer than ten minutes to make, and obviously the end result isn't as polished as the official kit. As mentioned I used a pair of kitchen scissors to cut it out rather than a craft knife, which may mean some of the cuts are a little imprecise, particularly those for the tab slots holding the body together. All that said, after around 40 minutes I had printed out the paper, stuck it to the cardboard, cut it out, assembled it, and got it working.
Upon first test, likely due to my imprecise cuts, it did have an easier time turning one direction than the other, as seen in the video above. I rectified this by altering the vibration levels on the switch screen, making the side that was struggling to turn more powerful, and with 30 seconds of fiddling it was driving in a pretty straight line properly, as shown in the video below. When the RC Car fell over, that was because it hit my Switch on the table, not due to any lack of balance on the Toy-Con's part. It drove around pretty effortlessly after making those vibration tweaks.
I did find Labo more relaxing when I just had to calmly pop cardboard out of pre-made sheets, so do bear that in mind. But in total I managed to get this built for a grand total cost of... no more than the cartridge. You can grab one of those secondhand for £30 and, with the rest of the stuff, they're all such common household materials that all you really have to do is dig through some cupboards and drawers. DIY Labo is not just relatively easy — it kind of ties in with the spirit of the software.
Let's put it this way: I made the official Labo RC Car. But the Wilko's RC Car... I really had to make that one.
If I was aiming to build the piano then, yes, I might invest in a craft knife, and get thrown out of my local Wilko's for nicking too many cardboard wine carriers. Elements of building your own, like the reflective sticker replacements, are undeniably fiddly. But if you seriously have a problem with paying Nintendo £60 for a box of cardboard, then hey: you don't have to.