Nintendo Labo Review
Published on April 26, 2018
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo EPD
When people think Nintendo, they often see a company at one end of the experimental spectrum. At times, they take the conservative approach and refuse to step outside safe boundaries, while at others, they go off the rails, releasing a product that defies the industry’s expectations. With the announcement of the Nintendo Labo back in January of 2018, Nintendo has leaned towards the experimental territory once again. With a wildly unique approach on how it interacts with you, it brings the promise to a provide a joyful experience that caters to everyone.
In both of the kits available at launch (Variety Kit or Robot Kit), Labo emphasizes creation, learning, and discovery through its different cardboard toys (or Toy-Cons) that you will build. It does this with its three main sections of the software, Make, Play and Discover. They nicely describe the primary cycle of gameplay: create the kit, interact with it through games, then learn how it works.
Most of your time will be spent in the Make section, as the instructions guide you through popping cardboard pieces off the runners, folding and snapping them together. Don’t let the childish exterior fool you, these are relatively involved builds, with the complex ones taking upwards of three to four hours.
As with any other Nintendo product, it’s evident that the team has spent significant time ensuring that every bit of Labo is of the highest quality. The cardboard pieces are sturdy and feel solid in your hands. Each crease line is well defined, and the clicking sound, whenever you snap two pieces together, is immensely satisfying. It never punishes you through the whole process, with plenty of extra parts provided in case of mistakes, and ample room for errors in the actual steps.
The most challenging part of building a DIY kit such as LEGO or a Gundam tends to be trying to decipher the instructions, and Labo does a fantastic job at addressing issues that a traditional paper manual exhibits. Instead of breaking down each build into discrete steps and photos, the instructions are presented a single video that the user can play and rewind by holding down each a button. You can zoom, pan and rotate the camera around the cardboard models to get the perfect viewing angle. A great inclusion is the “checkpoint” system that lets users resume their builds from a pre-defined spot if they ever want to take a prolonged break.
The nine games that are used to interact with your finished products are innovative and heavily encourages discovery. There are no instructions, and it’s up to you to figure out the different interactions that each Toy-Con provides. These features range from the ridiculously simple to driving your RC Car around, to the complex, such as designing a race track. The games do an excellent job in providing features that are simple enough for kids to play with while adding in complex ones to keep teens and even adults entertained.
Even after exhausting all that the packaged games have to offer, Labo provides more for those with endless creativity. The Secret Lab is an editor that lets you bind any input (buttons, IR Camera, accelerometer) to any output (sound, lights, vibrations) to create your unique Toy-Con. With the piano build, you can access the Studio, which provides a simple digital audio workstation complete with a sequencer, synthesizer, effects, and recording features. Even in this short period after launch, many people have foundunique ways to play around with the tools that the game provides.
Of course, Labo is marketed as an educational product, and it doesn’t neglect to fulfill this duty. The Discovery section is a dedicated part of the game that teaches you the science behind each of the Toy-Con and how they work. This is done through an interactive “chat-room” setting where you’ll be reading and responding to the dialogue of the three residents of Labo. These are not just catered to children; I found myself learning new tidbits here and there, and its self-awareness made the dialogue pretty humorous to read.
Where Labo shines is the amount of fun it brings during the whole experience. The attention to detail in every part of the package makes interacting with it feel magical. Perhaps it’s how the music plays backward when you’re rewinding the instructions or the tab that inserts into the fishing rod so that it makes a clicking sound when you spin the reel. Maybe the magic comes from when you rotate the motorbike handle, and it snaps back like the real thing, or how it uses the different rumble frequencies on the Joy-Con to generate varying notes. It’s not an individual moment or feature, but rather how it manages to surprise you that provides the feeling of delightfulness consistently.
If anything, Labo feels constrained by the external factors surrounding it. The price point feels a bit steep ($69.99 for the Variety Kit, $79.99 for the Robot Kit), and I found myself wishing that the Switch had a better battery multiple times. The Toy-Cons tend to take up a lot of space, so storage was always a concern in the back of my mind. Although none of these detract from the experience in a significant way, it still shows that there are ways Nintendo can improve the product in future releases in the series.
In the end, Nintendo manages to subvert expectations with something that seemed a little crazy at first. Building the Toy-Cons are an absolute blast and always caters to the player. By using the idea of discovery as the primary method of gameplay, it never feels like you’re done playing and are compelled to keep coming back for more. Labo proves that Nintendo doesn’t need a mascot or franchise to carry it to success, just a bit of cardboard magic.