Every parent has been there: It's Saturday. It's raining, snowing or nuclear winter, and for whatever reason, your kid can't play outside. Then junior hits you with that age-old kid lament: "I'm bored."
Photo: Stephen Johnson
I usually respond with something like, "If you think you're bored now, just wait until you have a job. Go watch TV." But with the Nintendo Labo for the Switch, I now have a better option.
This video game/interactive toy/construction kit is a boredom killer. Like the best rainy day projects, it's easy and fun to start, but gradually reveals surprising complexity. Your kid might even learn something about engineering and computers along the way.
A $100 Cardboard Box?
When Nintendo revealed Labo a few months ago, I was sceptical. I've loved Nintendo since the NES days, but like a lot of video game fans, I thought, "I'm supposed to pay a hundred bucks for a box of cardboard and rubber bands so I can build my own toys? What am I? A factory worker? A caveman?"
I was so very wrong. Yeah, in the most literal sense, Labo is a box of cardboard that costs $100, but like the intricate toys you'll construct with it, it's more than the sum of its parts.
Although it uses and requires a Nintendo Switch, Labo is not a video game. It's a product meant to blur the line between toys and games. You build cardboard structures called "Toy Cons", like a cardboard house or fishing pole, then use them as controllers for specific mini-games. But cardboard assembly is only the beginning level of Labo. Its deeper stages provide limitless play and learning possibilities.
It's educational, but unlike too many "good-for-you" products, Labo is actually fun. It's the kind of toy that's designed to be taken apart and examined. It rewards curiosity and exploration, and the deeper your kid goes, the more he or she will find. Pretty amazing for a box of cardboard.
Build: The Construction Level
So far, two full Labo kits have been released: Nintendo Labo Variety Kit and Nintendo Labo Robot Kit. The first is a collection of mini-games with accompanying mini projects. The second is more ambitious: A wearable cardboard robot controller - backpack, visor, and hand and feet controllers - you use in mech games. But you gotta build before you play.
My wife, son and I put together all of the projects over the course of a week or so, and while they seem fairly complicated at first glance, they're actually a snap. The smaller gizmos took us an hour to build (give or take), where the robot took three or four hours of us working together. During that time, I'm happy to report, there was little frustrated screaming.
The cardboard pieces snap together with a satisfying click, and everything works as advertised. No tools are required, and even the most mechanically challenged should be able to follow the easy interactive instructions. You can rewind, repeat and change camera angles to your heart's content.
Dex even built a couple of projects solo, and he's only 10. With parental supervision, littler ones will have fun "helping" too, even if the help is just colouring the cardboard or adding some stickers.
The resulting toys are surprisingly durable. I was ready with hot glue and tape to strengthen errant flaps or tears, but it wasn't needed. So far, everything is holding together, even with fairly heavy use. They are made of paper, though, so you have to treat them fairly gingerly.
While building a Toy Con, a curious kid will have plenty of time to figure out the ingenious mechanisms that make them work. The projects make heavy use of the camera embedded in one of the Switch's Joy Con controllers.
The robot backpack, for instance, contains cardboard blocks tied to strings that attach to your hands and feet. Move your limbs and the blocks go up and down. The Joy Con camera reads the heights of the blocks and sends the info to your Switch, which determines when you've taken a step or thrown a punch. The blocks are even weighted to provide feedback for the mech pilot in your living room.
Play: The Games
Photo: Stephen Johnson
It's a little unfair to compare Labo's tech-demos to complete games. They are all well-designed, but no one is going to spend as much time with Labo's fishing game as they do playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Play is only one aspect of the Labo experience though.
The robot kit is the closest to a full-fledged game for the Labo, and it's undeniably fun. Every kid wants to destroy a virtual city, and it's especially satisfying using real-life punches and stomps to level buildings. Dex loved it and wanted to show it off to his friends. His one sentence review: "This would be a great party game!"
The other games for the robot kit include timed challenge levels, customisation options, and even a two-player robot game if you have a friend with the same kit.
The robot is cool, but we spent the most time with the Variety Kit. It contains five smaller projects ranging from a vibration-powered remote control car you can fold together in a few minutes to a working musical keyboard.
Each of the mini-games here is fun in different ways, from the adorable virtual pet game in the cardboard house to the simple-but-fun fishing sim with working fishing pole. But the games themselves are not nearly as interesting as discovering how they work through building them and taking them apart again.
Discover: The Deeper Levels of Labo
Each Labo project begins simply, but you can always go deeper by checking out its "Discover" mode where you'll learn exactly how it works, and how to access its hidden features.
The keyboard, for instance, is the most time-consuming build in the Variety Kit, and the end result seemed disappointing at first: A one-octave keyboard with a piano sound, cat noises and a few other voices. A fun novelty, but nothing that will change a kid's life… Until you enter Discover mode, and unlock your creation's true potential.
It turns out that the cardboard switch you built into the side changes the keyboard's octave, giving you a five-octave range. If you shake the keyboard, you control vibrato. You can play the keyboard "acoustically", using only the vibrations from the controllers and the resonance from the case, then experiment by laying the controller on larger or smaller boxes.
That weird rectangle piece you almost threw out is actually a drum machine controller you can "program" by punching holes into. Then you can hit the "record" button you folded together and lay down up to eight separate tracks over your cardboard beat.
Photo: Stephen Johnson
Maybe most amazingly of all to a music nerd like me: You can cut a shape into a piece of cardboard or paper, insert it into the keyboard, and the Switch will translate the shape into a waveform, letting you change an instrument's timbre by cutting different shapes.
As more features and options become available, you realise that you didn't just build a paper piano. You built a full-featured, working cardboard synthesiser with sequencer and drum machine. Just the thing for the budding Quincy Jones in your life.
Coding: Labo's Final Boss
After you've built all the projects, played all the games, and marveled at how everything works, Labo hits you with its final level: The Toy-Con Garage.
The Garage lets you program and create your own Toy-Cons. An easy-to-understand interface pairs input from the Switch or Joy-Con controller with onscreen events, so your kid can make their own games or interactive toys. You can use elements from the projects you've already created too, adding functionality or combining projects, like using the fishing pole to play music.
The Labo has only been available for a short time, but YouTube videos of kids sharing incredible creations are already showing up. People are building things such as coin-sorting cardboard banks and target shooting games. Here are some examples.
If your kid is the creative or engineering type, they will love building new Toy Cons, but they will also be learning the basics of coding. The possibilities are limitless, and will keep your little ones busy long past a rainy day.