The car is just one project you can make using Labo, which hit store shelves Friday. It is a pretty out-there product from Nintendo. But Labo, while quirky, taps into a couple of trends right now. For one, it combines digital play with physical toys — adding something more to screen time. And it also gives kids a chance to improve their STEM skills thanks to coding tutorials in the game and a strong focus on the mechanical side of creation.
Starting at $69.99, the variety kit includes five projects that each work with a custom Switch game that's relevant to what you build — the car, a fishing rod, a motorbike, a house and a piano. The separate $79.99 robot kit lets you build your own gaming rig from cardboard, and control an on-screen robot as if you were a (budget) player in “Ready Player One.”
Without some hands-on experience, it maybe a difficult thing to justify spending $70 on a box of cardboard. I tried it out with a review kit from Nintendo to see if it was worth the cash. Here are six key takeaways after spending time with a Labo.
It taps into something primal: If you have (or were) a kid who loved puzzles, Legos and blocks, sitting down with Labo taps into that builder's instinct right away. That's welcome for parents and kids who may be tired of staring at screens and long for something tangible to play with. It's also great for building in a group, particularly if you can give everyone his or her own piece of the kit to work with. The kits are sturdy and well-designed — turning the reel on the fishing rod gives you a satisfying click, for example — to make you feel like you've really made something worthwhile.
It could be frustrating for very small kids: Labo's officially rated as an “Everyone” game, meaning that it's appropriate for all ages. And while there's nothing in the content that belies that rating, Labo's best done as a group activity if you have young kids without patience or fine motor control. At a Labo event I attended in San Francisco, some of the smaller kids were frustrated by not fully grasping how everything fit together.
It teaches more than just how to build what's in front of you: The cardboard kits are only a portion of Labo's appeal. The real fun gets started when you put your creation together with the Switch and you get them moving around. If you're feeling even more creative once you've mastered some of the basics, you can get into the guts of how the Switch works. Kids can learn about the infrared camera in the controllers that let you steer your creations. They can mess around with the non-electronic mechanics of their creations, to understand why the move the way they do. Or they can do a little programming, to make cardboard doodads they create work with the Switch's detachable controllers.
It can be boring: This is mostly fun. But if you're not into building, Labo can get tedious at times — especially for the more complicated kits. The more complex something is, the more pieces it has and the more fiddly it can become. You do get payoff for the time you spend, but if the thought of many tiny pieces to punch out sends you batty, this isn't for you.
If you break a part, you can make your own replacement: Cardboard is not known for its durability, so parents would be justified in seeing this as a potential money grab. But while Nintendo does sell replacement Labo kits, it also gives you the means to make your own replacements. You can use the punch-outs as templates to reproduce their kits, or — of course — you can make your own stuff.
It's so totally Nintendo: At the end of the day, Nintendo is a company that knows who its people are. And this? This is aiming right at those people. From a business standpoint, this might be a good way to Nintendo to tap into the builder culture and win kids' hearts in classrooms and coding clubs. But, at its heart, it's just exactly the kind of oddball thinking that brought us the Wii — and, to be fair, the Virtual Boy. Nintendo's swinging for the fences with this idea or — forgive me — at least thinking outside the box.