Few knew what to expect when Nintendo teased a new “experience” for Switch last month, but no one could have predicted that project would turn out to be Nintendo Labo, a DIY game/toy line coming to the hybrid console this spring. Nintendo certainly hasn’t been shy about packaging peripherals with titles in the past to offer a unique kind of gameplay experience, but Labo differs from any game the company has ever released by requiring players to construct their own accessories. The title is bundled together with sheets of cardboard that can be fashioned into various objects known as Toy-Cons, which are then used to interact with the Labo software.
The most surprising aspect of Nintendo Labo, however, is just how well it all works. It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer ingenuity behind the project without experiencing it firsthand, but assembling your own Toy-Cons–which are actually quite intricate constructions that can take upwards of several hours to put together–fills you with a sense of accomplishment, and then seeing that object you created work with the Switch in a variety of clever ways feels like magic. The fact that you can fold a piece of cardboard into the shape of a car and drive it across a table simply by attaching your Joy-Cons to it almost beggars belief, and the moment you discover that makeshift RC car also uses the Joy-Con’s IR camera to stream a night vision and infrared view of where it’s heading opens your eyes to the seemingly endless possibilities Labo affords.
At launch, Labo will be available in two “kits,” each containing a separate game card and assortment of cardboard sheets, string, rubber bands, and other materials with which to construct the corresponding Toy-Cons. Despite the complexity of the Toy-Cons, the actual process of assembling them is impressively intuitive. Rather than laying out the instructions in a booklet (as is the case with Lego sets and other construction toys), each step of the process is displayed on the Switch, and you’re able to zoom, rotate, and view previous steps simply by pinching, tapping, or sliding your finger on the console’s touch screen. The cardboard sheets are also clearly labeled and perforated, making even the most intricate Toy-Cons easy to put together, although you’ll need to punch the pieces out delicately to avoid tearing them, as the cardboard is fairly thin.
Once your Toy-Con has been assembled, you’re able to use it to play a corresponding mini-game on the Switch. Each of the cardboard peripherals houses the left and right Joy-Cons, which are what enable it to interact with the Labo software. The RC Car, for instance, features slots on each of its sides for the Joy-Cons, while the Switch itself acts as a remote for the car. By pressing buttons on the Switch screen, the car drives around using the Joy-Cons’ HD Rumble vibrations. Conversely, the keys on the Piano Toy-Con are affixed with IR tape, which the right Joy-Con’s IR camera reads to determine which note to play when that key is pressed. The House Toy-Con features a slot in its center for the Switch console; when the system is inserted into the peripheral, its screen displays the “interior” of the house and the fluffy creature living inside. You can interact with the creature indirectly by plugging different cardboard knobs into the sides or bottom of the Toy-Con; one acts like a switch, allowing you to turn the lights in the house on and off, while another makes a faucet appear, filling the house with water when twisted.
While the Toy-Cons are ostensibly a way to demonstrate Labo’s mini-games, they turn out to be more satisfying to build than to actually play with due to the games’ simplicity. Each mini-game works as intended and shows off a unique use for the Switch hardware, though they appear to lack the depth needed to be anything more than an amusing diversion. Of the five activities featured in the Labo Variety Kit, Motorbike and Fishing Rod are the most enjoyable. The former’s Toy-Con resembles a set of handlebars. You accelerate by twisting the right handlebar and turn the Toy-Con left and right to steer your character around a racetrack on the Switch screen, competing against a handful of AI opponents to place in first. It’s a surprisingly responsive setup that feels fun to use. Likewise, rotating the reel on the Fishing Rod Toy-Con feels good and elevates Labo’s simple fishing game into one of the best activities in the package.
Far and away the most complex peripheral is Robot, which Nintendo is releasing as its own Labo kit. This Toy-Con comes in the form a backpack that houses an intricate pulley system; when worn, it allows you to control a robot on the television, your punches and stomps translating to the same motions on the screen. The sheer range of actions the Robot Toy-Con is capable of reading is truly amazing; crouch down and your on-screen robot will transform into a vehicle, while spreading your arms out allows it to fly through the air. The Toy-Con also comes with an accompanying cardboard visor; when lowered over your eyes, the on-screen display instantly shifts to a first-person perspective. As impressive as this is, however, the corresponding Robot mini-game was perhaps the least enjoyable of the entire lineup. Maneuvering your robot about the city felt cumbersome, and your objective simply amounted to breaking as many objects as you could within the time limit.
It remains to be seen whether or not Labo will be able to sustain its appeal once its initial novelty has worn off. The mini-games we got to try were fairly rudimentary despite the unique ways in which they used the Switch hardware, but I still came away from my time with Labo enamored by the entire concept behind it. Labo’s mini-games are secondary to the actual act of assembling its peripherals, and the appeal of the title stems not from the software itself, but from witnessing the surprising things your humble cardboard creations can do. Labo may be a technological sleight of hand, but the first time you see it in action will make you believe it’s capable of anything.
Nintendo Labo launches in the US and Australia on April 20, with a European release following on April 27. The Variety Kit retails for $70, while the Robot Kit costs $80. For a closer look at what each package contains, be sure to check out our gallery of all the Nintendo Labo Toy-Cons. You can also watch us build our own Toy-Cons and try out each mini-game in our Labo gameplay montage. If you still have questions about the new DIY title, we’ve put together a video explaining exactly what Nintendo Labo is.