The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit is a cardboard box filled with several pieces of cardboard. It’s very easy to dismiss the whole thing as some weird children’s toy that Nintendo slapped out, rather then the next big thing for the Switch, but that’s not giving it enough credit. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find an incredibly satisfying building experience that creates some genuinely amazing toys.
I guess I should preface this by saying that I really like building toys. I would happily lose a day putting together a complicated Lego set or plastic Gundam model. Going into Nintendo Labo, I was not expecting to get any of the same feelings that I get when building those toys. I mean, this is just cardboard, right? And it’s cardboard that requires you to own a video game console. It seems like kind of a tough sell.
Right away, one of the advantages to having the software on the Switch made itself apparent. While teaching you how to build, the game will actually animate how the pieces should fit together. Not only that, but you can zoom in and out and change the camera angle to see exactly what you need. You can even rewind if you missed something. Not once while putting together the various toys that came with this set did I get lost.
The basic concept of building Labo is pretty self explanatory. The different toys all have sheets of cardboard with parts that can be punched out, and they’re all marked so you know which sheet goes to which toy. Simply follow the directions on your Switch, which mostly involves folding the cardboard along pre-made lines and locking tabs into holes. Every once in a while, it’ll ask you to add stickers or rubber bands. Nothing is too difficult that a child couldn’t get it, but some of these are surprisingly involved.
The Variety Kit comes with the means to build five different toys. All of them are unique and utilize the Nintendo Switch in different ways. When Labo was first revealed, I wasn’t sure how many different uses you could possibly have for it. But here we are, five very different experiences in one box.
The first toy (which are referred to as “Toy-Con” by the way) that you’ll build is a RC car. This one is by far the most simple, using one one sheet of cardboard. The concept is pretty simple. You create a box-like body that stands on a few legs and attach two Joy-Con controllers to it’s sides. The Switch’s touch screen becomes a remote control which can vibrate the Joy-Con, making it move forward. It’s simple, but works surprisingly well.
What took me by surprise, however, was the additional options you had for the car. The IR camera on a right Joy-Con is facing forward, and it can detect reflective stickers, called “marker stickers”. Included in the same cardboard sheet is a few little signs you can set up and attach stickers too. Then, if you push a button on the touch screen, you can turn the car into a self-driving mode, where the Joy-Con detects the sticker and automatically moves the RC car towards it. This worked flawlessly for me and left me very impressed.
Next up, is a Toy-Con fishing rod. This one’s a little more complicated. The finished rod can extend and retract, and it had a string attaching it to a cardboard piece that holds your Switch. The rod itself has a reel that you can turn and it makes a cool clacking noise.
On the Switch, there’s an ocean that displays that’s full of fish. Simply rotate the reel to lower the line down and try to get a bite. Once you’ve got one, reel it in. From a gameplay standpoint, it’s a pretty basic fishing game. But, the fact that you made the controller yourself and that it works so much better than you’d think something made of cardboard would is really something.
The Toy-Con house is probably the weirdest one, but it’s cool in its own way. Basically, it’s a house, and in the chimney, you insert a right Joy-Con with the IR camera facing downwards. On the front of the house rests your Switch, and it displays the inside and this weird little creature that lives there. There’s different accessories that you build and attach reflective stickers in different patterns to. When you plug those pieces of cardboard into three different sockets in the side of the house, different effects happen.
One of them is a nob that makes a faucet materialize. When you turn the nob, the house fills us with water and the creature will go swimming. Another is a button, that becomes a light switch. If you plug both in at the same time, you get a weird mini-game where the creature is on a mine cart and you use the nob to propel it forward and the button to jump over obstacles. This one is super silly, but it’s fun to see all the different things you can make it do.
The next one, the Toy-Con motorbike, is the closest thing to an actual video game included in the set. You’re actually only building the handlebars, which house the Joy-Con in each side and the Switch itself in the middle. You then compete in races, turning the handlebars in the way that seems natural. It’s not going to make you forget about Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but it’s a perfectly functional racing game.
They could have easily left it there, but there’s also a course editor. You build a small bike out of some cardboard and put a Joy-Con in it. Then, by moving the bike around in the air, the game plots out your course and creates it. There’s also a terrain making function, that uses the right Joy-Con in a like gun-like piece of cardboard. For this, you scan an object (I used my Lucina Amiibo) and it creates ground texture based on what it sees. Technically, the cardboard pieces in both of these don’t really do anything, but it’s neat anyway.
Finally, what might actually be the most impressive piece in the set, is the Toy-Con piano. This thing is crazy. You have to build the piano’s body, eight white keys, five black keys, and several knobs. All of these things have stickers in many different configurations. Similar to the house, the IR camera sees the stickers and turns that into different sounds.
Instead of just simply being a piano, there’s also tons of crazy options. The knobs fit into a hole at the top of the piano, and inserting them creates totally different sounds, like making all the notes sound like cats instead of a piano. There’s also a slot that you can fit flat pieces of cardboard or paper that have a pattern cut into them to create different wavelengths, completely altering the sound.
What’s even more nuts is the studio mode. Here, all the knobs serve different functions, like raising volumes or adding reverb. You can even record songs and play them back. The amount of different things you can do seems absolutely ridiculous for a kid’s toy, but that’s the best part about it. This is something that adults can mess around with, and a quick look on YouTube will show that many already have. It also enables kids to try stuff out and see what they can come up with.
Speaking of trying things out, also included in the software is a feature called the Garage. Here, you can make simple programs. The one I made to test this out was super simple. I used a cardboard person, which is included, and stuck the left Joy-Con to his back. I attached a marker sticker to the guy’s head. Then, in the Garage, I created to inputs, which are represented by boxes. One, was the IR sensor picking up a marker sticker, and the other was a button being pressed on the right Joy-Con. I connected both those boxes to a middle box, that was simply marked “and”, and finally a box at the end that would vibrate the left Joy-Con when those two conditions were met. So, now I simply put the right Joy-Con into the gun-like shell from the motorbike game, point it at the guy, and push a button. The left Joy-Con vibrates and the guy falls over. This was one really simple program you can do, but there’s an almost limitless amount of things you could do with this tech.
If you want to get the most out of your Toy-Con, there’s also a discover section that has a few characters explain what you can do with your stuff and how they work. There’s even a surprisingly in-depth explanation on the tech inside a Joy-Con. The writing in these explanations are really great, and the characters you meet actually have histories that you learn as you learn about the toys themselves. This is totally unnecessary, but I love that they went the extra mile.
So, if you can’t already tell, the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit gets my full recommendation. I cannot believe how cool this stuff is, or that I, a 32 year old man, happily spent the last few nights playing with cardboard. If you like building toys or have kids that do, Labo is a no-brainer.