Do you remember the first Nintendo Direct for the Switch, where Nintendo explained the various features of the Joy-Con, like HD Rumble and the infrared camera? Remember how we all said those features would never be used outside of 1-2-Switch? Well, we were mostly correct. But it turns out that if you throw some cardboard on there, the miniature controllers can do a lot. I don’t know if this was the reason for the development of Nintendo Labo, but the end result is a crafting project and video game in one. That’s certainly a unique idea, but is it a fun idea? For now, we’ll answer that question for the first Labo set, the Variety Kit.
Labo’s “mission statement” of sorts is “Make. Play. Discover.” It’s also how the game’s menu is set up, so I’ll use that as a guide for my review. There are 5 creations (called “Toy-Con”) to build with the Variety Kit, which are named in-game as the following: RC Car, Fishing Rod, Motorbike, House, and Piano. With the exception of the RC Car, which takes around 10 minutes to build, you’ll probably need to devote at least an hour to building each Toy-Con. The good news is that the software and kit make the building easy and fun. The many cardboard sheets are color-coded based on the project and clearly labeled with letters. Nintendo did an impressive job making use of space; extra space on the sheets is used for “accessories” like cards that can be used for the Piano and Fishing games, a storage box for small parts, and a couple of other things. There’s also appropriate art on each card to fill up remaining space.
The building process itself is also a lot easier and more pleasant than I thought it would be. The interactive instructions are very clear, and you can move and rotate the camera to get a better look at the folds being made. It’s almost always very clear where the cardboard pieces connect to each other and the handful of other parts, and the instructions have a conversational personality, as if a friend or teacher is showing you what to do, which adds some extra charm. And while building takes a while, it is actually pretty fun to put everything together. I only really have two complaints on the building. First, while there are decently flexible options for this, I wish I could fast-forward the instructions a little faster; I really don’t need to be told in every single step that I need to crease the fold lines. It’s also rather annoying that for several steps, you need to hold things in place for a while. Between that and not knowing what falls under what section, it sometimes feels like you’ve done something wrong. But I’ve gotten through it with only minor issues, so it’s not too bad. Just know that it won’t be perfect. There are a few pieces I’ve found don’t stay together too well, but it’s nothing too serious.
In any case, it’s a good thing the building can be fun in itself, because unfortunately, there’s not a ton to get out of the Play section. Each Toy-Con has a central “game” or activity, and they aren’t super deep, even with the handful of extra features thrown in. The RC car is just what it sounds like. It is cool that it can drive automatically to a certain place using reflective stickers and show you what the IR camera sees, but the novelty does wear off pretty quickly. The others are more involved, but only to a certain degree. The Fishing Rod game gives you a number of different fish to catch, and an Aquarium mode to both look at what you’ve caught and make your own weird fish designs. But there’s no real progression or reward system, so there’s little incentive to continue once you’ve caught everything you want to catch. The Motorbike game has similar problems; there are only a few basic races, and they aren’t particularly challenging. The addition of multiple ways to build custom tracks is a nice touch, but it still feels like it’s all basically the same.
Fortunately, the Piano and House games are a bit more interesting. There are actually two pieces of software for the Piano. The first one, Toy Piano, is a pretty simple one-octave piano. Using the knobs built at the same time as the main body, you can change the sounds and echo of the instrument, or use cards to produce new sounds. The Piano Studio is a bit more advanced, allowing for recording and playback, and switching octaves with the tab on the side of the main construct. You can also insert a sort of dot-based card to introduce percussion, though it can be difficult to make it sound right. Overall, I probably enjoy the Piano most, even though it isn’t really a game. But the most feature-rich is probably the House game. This one features a number of activities and min-games focused around a strange little creature living in the House. In addition to messing with the house itself, by tilting it and using special blocks, you can play mini games by inserting two blocks at once, and earn candies that will change the creature’s appearance in different ways. Some of the block placements make it difficult to make certain mini games work (for example, trying to hit a button on the bottom and turn a crank on the side at the same time), but overall it’s a fun little experience. Like all the others, though, it’s far too brief.
What makes the Toy-Cons impressive, then, isn’t what you can do with them, but the fact that they work, and make things more immersive. The Motorbike and Fishing Rod really just use typical motion controls in a fancy shell, but they’re still fun to play with, and add some immersion that regular motion controls lack. Part of this comes from things like the working reel for the Fishing Rod and the steering for the Motorbike, but Nintendo really went the extra mile with things like the string attached to the Fishing Rod that matches and lines up with the line in the game. The more impressive projects, though, are the Piano and House. They use reflective stickers and the Joy-Con’s IR camera to let the game interact with the Toy-Con in ways that I couldn’t have possibly predicted. When I was finished with the Piano, I was certain it wouldn’t work; the pieces weren’t quite on right, and I didn’t understand how all of the stickers could possibly be seen. But it did work, and that’s probably the coolest thing that happened during my time with the Variety Kit. The key to this is the Discover section, which uses a cast of colorful characters to explain how each Toy-Con works.
But what really makes the Discover section stand out is the Toy-Con Garage, a simple programming application based on the Joy-Con and their various inputs and outputs. There are demos of a number of basic programs built in and suggested by the tutorials. One simple but fun project has you swing one Joy-Con like a sword to make a little cardboard man fall down, complete with sound effects. You can’t really get too advanced here; you can’t even make the screen display colors. But people have found creative uses for it, including a functioning clock and a game where you throw cards at a hat. But I feel like a lot more could have been done with this.
It would be a disservice to write off Labo as just a toy for children; it is pretty cool, and the way the technology works is really interesting. Plus, having your cardboard contraption come to life is very satisfying. Every detail has been accounted for, and the software and hardware both go the extra mile to make these projects work. But with such limited games, I can’t imagine you’re ever going to spend that much time on any particular Toy-Con. Once you’ve built them all and put an hour or two into playing with them, that’s pretty much it, unless you want to make some programs with the still limited Toy-Con Garage. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend the Variety Kit, though. It has been a fun experience, and it’s cool to show off the Piano and House to friends. The building is a fun experience itself, which comes down to the clever instructions and the explanations in the Discovery section. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, though; there are more engaging and time-consuming games you can get for that price. But if you see it on sale, and you enjoy simple construction and fun, give one of the Labo kits a try. There’s enough charm to at least make it worth considering.
Lots of Discover, not enough Play
Make - 7/10
Play - 6/10
Discover - 8/10
+ Fun to build
+ Clever designs
+ Toy-Con work well
– Not a lot of gameplay