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Nintendo Labo hands-on preview – the best toy Nintendo’s ever made
Nintendo Labo – do it yourself gaming

GameCentral gets to play around with Nintendo’s latest, and strangest, creation: a cardboard-based construction toy for the Switch.

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The first thing you ever learn about Nintendo is that you’d have more chance predicting the lottery than guessing what they’re going to do next. Which is frustrating, because after 2017 became such an amazing year for them the question of what comes next has never been asked with quite the same level of anticipation. And never has the answer been so unexpected…

Nintendo Labo was first announced last month, and while it does contain some classic video game elements it’s primarily a construction toy aimed at tweens. Think Meccano but with ordinary cardboard instead of metal and you’ve got the basics of it, except the Nintendo Switch and its Joy-Cons can be used to turn the various contraptions into full-functioning high-tech toys.

Two separate Labo packs have been announced so far: the Variety Kit, which contains five different objects to build, and the Robot Kit which has one big giant one. They’re both out on April 27 and cost £59.99 and £69.99, respectively. That seems a lot, for what is just some sheets of cardboard and a few bits of string and elastic bands, but having now played around with them ourselves we’re already convinced Nintendo has another major hit on their hands.

Last week we attended a special event at the Science Museum in London, where parents and their kids, and a few assorted journos, were able to come along and play with each of the kits. But rather than the cacophony of shouting and running around we expected, we don’t think we’ve ever seen a room full of kids so quiet and so obviously enthralled with what they were doing – even as some of their parents looked on slightly bewildered.

The first thing everyone was given a go on was the RC Car from the Variety Kit. This involves just a single sheet of cardboard, where you have to press out the various pieces to make a vaguely insectile looking contraption (each of the creations is officially referred to as a ‘Toy-Con’). We were told this would take about 20 minutes, but really it was much less than that, as you follow the instructions on the Switch screen about which part to bend where and which tab to insert into which slot.

The clever bit though, apart from the fact that none of it requires glues, comes when you have to insert the Joy-Cons on either side of the ‘car’ and then use the software on the Switch touchscreen to control it. This works using what are essentially tank controls, as you turn each Joy-Con on and off to turn the car or make it move forward, with the HD rumble effect vibrating down to the ‘legs’ and translating into forward motion. It’s a magical moment when you first see it happen, and we’re sure our grin was as big as any other kid when we got it moving.

There was a prize for the best RC Car... we didn't win
There was a prize for the best RC Car… we didn’t win

Constructing a Toy-Con is far from the end of the process, as not only do all of them have multiple different functions but you’re also encouraged to customise them. There are extra, undocumented pieces for this in the kit – an elephant’s head and an excavator shovel for the RC car – as well as an official Customisation Set from Nintendo that has various stickers and stencils for £8.99.

We were at the event for three hours and we noticed many a child spent almost the entire time just customising the RC Car, and you can see the impressive results (some of which were no doubt aided by an adult) dotted around this page. Having no confidence in our own artistic skills though we starting experimenting with the models themselves.

You may well not have noticed, because it’s barely been used by anything other than 1-2-Switch, but the right Joy-Con has an infrared depth sensor on it and this proves vital to almost all the Labo models. On the RC Car it can be used to sense bright surfaces (some special stickers are provided with the kit) and move towards them automatically.

You can see it targeting the stickers, like some kind of pacifist RoboCop, on the Switch screen but you can also switch to manual and steer the car around in the dark via an infared or thermal view. This was demonstrated by a little set-up where you could put the car under a box and navigate through a maze of obstacles using the infrared view. And that’s all just from the simplest of the Toy-Cons.

Probably the most complicated of the Variety Kit Toy-Cons is the Piano, which apparently takes around two hours to construct. It has 13 keys that work exactly as you’d expect, with the right Joy-Con detecting which one is being pressed. But you can also insert one of four sound modifiers (a cardboard knob with a QR code-like strip around it) to change the sound (we found the cat chorus particularly amusing) or use a whammy bar-like device to add vibrato. It’s a hugely impressive achievement and comes with its own music games and a multi-track recorder.

Some of the Toy-Cons are more obviously video-game inspired, and if it was made out of plastic Motor Bike could easily pass as a home version of some long-lost sit-down arcade game. It’s basically the handlebars of a bike where you have to balance the frame on your belly and then steer with the handles as normal, including a carboard throttle and ignition button. The game itself is single-player only though and while the track designs are relatively complex it doesn’t seem like anything that’s going to hold your interest for long.

We’re not sure of the longevity of the Fishing Rod either, although the fact that we kept wanting to go back to it was a good sign. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the cleverest Toy-Cons, with the wire from the rod disappearing into a cardboard holder for the Switch that makes it look like it’s directly connected to the line on the screen. The act of fishing is exactly as you’d expect, but there’s a slightly macabre element where the only way to catch some of the bigger fish is to snag a smaller one and the drag it down further to act as bait for a larger cousin.

The final Toy-Con is called House and is a Tamagotchi style virtual pet. As far as we could gather it’s not in danger of dying if you don’t feed it, but instead the emphasis is on playing with it by inserting up to three different devices into the side of the house: a crank, a button, and a switch. Turning these around is a wonderfully tactical experience, as you play little mini-games like a coconut shy and a minecart race. It does all seem pretty simplistic though, and while things like shaking the house when it’s full of water, and seeing it flow realistically because of the motion sensors, is clever there doesn’t seem to be much else to it.

The Robot backpack isn't very heavy, but it does make you feel like a ghostbuster
The Robot backpack isn’t very heavy, but it does make you feel like a ghostbuster

All of the above is included in the Variety Kit, but the Robot Kit is its own separate purchase and comes with all the material needed to create your very own cardboard robot. Apparently it takes a good five hours to build, with the end result being a large backpack with four separate pulleys that attach to your feet and hands. The Joy-Con monitors how they move and this is then translated into the onscreen actions of a giant robot.

For this one we weren’t allowed to try all the modes, which we noticed included a Vs. option, but the main one was basically a timed challenge to destroy as much of a city as possible. Swinging your fists around works exactly as you’d think, while walking takes a bit of getting used to as you have to purposefully stomp forward each time and not just mince about on the spot. Within a few minutes it feels like second nature though, and there’s even special moves like a power jump and the ability to fly if you put your arms out.

There’s also a visor on your head that when you flip it down switches you to first person view. But our favourite bit, as Transformers fans, is that if you bend down you transform into a sort of car that shoots lasers (sitting on your knees is the best way to make this practical for long periods). It’s frankly the most fun we’ve ever had with motion controls, and not least because they seemed to work perfectly every time.

The Robot Kit also comes with a number of challenge modes that emphasise practising each of the skills, but how much longevity there really is to the software we couldn’t say at this point. One of the other options we weren’t able to use was labelled Calories, so there’s obvious a fitness element there at least.

We can only imagine what creations YouTube is going to be filled with once Labo is officially released, especially as it fully encourages you to create new devices and replace worn out pieces of carboard with your own. The software that comes with each kit has a section named Discover where it shows exactly how each Toy-Con works, both mechanically and in terms of the infrared sensor, and suggests way you can customise it yourself.

Some of the Toy-Cons also interact with each other, so there’s a trick with the piano where you can cut out a shape and then have the Joy-Con inside scan it and turn it into a fish – whose colour and eye position you can set manually. This can then go on to be used back in the Fishing Rod game.

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The most complex extra though seems to be the Toy-Con Garage, which uses a simple visual programming language to determine what happens when a Joy-Con button is pressed or when the IR sensor detects something in front of it. In the demo we were shown this was used to create a gun (using extra materials from the Motor Bike Toy-Con) that can ‘shoot’ a cardboard man attached to the other Joy-Con.

Nintendo Labo is aimed at kids from seven years and up, and from what we saw they were absolutely fascinated by the concept. And we don’t mind admitting that we were too. Not only is Labo likely to be used for far more elaborate creations in the future but it’s clear that even if you just follow the instructions there’s plenty of scope for learning and creativity. It may not be the next Mario or Zelda, but Labo certainly seems likely to be Nintendo’s next big hit.

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