LABO has been around for some time now, yet here in South Africa, very few people seem to have tried it out. This is partially due to its relatively high price tag – ranging between R1,199 to R1,399 – but also because there seems to be a perception out there that this is another of those uncool, gimmicky, ‘just-for-kids’ Nintendo products. LABO is undoubtedly marketed at families and a younger audience in general, however, after getting the opportunity to review the latest LABO Toy-Con 03 Vehicle Kit it seems clear that this latest LABO iteration is doing a great job of shaking the uncool, gimmicky image by providing an engaging, ingenious and all-around greatly enjoyable ‘video gaming and more’ experience.
Bumble-box the Transformer
In the digital era we now live in, it is rare to replicate the true childhood experience of opening a box filled with goodies. However, what is perhaps one of the best and usually unmentioned features of LABO Kits are their fantastic boxes. A large, beautifully illustrated box that just begs to be opened and explored, surprisingly reveals just a few sheets of cardboard, a packet of what seems like odds and ends (some string and a few elastic bands) and the disappointingly plain white game card box.
Check out our unboxing video:
The simple, easy to understand instruction manual guides you through the ‘Make-ing’ process… providing an excellent step-by-step walkthrough on how to bend, flip and fold each piece to create bold, ever-more-creative three-dimensional cardboard peripherals that are both plainly handsome and surprisingly functional.
The deceptively plain box, however, belies the simply wonderful software hidden within, including the fantastic guide to building the various toy-cons which greet you upon starting the game for the first time. The simple, easy to understand instruction manual guides you through the ‘Make-ing’ process: from popping the various cardboard cut-outs from the sheets to providing an excellent step-by-step walkthrough on how to bend, flip and fold each piece to create bold, ever-more-creative three-dimensional cardboard peripherals that are both plainly handsome and surprisingly functional. The interface allows you to zoom in, rotate and repeat the instructions and suffers only slightly from Nintendo’s well-known penchant for hand-holding – especially on duplicate builds.
The guided building process itself though is so engaging that despite being fun to tackle on your own, is ideal for pairs and families. The perfectly balanced construction portion of what makes LABO, LABO is highlighted particularly well when taking on the three main vehicle-related Toy-Cons of this Kit. From the simple, yet disarmingly agile, Plane Toy-Con with its cardboard spring-based joystick to the technical and intricate gear-based Submarine Toy-Con – the clever architecture and engineering know-how that must lie behind the design of these models is apparent throughout. By working together to create the various Toy-Cons with players of different ages and skill levels, each Toy-Con feels unique and somehow endlessly enjoyable and a little like tackling a complex life-sized origami bird and knowing that after it is complete you will all be able to watch it flap its wings.
This shared sense of accomplishment is not only present when you complete the various builds (taking anywhere from 20 minutes to almost three hours) but is punctuated all the way along the process. From working on the tension for the Pedal that not only mimics a real accelerator pedal in a pleasing tactile way, but when used in combination with your left Joy-Con, can actually gauge the amount of force being exerted upon it; to watching a few folds of cardboard become rotating gears, pressurised levers and even button-like triggers, every moment spent building the Vehicle Kit Joy-Cons feels like a beneficial and creative experience. Once this is shared with friends or family it only becomes more worthwhile and from my experience it got those in my family completely uninterested in video games, to not only look over with some interest at the build itself but even try out a few of the games once completed.
…every moment spent building the Vehicle Kit Joy-Cons feels like a beneficial and creative experience.
Bending Player One
Previous LABO outings seemed to present games not as independent features but purely as a medium to highlight the recently completed construction toy’s features. These mini-games were reasonably fun, but due to their obvious link to the respective Toy-Cons came across as somewhat lacking in content. The Vehicle Kit maintains this mini-game presentation for several of the Toy-Cons. Upon completing the Pedal, for example, you will immediately be taken to a cartoony car race track. In this Slot Car mode, you compete in a sort of modern, digital version of the Scalextric toys you may have had as a kid. While doing so you get an obvious demonstration of the Pedal’s pressure system. Accelerate too much and you’ll fly off the track. Do not accelerate enough and your opponents will fly past you. Get the combination just right and you will win every time.
Other mini-games like Circuit Mode highlight the Car Toy-Con in a very basic racing game format. This time, however, four players can race, speed and CPU settings can be altered for difficulty and Smart Steering can be employed. Similarly, Battle Mode highlights movement in a one-on-one Car Wars type game where abilities like electricity and giant cars give the game some much need flavour. However, once again they fall a little short due to their simplicity and loose controls.
The mini-games fall a little short due to their simplicity and loose controls. On the other hand the large Adventure mode was really a welcome surprise.
However, the Vehicle Kit also contains a Rally and Adventure Mode. The Adventure Mode was really a welcome surprise. Despite not being a game you would necessarily purchase on its own (especially if you were going to be playing it with plain old Joy-Cons and Pro Controller), Adventure Mode offers a reasonably sized open world in which you can explore 10 different locations switching between your three vehicle types. Each of these locations has a number of ‘Fetch Quest’ like objectives to be completed, and despite their relative simplicity, switching between the three vehicles using the three unique Toy-Cons turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. The distinctiveness of each Toy-Con and the vehicle it controlled meant traversing the vast spaces was always enjoyable and even completing odd tasks like popping balloons, chopping down trees, herding toy cattle and catching some rather humorous aliens posing very ineptly as humans was very interactive and the completionist in me soon found a new game to enjoy.
Finding new areas by filling the car’s petrol tank, then zooming through the sky to chase down a yellow UFO, and then diving straight into the ocean to obtain sunken treasure, all while using three different peripherals feels like just about the perfect use of these Joy-Cons. It is this combination of playing a real virtually standalone video game using interesting peripherals which sets this LABO it apart from its predecessors. Plus, while you’re driving around you get to jam to some weird robotic Japanese radio station – so that can only be a plus.
In Rally Mode, any area you have unlocked will contain timed Rally races – hit all the gates before your time runs out and set new high scores. These two modes are finally where the “Play” part of the LABO motto started to make more sense to me. Then, you even have the option of using the Pedal and Steering wheel in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and sure the steering isn’t great, and it definitely needs a patch to sort out button mapping (or at least move the power slide away from the accelerator pedal) but there isn’t much more proof needed in my eyes that this concept works than seeing my father cross the finish line as Donkey Kong while using the Joy-Con on his first ever outing in Mario Kart.
The Fold and the Beautiful
The final little gems in the LABO arsenal have to do with ‘Discover-y’. Not only is there an in-depth but child-and-airhead-friendly explanation how each of the various Toy-Cons, IR Camera and gyroscope etc work in the Discover section, but every LABO cartridge includes the amazing Joy-Con garage.
This feature allows endless replayability (unlike much of the rest of the LABO process) and creativity is encouraged on a level unmatched by virtually anything else in the video game market. A quick trip online will quickly highlight the endless possibilities that creating your own Toy-Cons and programming your own games can bring. Plus, decorating everything from the cardboard Toy-Cons themselves to painting every inch of your digital vehicles means even the most creative child will have something to keep them occupied with.
This Joy-Con Garage allows endless replayability and creativity is encouraged on a level unmatched by anything else in the video game market.
Despite all these wonderful features, there are, of course, a few times where LABO misses the mark. The builds are a lot of fun and will take some time to complete – somewhere between 5.5 and 8.5 hours depending on how fast you build. However, once they are done – that’s about it. Sure, the games are fun, but these are not JRPGs that will keep you entertained for tens of hours. Once you have completed the games there’s not much you can do with your creations, and due to their size – you may have some huge, rather light paperweights on your hands.
Also, because these Toy-Cons have been integrated with the games much better than their predecessors they are likely to see a lot more use. And while they are all very well constructed and rather sturdy for cardboard-based creations, the Key and the Pedal, in particular, seem like they may break sooner rather than later. Even after just the review period, removing and re-inserting the Joy-Con into the Key Toy-Con meant the little cardboard flaps were about to give-out from use, and I’m pretty happy I got some early pictures of the Pedal because after much use – it was looking well worn in.
All in all the Vehicle Kit highlights everything that is wonderful about LABO. The three creations vary from relatively simple to marvellously challenging, and the combination of creativity and fun has never been better utilised in any video game I have played. If you have kids, and if you can afford its rather hefty price tag, this LABO collection is the closest thing to a ‘must’ buy you can find.
However, even if you are like me and you don’t have children but are looking for an interesting new tactile way to experience gaming – the Toy-Con 03 Vehicle Kit finally offers goes some way to offering what Nintendo originally promised: A surprisingly original way of getting the whole family to enjoy video games together. Forget uncool. Forget childish. This kit got everyone from kids and adults in my family to sit and enjoy something together. From 6 to 60 this LABO kit finally just about hits the perfect combination of what a toy/video game combo should be – and if you happen to be the target demographic (moms, dads and kids I’m looking at you) this may be a virtually perfect purchase.