It’s very easy to dismiss Nintendo’s new line of Labo build-and-play toys as merely cardboard. For adults especially, building the Variety Kit’s five toys–or the Robot Kit’s suit–and playing their simple games might feel like a short-lived novelty. But there’s a surprising amount of depth to what you can do with the kit’s stack of cardboard sheets and cutesy software. It’s a remarkable educational tool and an opportunity to see your creations come to life, and that’s something very special, even if the games themselves don’t stand out.
The Variety Kit comes with five different Toy-Cons to build and then play with: the RC car, the fishing rod, the house, the motorbike, and the piano. In that order, the process of building them gradually increases in difficulty, with the more complicated projects expanding on the concepts introduced in the easier ones. The RC car takes around 10 minutes to build and is effectively a practice run, showing you the importance of precise assembly and how to work with cardboard without bending it in weird places. (The cardboard itself is pretty sturdy if you’re reasonably careful with it.)
After the “make” portion, you move on to “play.” The games are all relatively straightforward; drive the RC car, fish with the fishing rod, play piano using the piano. It’s more rewarding to see how the cardboard translates to the software than it is to play any of the games at length, though they’re deeper than they look at first glance. Even the most basic one, the RC car, has a self-driving function and a multiplayer battle mode; in the motorbike’s game, you can design your own tracks just by moving a Joy-Con through the air. The least interesting, at least from an adult’s perspective, is the house–the game there is to experiment with three insertable parts and see what kinds of rooms and mini-games they can unlock when in different combinations.
The piano is the most impressive component of the Variety Kit, with a regular play mode and a surprisingly deep studio mode. It only has 13 keys, but there’s a lever on the side that changes the octave, giving you access to a wider range of notes. You can layer recordings for more sophisticated songs, change the envelope and reverb of the notes before you record, and insert cards of different shapes into the top of the piano to change the waveform patterns. You can also create drum beats (composed of bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and cymbal sounds) using a kind of punch card that goes in the waveform card slot; the infrared camera in the Joy-Con detects the shape of the card and then uploads the card’s “data” into the studio UI.
Not much of this is apparent when you first start playing the piano, though. A lot of the depth can be found in “discover” mode, where three cheeky characters walk you through the technology behind each Toy-Con, any extra things you can make or do with them, and how the games work. Like with the building process, a lot of the enjoyment comes from learning how each of the Toy-Cons works and understanding why you had to make them a certain way. For kids in particular, there are straightforward explanations of abstract physics concepts that benefit from having the Toy-Cons as hands-on aids. There are also plenty of resources on how to fix the Toy-Cons, including how to repair bent or ripped cardboard (which is good for all ages).
In addition to the Variety Kit, there’s also a separate Robot Kit available. Instead of five different Toy-Cons, you build one large one: a robot “suit.” The basic suit consists of a visor and a backpack with pulley mechanisms for each of your hands and feet that control the in-game robot. The visor part utilizes the left Joy-Con’s gyroscope, while the backpack works using the right Joy-Con’s infrared camera and reflective tape. It’s a complex project that can take three or four hours to build, but the instructions are as easy to follow as they are in the Variety Kit, and it’s broken up into eight steps so you can pace yourself.
The Robot Kit’s games are especially geared toward children’s imaginative play. The main attraction is a destroy-the-city mode, in which you punch buildings to dust and rack up points. In addition to that, there’s a versus mode where two robots can battle and a “studio” mode where you can assign different sounds to the robot’s limbs and step and punch your way to a beat. You can also customize your in-game robot and unlock better abilities in a challenge mode. These games do show the different applications of the Toy-Con you’ve built, but they’re not likely to grab you for very long unless pretending to be a robot is your jam. Like in the Variety Kit, the Robot Kit’s discover mode is the place to learn more.
In both the Variety and Robot Kits, the secret endgame is the Toy-Con Garage, a mode where you can program your own games using if-then statements. You can pick an input, like “if the Joy-Con is face-up,” and connect it to an output, like “vibrate,” by dragging a line between them on the touchscreen. Depending on how many rules you weave into your program, you can make some decently complex games as well as mod the Toy-Cons you already made. It’s both a great learning tool at its most basic level and an opportunity to challenge yourself and apply everything you’ve learned so far.
It’s nice to have something to tinker with long after building the Toy-Cons, and that’s mainly because the official games are more like demos to show you how everything works. The only one likely to keep your attention for any length of time is the piano; everything else is a jumping off point, and you’re limited by how much it inspires you to create. And that’s just what Labo is at the moment: a great tool for creation, rather than for playing.