It’s hard to know where to start with something as left-field as Nintendo’s Labo kits. There’s the games, the ‘build’ experience, the extras, the genuinely fun little ‘how it works’ videos, and all the other Easter eggs and bells & whistles. Like the kits themselves, it’s not so much one thing but loads of parts all coming together into one hearty ‘activity soup’.
There is something I need to mention straight away though: this soup is PIPING hot. If you’ve come here expecting to see a cynical beatdown administered to a ‘silly cardboard kiddies toy’, then I’m afraid you will be horribly disappointed. Also: you are probably a joyless sack of curmudgeonly grump. There, I said it.
Because that’s the biggest thing about Nintendo Labo. Yes, it may be bits of card and that, but it’s all been distilled out of drips of more or less pure joy.
We (and I’ve not gone all royal – for the benefit of this review, ‘we’ is me and co-reviewer: my daughter who is 7, and thus the voice of youth vs my arthritic ramblings) have the variety kit. This consists of a remote-controlled bug thingy, a fishing rod, a toy house, a set of motorbike handlebars, a piano and a chainsaw.
Except: I made up the chainsaw. But given how absurdly creative people are already being with homebrew designs, with everything from programming their own replica Game & Watch games to making an electric guitar, I’d give it a few weeks and then this’ll probably be true as well.
So far, we’ve made the bug (an easy built of 5 mins or so), the fishing rod (a good couple of hours on and off) and the house (ditto). While the complex builds can be long-ish, they were all good fun and never got tedious – like everything here, you can tell that they must have been tested and re-tested to be honed to perfection. Even the suggestions to take a break pop up just when you think “I might like a break soon” and when small people’s minds begin to wander.
Also, I can’t rate the way the instructions are broken down and presented highly enough – they’re perfectly pitched for kids to understand, but not boring or patronising for older dudes or adults.
Even so, I’d not suggest leaving young ones unsupervised, as some bits are fiddly so bent card and tears (both in the ripped card and wet eyes sense) may result. More grown-up kids should be able to do most of it themselves though, assuming they didn’t get drunk on cheap cider in the park after school.
The builds themselves are marvellously realised, and surprisingly sturdy. They work like a cross between origami and Lego, but even as you’re putting things together you still can’t quite believe you’ve just made a working fishing reel, or a spring-loaded button, or a functioning lever out of nothing more than bits of flat card. It really does feel like some sort of papery alchemy.
That said, to get these so refined and spot on I can only assume Nintendo’s offices are knee-deep in cardboard prototypes and they must have lost at least a dozen staff members to papercut exsanguination. RIP (Ha! Rip, see? Like card? Oh fine, be like that.)
Anyway, once assembled each kit has its own games or activities, and each of these in turn has a plethora of hidden features, videos on how it works, ideas for other things you can do and so on. In some of these, Nintendo has pulled off the almost impossible and made learning fun – seeing exactly how the toy-cons function is fascinating, and again the level is pitch perfect. Getting a 7-year-old to enthusiastically watch a video about how an IR camera works is no mean feat.
I could prattle on, but I think you’re getting the gist. So here are just a few examples of why Labo is so flippin’ great. First off, yesterday my daughter, myself and my parents (both in their 70s) were playing the fishing game. No one needed any explanation or instructions how things worked, and we all had a blast hoisting unwilling mackerels to the virtual surface.
(For context, my Mum is so technically inept she once tried to insert a floppy disk into a CD drive, and despite owning the PC in question for years was adamant that it “used to take them before”. In fact the only other console she’s ever played on was the Wii, and in doing so she accidentally bowled my wiimote into the TV.)
Second, my daughter really wants to find out if her friends at school also have Labo kit so they can race their bugs, and wants to set up obstacle courses in the dark to test the bug’s IR camera ‘eye’.
Thirdly, I’m in my early 40s and so hardly the target audience. And yet I’m obsessed with catching a swordfish. I also can’t wait to make the electric guitar, and am desperately trying to figure out a way to justify buying the giant robot kit. Because who the hell doesn’t want a giant robot costume/avatar?
Plus of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are loads of other toy-cons in the pipeline, there are already thriving forums making up new ways to use the software, and third-party kits are already appearing too. From a business point of view, Nintendo have kicked off the sort of peripherals market and community usually more associated with Apple pretty much overnight.
None of this would matter though if Labo didn’t work, and by all rights a pile of cardboard coupled to what’s basically a custom tablet sounds like an entry you’d find in a book called “Gaming Gimmick Hell” sandwiched between the Joy-Hat 6000 (the only hat that’s also a joystick!) and Sega’s ill-fated “Sonic-branded enemas – for when you need to ‘go’ real fast.”
Against all the odds though, it does work. It’s fun to make, easy and fun to play, it’s genuinely educational (heck, schools are approaching Nintendo to get Labo in classrooms to teach coding – Sony and Microsoft would kill for that sort of foot in the door), it has short-term appeal in the builds and games, and potentially huge longevity in the toy-con garage that allows you to hack about your own ideas.
But above all that stuff, it’s a shared experience everyone can enjoy together. Which, yes, sounds twee – but the enjoyment I’ve had watching the fun my daughter has had is a huge part of it. At her age many games are still too tricky or demanding, or simply unsuitable. This is something we can both play and do together, on equal terms.
It’s hard to sum things up without it degenerating into a list of clichés and superlatives, but Labo is Nintendo doing Nintendo turned up to 11 and then some, and making Herculean levels of creativity and polish look practically effortless. Years from now, when stuff like the shiny new God of War is just an entry on some people’s favourite retro game lists, there’ll be lifelong Nintendo fans who got hooked on gaming, and perhaps coding, because of Labo.
Ultimately this isn’t a game or a toy – this is a gateway drug. And it’s chuffing genius.
SCORE: An IQ of 197 out of 200