Hands-on: Nintendo LABO

The Nintendo Pop-Up store in Sandton City invited us to a Nintendo Labo workshop and so yesterday my 7-and-3/4s-year old cousin and I headed to the richest square mile in Africa to play with some fancy cardboard.

So first, let’s get the disclaimers out the way: If you have read my previous two articles (here and here) you’ll notice that I was pretty excited about the whole LABO idea. Plus, Jonathan, my cousin and tag-along ‘kid expert’, loves building things. Despite being only nearly eight, his dad says he already has his own tool box and work bench in the garage at home. And it is not too surprising to find him drilling holes in his cupboard at home. So really it could be said LABO was made for the two of us.

Going in, I was particularly interested in two LABO aspects: First, who exactly was the target audience – was it truly aimed just at kids, or would it be fascinating and detailed enough to keep those of us young at heart sufficiently entertained? And secondly, how sturdy could this cardboard really be – how long could it last in the hands of an under ten-year-old? Jono, on the other hand, had only one concern: He wanted to know how life would be as a Robot. Good news is, we both got some answers.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the super friendly Nintendo staff and given a quick tour around the store, stopping to pay particular attention to some of the LABO creations that had already been constructed by other eager builders.

RC Bug… Car

Then we got down to the building. First off, we tackled the basic RC Car. Now, for those of you that have not yet seen this particular Toy-Con creation – the first thing you should know is that it looks nothing like a car. At the start, in fact, all it looks like is nothing but a few sheets of perforated cardboard. Surprisingly thin cardboard. So thin, that starting off, I was scared I would tear it while popping out the various sections of the RC Car. However, this never happened. Even when Jono decided that the optimum way to remove sections, was by poking at them in a woodpecker-like motion with his right index finger, the correct sections simply popped out exactly the way they should’ve. The way they were designed to.

Immediately I was taken aback by the level of ingenuity needed to create a single sheet of cardboard, and then perforate it in such a way that no glue, scissors or tape is ever needed. Now, the RC Car is a very simple design, basically just a box with legs (yes a car with legs… I know), but while I was marveling at its design, Jono simply yelled out: “It’s Caaaardbooooard!!!” a few dozen times seemingly puzzled by why we would be using this instead of wood as a building medium. He flew through the build and something like five minutes later we were done.

Then, we were told we were supposed to decorate our creation. I know some kids have and will be completely excited by this part. For us though… Well, I’m not saying that by this point Jonathan was distracted by his eagerness to get to the Motorbike and the Robot Toy-Cons or that we both did not absolutely love the idea of using koki pens and glitter to brighten up our weird radio-controlled bug vehicle, but after ten minutes the best we had come up with was this…err… beauty:

Never having seen this particular Toy-Con in action before, Jonathan had no idea why we kept calling it a ‘car’. However, just a few minutes later we were on the race car track, and once we activated the ‘game’ part of the software and he was able to not only move the strange creation around, but also have it follow his hand and see in the dark (both functions of the IR Camera on one of the Joy-Cons) the “PLAY” part of the LABO motto now started to make a lot of sense. Again, Jono shouted: “It’s Caaaardbooooard!!!” yet this time I could hear there was lot more joy in his voice.

A Folding Motorbike

Because of time constraints (the House Toy-Con is said to take about 2 to 3 hours to build, the piano 2.5 to 3.5 and the Robot Kit takes something like 6) we had to choose between one of two Toy-Cons for our final build of the day – the Fishing Rod or the Motorbike. I had my eye on the Fishing Rod, however, Jono preferred the Motorbike and as we all know 8-years-olds are well known for their well-reasoned and passionate arguments and a few minutes later we got stuck into the Motorbike.

Now at first, I must say that this looked like a much more daunting build. Instead of just a sheet of cardboard, we received what seemed like six or seven sheets. As soon as the stack came over – Jonathan immediately turned to me and said: “Can’t we just play the games?”

However, by this point we were in. And so the build began. I should mention at this point the ‘digital instruction manual’ we followed to build our ‘car’ and the motorbike. The Switch screen becomes the step-by-step guide for making the various Toy-Cons. The interface is bright and friendly and you have the ability to zoom in and out and even rotate the image of the Toy-Con on the screen while building which is really useful for those of us who weren’t so good at geometry at school and are used to the hieroglyphics-filled paper manual you get when building any DIY furniture these days.

However, it does have some drawbacks. To proceed to the next step in the build you are required to press and hold the forward button on the touch screen while sliding it slightly to the right. It seems somewhat more complicated than it needs to be, but tolerable right? Well, we thought so too, until we started our motorbike project. Because the build took us about an hour, and because a lot of the time is spent holding pieces of cardboard up at odd angles constantly having to free a hand to perform the elaborate gesture to move on to the next step became quite infuriating. This was only compounded when mistakenly pressing the X button in the corner kicks you out of the manual, and re-opening it starts the manual off right at the beginning again. Now, we were only exposed to the interface for a few hours today and there is a possibility that we missed it, but somewhat like Splatoon 2, it seems what this software really needs is just a simple “Skip’ option. Please Nintendo add a “Skip”. Anyway, back to the motorbike…

In the beginning, I think Jono lost some interest in the build. As he flipped through sheet after sheet, unable to see the final design, I think he may even have started to get bored. Pretty sure I heard him whisper: “It’s Caaaardbooooard…” several times quietly to himself. On the other hand, during those same steps of the build, again and again, I was struck by the cleverness of the design. The cardboard flexed, folded and double-backed on itself to form sturdy handle-bars. A few bends and folds and we had a brake and an ignition button. With the addition of two-rubber bands, we had the resistance of throttle in of the accelerator. I was impressed.

Soon, Jonathan started to come around too. As soon as the design became a little more obvious, he realised how each of the pieces would fit together, and by the time it was done – he triumphantly shouted: “It’s Caaaardbooooard!!!” He said it a lot. And for him, the day was just about to get better. We started up the ‘game’ part of the Motorbike, and after a five-minute learning curve, Jono was hooked on racing around the virtual track using the motorbike he had just created.

While he zoomed around, I took the opportunity to try out some of the other already-built Toy-Cons. As I suspected, the Fishing Rod was a lot of fun. Considering that I didn’t do any building and the fact that it is essentially a ‘mini-game’ I loved the fishing mechanic. Drop a line in the water, wait for a bite and pull back hard… then reel in some dinner. It was great fun and after the Nintendo Rep showed me the innards of the rod, a few elastic bands and a whole lot of folded cardboard, I could not believe how realistic the rod felt.

A Fish, A Note and A Strange Round Creature

The House Toy-Con seemed like fun too. The funny round creature evoked a Tamagotchi-like feeling in me. Feed it, play mini-games with it and even decorate his home by swapping out little cardboard buttons – I just told my wife about it and she immediately wanted to try it out.

Finally, I even got a chance to try out the Piano. Now, this is the most complicated build in the Variety Toy-Con Kit. And just a quick look will tell you why. The whole construction is beautiful and a look under the hood at the wide use of the reflective tape, IR camera functions and once again I thought about the unique ability that Nintendo has of seeing technology just a little bit differently than most of us do.

The visit was nearing its end and so only one thing was left to do… Jono had to become the Robot. After some time getting kitted up, Jono was ready to face the world as the Android Boy he always wanted to be. Again, after a slightly steeper learning curve (about 5-10 minutes) Jono was destroying buildings, flying through the air and racing through the streets as a little orange Optimus Prime. He had his answer, he would make an excellent Transformer.


So what did I learn from my first hands-on experience with LABO? Well, the cardboard is somehow thinner than I expected but sturdier than I thought it would be. That being said, some of the display Toy-Con units did look a little worse for wear, especially those with moving parts or lots of strings. However, these had been used by many kids and being display units, probably not used with the utmost of care.

All-in-all though, I still am not sure about the longevity of these Toy-Cons. Your child will love to be involved in the building process and if Jono is any example to go by, even the simple mini-games may keep them entertained for hours, but what happens a month later or two months or even six? Will they be in as good a shape then? And even if they are, will kids go back to play them again? This is one area where the often quoted LABO and LEGO comparison falls short for me. LEGO lasts forever. From what I saw today I’m not sure LABO will do the same. At least not the caaaardbooooard parts.

Secondly, I think I found an answer to the target audience issue. Is it for kids only? Will adults be sufficiently interested in it? Well, from my very short experience with it yesterday… the answers are no and no. And that’s a good thing.

I loved the design and ingenuity of every Toy-Con I saw. I appreciated all the work that had gone into it. Jono, a bright 8-year old with a penchant for building, on the other hand, didn’t notice any of that. He enjoyed building the Toy-Cons, but at times felt like he was getting a little bored due to their complexity and length. I’m convinced that most kids would struggle to build the more complicated Toy-Cons on their own. However, once he started to see the creation he was building he really seemed to enjoy the working together part of the construction. I did too. Then, he absolutely loved playing the games afterwards and seemingly could do so for weeks, whereas for me, anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or two would’ve been enough.

So is LABO for kids only? Or can adults enjoy it too?

Well for me the answer is as simple as this: LABO is for families. If you have a family and you have a Switch, get LABO. In that situation, it is well worth the financial outlay. It is the quintessential activity that will encourage different age groups not only to work and interact with each other but will provide something that every one of them will enjoy. Dads, moms and older siblings will love the technology and ingenuity, kids will love the games and working with their older siblings and parents. Plus, we didn’t even really touch the “Discover” part of the motto. Working on and figuring out how to program basic computer instructions or writing your own music with the Piano or learning how the different parts of the Toy-Cons actually work, will mean everyone in the family will have something to get involved in. In a world where families are often more and more disconnected, LABO is the new and improved ‘family board game evening’ – It is about connection. Adults, kids… It’s not one or the other. It is one AND the other.

Nintendo Nerd, sharing my love of Mario with the world one pixel at a time.

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