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Nintendo Labo Review: A Fun Engineering Workshop Wrapped In Cardboard

Nintendo wants to sell you cardboard and, against all odds, we’re on board with this proposition. The Nintendo Labo kit is as fun as it is absurd and it might even teach your kids a thing or two.

It’s easy to poke fun at what Nintendo Labo is. The gaming company wants to charge $70 (at least!) for a cardboard box that contains other pieces of cardboard so that you can build your own toys that probably won’t last three months unharmed in your house. It almost sounds like a scam, right?

In reality, those little cardboard toys are an incredible feat of engineering. Setting aside how intricate the cardboard constructions themselves are, the software behind them uses technology built into the Switch and its controllers on a level that no Switch game has come close to so far. This kit is made for builders, DIYers, and anyone who’s ever been curious how stuff works.

Building the Toy-Cons Is a Fun, if Tedious Project

The Variety Kit, which is the model I’m reviewing, comes with five projects: an RC “car,” a fishing rod, a house, a motorbike, and a piano. Each one of them—with the exception of the RC car—is deceptively complex. On the Make page of the Labo app, you can see an estimate of how much time it will take to put together each project. On the low end, Nintendo expects it will take about 90-150 minutes for the fishing rod or motorbike. On the high end? The piano is estimated to take 150-210 minutes. I’ll save you the math: that’s anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours.

This isn’t an exaggeration, either. I set aside most of a Saturday to put together the house and piano, estimated to take anywhere from four and a half to six and a half hours total. Savvy Switch owners might notice that this is longer than the three-to-six hour battery life (depending on the game) that Nintendo estimates you can get from the Switch. Indeed, I had to charge the console multiple times while building both projects, before finally giving up, laying the console flat, and plugging it into the wall. You can use the dock and control the instructions with your Joy-Cons, if you’d rather not deal with the battery, if you have a work space near your TV. To its credit, the game suggests you take breaks every once in a while, which would be a good time to stretch your legs and charge your console. The upside is, you’re getting a lot to do for your money.

We strongly recommend having a bowl handy to catch all the trash bits. There’s a lot and you might miss an important part.

While you’re building, the game shows you step-by-step 3D instructions. You can rotate the camera around the models to get a better look from any angle, and you can even fast forward or rewind at any point. If you miss a step or want to get a better look from another angle, you can just slide the video backwards. By grabbing and stretching the navigation buttons, you can speed the instructions up to hurry along.

The video instructions are simple enough to follow, but if you bought the Labo kit for kids, we’d recommend building the projects together and helping them. Many of the folds are very precise and adding things like reflective stickers can cause problems later on if they’re not put in the right place or haphazardly applied.

Discovering How the Toys Work Is a Delight

This little fuzzy dude is the cutest thing Nintendo has invented this year.

The first project I built was the house (because my partner was too excited to wait for me on the RC car and fishing pole projects). After a couple hours of construction, I was left with a house that the Switch console fit in, with the right Joy-Con sitting in the chimney. It had three square holes, two on either side, and one on the bottom. Finally, I had three accessory bits: one button, one knob, and one crank.

Setting aside how cool it is that Nintendo designed a button, knob, and crank out of cardboard—it’s better to experience how they work as you build them—I was curious what they did. The software drops you into the game without much explanation. All you see on the screen is a fluffy round creature with two legs and arms, and eyes inside what must also be its mouth. It’s cuter than it sounds. The creature sits in the house waiting for you to do something.

With no indication of how the game worked, I started fiddling with the parts I was given. The button was neat so I started there. I put the button in the side of the house. Suddenly, a switch appeared on the wall of the little creature’s house in the game! I pressed my cardboard button and the switch in the game flipped, and the scene changed from day to night. This was blowing my mind a little. I was just pressing on some cardboard, but the game recognized it as if I was pressing a button on the controller. Each new gizmo I put in the house added new bits like a water faucet or a gumball machine. Adding two of the gadgets opened new mini games. Discovering which ones did what was half the fun.

It’s insane that this piano works.

I was more interested in how the game was doing this. During the build process, I had to place several reflective stickers on different pieces. These work with the IR sensor in the right Joy-Con—which is the single most underrated piece of technology in the Switch—to detect when something moves and what it’s supposed to do.

The clearest demonstration of how these work comes with the piano. Just as the ads promised, you can build a working cardboard piano. Each key has a reflective sticker on the back. When it pops up, as in the pictures above, the IR camera on the controller detects the shape of the sticker, as well as where it is in positioned in the camera.

With this information, it can figure out which note the key you pressed corresponds to. This same process of detecting shapes and positions of stickers—combined with existing Nintendo tech like motion controls and the fancy new HD rumble feature—drives all of the gadgets in the variety kit.

It doesn’t hurt that all of the games included are a genuine delight. The fishing rod and motorbike come with what essentially amounts to the fishing and racing mini games in half the titles Nintendo puts out. The RC car is a fun way to scare your cat for a few minutes, but for me the house was the neatest. It was like a little Neopets game, with its own special mini-mini games that you can use to win food and color or pattern designs for your pet. The piano is impressive, but as someone who’s not very musically inclined, I couldn’t get the most out of it besides playing Mary Had a Little Lamb for a second. However, there’s a studio mode that has a lot more advances features like changing octaves, creating drum beats, and controlling the BPM that could give a budding musician a lot to play with.

The Already Powerful Built-In Games Are Just the Beginning

White blocks in the IR sensor feed correspond to reflective stickers inside the piano. When a certain block appears, the piano plays a note.

If the Labo kit only came with its five built-in Toy-Con games, it would still be deeply satisfying. Fortunately, there’s a lot more. In the Discover section of the game, you can go through detailed tutorials that teach you how each of the main gadgets work and exploring extra features of each one. The real meat, however, is the Toy-Con garage.

Before the Labo came out, all we wanted was the ability to make our own gadgets. And boy did Nintendo deliver. The Toy-Con Garage is a simple, yet powerful scripting program that lets you create your own gadgets. The program uses a simple block-based interface. Connect input blocks to output blocks and you can create a series of actions to do whatever you can think of.

In the inputs category, you can use events like a button being pressed, a controller (or the console) being shaken, or if a control stick is moved. You can also set up your own IR sensor commands. The IR sensor block shows a live view of where it detects things in front of the sensor. It’s not a detailed camera and it can’t show you what it’s seeing, but it can tell whether something is coming from, say, the left or right side of the sensor. On its own, this input can trigger an action if anything is detected by the IR sensor.

A Bullseye target over the IR marker input triggers a vibrate action when the sensor detects input over a specific spot.

There are “middle” operators you can use to make more complex actions. For example, the Bullseye operator can be overlaid on top of the IR sensor block. When something in the IR sensor area appears inside the Bullseye block, it can trigger an action. This is similar to how the piano figures out which key to play based on what area of the sensor a key’s sticker appears in. So, you could have one action occur if something is detected on the left side of the sensor, and a different action if something is detected by the right.

The outputs are the most limited part, but they’re still pretty useful. You can make your console emit piano notes, vibrate either Joy-Con controller, or emit IR light from the sensor. There are a few tutorials that walk you through things like controlling your own RC car, or making Mr. Falls-a-Lot who is this guy from the Labo intro video. He’s a cardboard cut out with a Joy-Con on his back. When you make the controller vibrate, he falls down. That should be a few more hours of entertainment for your kids.

If you’re a DIY hacker type who was hoping for a Nintendo Arduino-type platform that you can use to rewire your toaster oven, then your expectations are far removed from reality. However, the Toy-Con Garage is an incredibly intuitive and fun way to, at the very least, teach your kids the basics of programming concepts and let them experiment with building their own projects.

Nintendo is starting a trend of delivering on the lofty promises in its ads. The commercial for Nintendo Labo implies that you will have hours of fun playing with cardboard and at first glance it’s hard to believe that’s true. After spending a weekend with it, I can safely say it’s legit. Building the Toy-Cons is just as fulfilling as building Lego sets, except when you’re done building, you still have a world of fun games and workshops to play in for hours.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »