Default author image

Nintendo Labo and the joy of physical controls
Nintendo Labo – celebrating the physical side of video games

GameCentral offers its views on Nintendo’s latest unexpected announcement, and how it’s even better for kids than it first seems.

Touchscreens are one of the worst things to have ever happened to video games. With the Nintendo DS they were a tolerable gimmick with a few novel uses, but as soon as smartphones and tablets made them the default computer interface for most of the world traditional video games have been put on the defensive. The dangers of free-to-play gaming and loot boxes are well documented, but the lack of physical controls has always been the most intractable problem with mobile gaming.

Selling your game for free and filling it with microtransactions is a choice that a developer makes, but the lack of any buttons, joysticks, or analogue controllers is not. Which is why action games on mobiles are so simplistic and anaemic. There’s no physical feedback to your actions, which not only makes them harder to control but the whole human-machine interface is reduced to featherlight touches that are usually entirely at odds with the over-the-top action happening in-game.

Video games are a physical activity and often the difference between a good one and a bad one is that intangible ‘feel’ of controlling them. The sense that your movement of an analogue stick, or press of a button, is in perfect synchrony with your on-screen character.

And that’s why Nintendo Labo seems like such a great idea.

Even though Nintendo clearly implied that last night’s announcement would be aimed primarily at kids the Internet still managed to get outraged over the fact anyway. Nintendo’s reputation for unpredictability ensured a surprise, and yet the logic of Nintendo Labo does seem obvious in retrospect. Whatever big name games Nintendo has planned for later this year they haven’t yet confirmed, but one is likely to be Metroid Prime 4 – one of their least casual-friendly franchises.

So, logically, if they are going to keep the general public interested in the Switch this year, they have to present something from the opposite end of the spectrum. Something that appeals directly to casual and non-gamers and yet is unique enough that it could only exist on the Switch. Or rather, could only have been conceived by Nintendo.

Although that’s not quite fair. Microsoft’s attempts to innovate in terms of hardware and peripherals begins and ends with Kinect, but Sony has a track record that includes the likes of the PlayStation 2 camera EyeToy, the quiz game Buzz! controllers, and the ambitious AR Wonderbook system. Sony’s more recent hardware experiments with PlayStation Move and VR have been more prosaic, but their earlier innovations clearly came from a similar style of blue sky thinking as Nintendo.

Robo Kit seems to be the most complicated Toy-Con
Robot Kit seems to be the most complicated Toy-Con

As much as some hardcore gamers may roll their eyes, and wish both companies spent their time making ‘proper’ games, these sort of experiments are necessary and useful. With Nintendo it’s clear they spend much of their time nowadays trying to work out how to combat the rise of smartphones, and in particular the hold they now have over new generations of children. With their own mobile games they’ve embraced the logic that if you can’t beat ‘em you should join ‘em, and that’s proven successful enough. But something like Nintendo Labo seems a much more proactive response.

The idea is an inspired mix of Nintendo’s old business making folded paper toys (described in detail here) and the modern concept, currently very popular in America, of educational construction toys made out of similar looking materials to Labo. While at the same time, the use of the Switch within the models recalls both the excesses of the Wii and the heyday of the Dreamcast, when Sega would make a new plastic peripheral for seemingly every game.

As more details filter out about the individual models it’s becoming clear just how complicated these Toy-Cons are. The piano one apparently takes two hours to construct, and involves strips of cardboard with specially-coated film that the IR camera on the Switch’s right Joy-Con can detect, in order to tell which key you’re playing.

The remote-control model uses the HD rumble on the controller to move, while allowing you to control it with the Switch touchscreen (proving that they do come in useful sometimes). So you’re essentially controlling a controller with a console. Which is so meta the mere concept is entertaining to think about, let alone actually play with.

Control the controllers with you console
Control the controllers with you console

But not only are Nintendo seeking to engage young minds in new and interesting ways they are, as a business, trying to show them that video games are better when they have a real physical presence. Just watching the trailer, you can almost sense the tactile fun of turning the carboard buttons, adjusting the pretending zoom on the camera, or stomping around as a backpack-wearing robot.

One of the great problems VR has, in being accepted by a wide audience, is that the headsets shut you off from the real world, but Nintendo Labo is the opposite and forces you to interact with it. That’s likely to have been another conscious consideration in its design, and a typical Nintendo answer to a market trend that they can’t currently hope to compete with directly.

There are still a lot of questions to answer about Nintendo Labo, about the quality and longevity of both the games and the cardboard, but the idea itself is excellent. It celebrates an element of video gaming that has become increasingly underappreciated over the years, and proves that thinking outside the (cardboard) box is always more interesting than just another sequel.

Nintendo Labo and the joy of physical controls
A motorbike game with an actual handlebar

Email [email protected], leave a comment below, and follow us on Twitter

Original Article

[contf] [contfnew]

[contfnewc] [contfnewc]