Children see magic because they look for it.
To think that the evolution of video game technology has led up to this: Nintendo has released a cardboard boxed set of cardboard sets.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the chorus of complaints. It always amuses me that people have the unique capacity to tear into something they have no interest in buying anyway. I’ve heard “Nintendo has lost their minds”, “Labo is too kiddie”, “Everyone thinking about buying Labo needs to turn in their man card”, “If you get Labo, you’re not a real gamer!” and so on. I’m sorry but just because I’m not like you doesn’t mean you have the right to elitist me into a sub-category.
To be able to welcome my son into the wondrous world of gaming, which is frankly unlike anything else, is a joy and a privilege no naysayer will take away from me by telling me my man card has been revoked.
Need I remind you of the tagline under our header above, furnished by the late, great C.S. Lewis? Some day you’ll be old enough to not be shy about “reading fairy tales”, the metaphor. He also wrote:
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Besides, despite all the negative talk at its launch, Nintendo Labo delivers on its core promise that it is a product for children for fun. A couple of things need to happen here to meet this unique consideration.
Firstly, I have to stress that this is both a game review and a hardware review. Labo is both since it involves the software that plays on the Switch itself, which includes tutorials, behind-the-scenes discovery info, and the interactive portions of the experience, and it also involves the hardware, the sheets of cardboard themselves from which you produce your final cardboard craft called Toy-Con.
The Toy-Con are interactive devices and the Variety Kit which I’m specifically reviewing here is able to make sets involving RC Cars, a Fishing Pole, a Motorbike, a House, and a Piano. There’s also a Toy-Con Garage for taking your tinkering to and customizing some awesomeness. All of them have incredible, interactive functionalities, though I must note that I learned to pronounce Labo as “Lay-boh” for “labor” and not what it’s officially known as: “La-boh” for “laboratory”. I opened up the box and it dawned on me that this was going to involve a lot of work.
I do have to make mention here of the craftsmanship, though. This is something that you can’t really grasp until you’ve put together some of the more complex Toy-Con yourself. It also flies in the face of the maligning of Labo as “cheap cardboard”. You wouldn’t call LEGO “cheap plastic” given its influence and potential, would you?
“It’s a highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.”
Labo constructions are impressive in the perfection of their design, how everything so neatly fits together, how the image takes form as you near completion, how no glue or nails or any metal parts are considered in their structures. I never thought I’d live to see cardboard button technology. To my mind, it’s a toy that could not have been made in the West.
The West is too concerned with the immediate appeal, flashy lights, high-definition, the spectacle. Survey Japanese art history and you’ll notice that a heritage of subtle beauty, muted colors, faded styles. The Japanese art of floral displays, ukiyo-e, even the familiar origami and haiku all speak to a philosophy that appreciates the phrase “less is more”, minimalism. Maybe anime is so popular in the West because it’s so distinctly the opposite of “less is more”!
So take care, because I am not a Japanophile that automatically says everything is better on account of it being produced in Japan. That’s kind of ridiculous. Rather, I’m making an observation based on nature, not quality, and each subject must be judged on its own merits.
Then there’s Japanese carpentry, certain old-fashioned forms of which utilize interlocking wooden edges and corners to built without the use of nails. Some of the longest-surviving wooden structures in the world can be found in Japan because of the craftsmanship and dedication to design in ancient Japanese carpentry. Nintendo Labo adopts that design philosophy on a smaller scale, something which I surmise must have cultural significance if you’re willing to appreciate its subtlety. Labo is a toy that best exemplifies the artistry of architecture.
Or maybe it’s just cardboard origami? Either way, check out this solid joinery!
Secondly, I need to call for backup. Contrary to what my friends tell me, I’m not a child and haven’t been for a few decades now (if we’re taking pure chronology as any indication [and yes I accept my ability to correctly spell “chronology” as proof of my adultish status]). That means I need to consider Labo through the eyes of a child. Luckily, I have some, still attached to the child, of course.
My son Kal and I put our first review together for It’s Spring Again! and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to try something even bigger this time. Introducing: Kidsplaining, a new TWRM feature in which a kid explains the video games. Enjoy some hands-on playtime in this video and get an idea of what Kal thinks of Nintendo Labo!
The 8-bit Review
The most important thing the visuals needed to accomplish was communicating the instructions clearly to the player. At first, I was a little irritated that Nintendo didn’t supply a paper manual or blueprints with the game, and I realized I’d be forced to tap the screen or reach of a Joy-Con button in order to advance the tutorial, but the handiness of what can be executed digitally is impressive and at times essential. The in-game tutorials under “Make” allow you to rotate images of the Toy-Con as you’re building its pieces, zoom in, zoom out, flip, and so on. There is also the typical Nintendo charm even to something as simple as telling you how to crease folds in the cardboard.
The graphics for the games themselves aren’t groundbreaking, of course, but then they’re not the main draw here, anyway. They are pretty enough and simplified for navigation and enjoyment for children. The graphics for Labo especially needed to serve the functions of the game(s), which they do just fine.
Labo House creature for Smash!
Occasionally it seems like Nintendo really needs to get with the times but, c’mon, this soundtrack is basically a Bruno Mars album. There’s so much stank here and it’s delicious. That’s great because you’re going to be sitting through a lot of this music; Labo gives you estimates on completion time for each Toy-Con project and some of them require several hours for construction.
I especially became fond of the track that plays when you complete a Toy-Con. It’s the kind of triumph you’re looking for after sitting and creasing cardboard for 230 minutes!
The Labo software includes “Make”, “Play”, and “Discover” modes. The first includes the tutorials for each Toy-Con. The second mode lets you enter the game world and interact with what you’ve built. The third mode introduces you to digital scientists who teach you about how Labo works, how the camera on the Joy-Con reads the cardboard mechanisms. Fascinating stuff.
It’s impossible not to think of minor improvements that might have been made, especially when my play-tester was 4 years younger than the age printed on the box. Having a two-year-old kid boy-handle the Toy-Con meant I constantly had to tell him to take it easy and be gentle. Two-year-olds can register 0 or 2000 psi with their fingertips. Nothing in between.
I’m including this to inform any parents with younger kids and to highlight the nagging suspicion that yes, these Toy-Con are fragile. Some more than others. The Piano’s keys could have used an extra cardboard piece to better secure them and the Fishing Pole’s spool hidden inside the “ocean” piece had a tendency to knot up and tangle the fishing line. The RC Car has legs that bend quite easily but on the other hand, the Motorbike and the House Toy-Con are super sturdy. The House was Kal’s favorite and the cardboard button, latch, and reel endured some two-year-old abuse unscathed!
Playing the games themselves, you come to realize that they’re far from superficial. They each have a kind of depth that rewards curious young minds. Awesome! Exploration and experimentation were big elements in Nintendo’s masterpiece of 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and they carried over those virtues here. Experimenting with buttons, combinations, techniques, and controls yields a surprising array of different results. It took us a while just to find every room in the House and there’s still so much more to discover.
Labo offers many, many hours of gameplay. Whether you’re constructing it, playing with it, or delving deep into its cardboardey mechanics, this is much more than just a bunch of boxes. You can draw a race course on the Switch by driving a tiny motorcycle through thin air, for cryin’ out loud!
The cardboard Piano Toy-Con includes a recording studio because of course it does!
Accessibility is Nintendo’s forte and Labo is no exception. Everything is geared toward being easily understood and navigated. The software itself is patient with you. I didn’t feel at all rushed or confused with its tutorials. Some of the most complex Toy-Con can seem baffling at first and the in-game studio pictured above is at first overwhelming, but that too is likely by design to, again, encourage exploration and experimentation. The way in which one engages in those two activities is through highly accessible means and Labo comes off almost as an educational game because of how it has the self-restraint to teach and welcome its players.
The biggest challenge was the time it took to put some of these Toy-Con together. The Piano especially was an incredibly complex device to assemble. I had no idea it would be so intense. That said, endurance is what’s needed here and there’s nothing abstruse to bewilder or frustrate. The youngest gamers may find more difficulty in the assembly so some adult guidance may be required.
Kal asks for Labo pretty much every day and he has his go-to devices. I haven’t had much time with the Toy-Con without him but together we still haven’t scoured every nook and cranny. With each of the main Toy-Con constructed, there’s the Garage to delve into yet and more cardboard pieces still left in the box. Decorations, colors, stickers, add-ons, modifications, customizations, and lots more discovery can still be had!
Can’t say I’ve played a video game quite like Nintendo Labo. I think that the uniqueness here is something you can trace right back to the reception Labo received when it was first announced. I vividly recall that Nintendo had an announcement coming later in the day and of course everyone suspected that they were going to reveal what we all think of as a typical video game. Instead, we were taken by surprise.
In those opening seconds of the trailer, I thought that Nintendo had flipped their lid and was turning the Switch into a 3D printer! Nobody could’ve predicted what Labo ended up being. Nobody thought “Oh yeah, of course it’s cardboard construction sets”. How did Nintendo keep this under wraps the whole time this thing was in development? Given the craftsmanship and precision in the design of the Toy-Con, this had to have taken quite a while to develop.
My Kal’s Personal Grade: 9/10
I can only guess at Kal’s final personal score for Nintendo Labo, because as I’ve mentioned before his favorite number is 2 (which is also his age) so that’s what he says for everything. However, a few tip-offs include the fact that any time he sees cardboard now he wants to play some Labo. Also, he is obsessed with Bop, the name he gave to the creature in the Toy-Con House.
As for me, I think this was a great product. I tried to look at it through the wonder of a child’s eyes. “Cheap cardboard” is the overly dismissive adult talking.
When a lot of modern games websites seem to cater only to a specific niche or limited demographic, and when a lot of gaming is dominated by the dark and gritty, where “hardcore gamer” is often equivocal to the ultra-violence and depressing dystopias of AAA titles, there still needs to be a safe and age-appropriate window for the very youngest to be welcomed into the world of gaming. That window got a little wider thanks to Nintendo Labo.
Aggregated Score: 8.8
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