Carboard may be an unconventional choice of material for a games controller, but somehow, Nintendo makes it work. If you've been struggling to navigate the stormy Labo seas, we've put together a handy guide to everything parents, families, and anyone else needs to know about Nintendo Labo. If there's anything we've missed, be sure to drop us a comment at the bottom, and we'll add it to our guide!
What is Nintendo Labo?
Nintendo Labo is nothing if not unique, and something that's incredibly hard to describe in only a few words. A "game" that only Nintendo could really make, Labo is a effectively a series of rather complex, and incredibly technologically advanced motion controllers, each of which are exclusively made out of cardboard - and each of which works a lot better than things like Kinect ever did.
Known in-game as "Toy-Cons" - a play on words of the Switch's Joy-Con controllers, whether you're crafting a fully functioning piano out of a few dead trees, or building a giant robot suit that uses nothing more than a handful of pulleys to accurately map your movements to a giant mech in game, each Labo toy is as impressive, creative, and jaw-dropping as the last - and kids and adults alike will be left in a state of bemusement, wondering how it all works.
Although perhaps they won't be wondering for too long. A set of toys aimed at the inquisitive, the creative, and the scientifically minded, Nintendo are fully aware of how mind boggling the Toy-Cons can be - and so they've even included a mode that'll let you peek under the bonnet, and takes you "behind the scenes" of the tech, as it were, to see how everything works for yourself. But more on that later!
What packs are available, and what do you get in each?
At the time of writing, Nintendo Labo comes in three different flavours - the Variety Kit, Robot Kit, and the new one, the Vehicle Kit. All three kits are fully independent of each other, so there's no need to buy the one in order to be able to play the next - and no matter which pack you choose, you'll have everything you need to get going. Each pack includes all the cardboard you'll need to make its Toy-Cons, a bag of string/elastic bands/eyelets, and a game cartridge, which contains both the interactive video instructions you'll need to make the Toy-Cons, and the games you'll be able to play with them. Let's take a look at what's in each.
Nintendo Labo: Variety Kit
First up is the Labo Variety Kit, a bundle that brings together five very different Labo Toy-Cons for a rather reasonable £55. The games included are as follows:
One of the easiest Toy-Cons to construct (it's literally made out of a single piece of cardboard), the Toy-Con RC car is also one of the best. By slotting a Switch Joy-Con into either side, you can create a "bug" that somehow manages to "walk" around, due to the vibrations the controllers can send through its legs! Brilliantly, the pack comes with two Toy-Con RC Cars - and the game's built in Sumo Mode lets you battle it out with a friend, using the motion sensors on each Joy-Con to determine the winner!
It is worth noting, however, that in order to use the two RC Cars, you will need to two sets of Joy-Cons (so, four Joy-Cons in total) - and for some reason, not all Joy-Cons appear to be created equal. We now have three pairs of Joy-Cons, and while in one of them, the car can drive in pretty much a straight line, in both of the other two, the right Joy-Con (the one with the infra-red sensor) seems to be slightly underpowered with its vibrations, to a greater or lesser extent, causing it to be much slower to turn in one direction than the other. Luckily, you can tweak this by delving under the hood in the game, and increasing or decreasing the frequency of the vibrations to try and get your Toy-Con to go in a straight line.
Another game that uses every last bit of the Switch's motion controllers to great effect, the Fishing Toy-Con is part fishing rod, and part vertical stand for your Switch. With the rope from your rod looking like it goes straight into your Switch, this is another really clever use of the controllers, and one that's oddly immersive (sorry). Complete with a reel that actually works as it would in real life, it's up to you to wind out your wire, go fishing at whichever depth you choose, and try to bag the biggest fish.
Out of all of them, Labo house is arguably the weakest. This Toy-Con comes in four parts - the Labo House itself, and three items you can slot into its windows, in order to interact with it - a button, a crank handle, and a turnable switch. Effectively, this is a virtual pet game, but not a very good one. Slotting your Switch console into the house itself will show you your virtual pet, while inserting various items in the windows of the house will let you interact with it, whether you're cooking it some food, plonking it in a runaway mine cart, or, er, flooding its house. Like we said, bit of a weird one.
A world away from House, Motorbike is one of the coolest Toy-Cons going. Like the really rudimentary handheld games of old, Motorbike is essentially a pair of handlebars that your Switch slots into. Tilting the handlebars left and right lets you steer, while acceleration is handled by twisting the right handlebar. Slightly unusually, this Toy-Con actually has two built in games - Circuit, and Stadium. Circuit is a full on racing game that provides a first person from-the-handlebars-view of the race (and comes with a track editor to let you make your own courses), while Stadium is a dirt biking game, where you'll face off against a number of computer controlled players to pop the most balloons. Stadium also comes with a track editor, but incredibly, this one actually lets you scan an object in, in 3D, using the Infra-red camera built into the end of the right Joy-Con controller.
As an added bonus, the Toy-Con Motorbike is also now a compatible controller for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, making it the perfect companion for some bike racing action!
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Piano is, well, a fully functioning toy piano - only one made out of cardboard, and with nothing in the way of strings, or other sound-producing things inside it. Instead, through a load of infra-red trickery, and what we can only assume is a heck of a lot of magic, this papery wonder gives you a full octave of fun. Again, this Toy-Con is compatible with two built in games - Toy Piano, which isn't so much a game as much as a program that lets the piano actually function; and Studio, a really cool little piece of software that's essentially a full on mixing deck, letting you both record, and edit your own songs alongside some incredible special features....
As is often the case, two of the coolest features on the Toy-Con Piano make heavy use of the infra-red sensor. If you take a look at the bits of card in front of the Piano above, you'll see four cards in two very different shapes. The top two are the waveform cards, which are shaped like a wave, and are scanned in by the piano to change the tone of the notes to suit. Meanwhile, in front of those (and looking a bit like a hair comb) are the incredible rhythm cards, which you can pop holes out of like an old player piano, and which the infra-red camera will then scan, in order to play a beat in the background, depending on which holes you've filled in. A full mixing deck experience, all with a few bits of cardboard!
Perhaps unusually, the Toy-Con Piano also comes with a third experience, dubbed Aquarium, which, well, does what it says on the tin. It's an aquarium.
Nintendo Labo: Robot Kit
Alongside the Variety Kit is the Nintendo Labo Robot Kit, which is slightly pricier at £69.99. As opposed to the Variety Kit, this pack only comes with a single Toy-Con - and it's one that took us four and a half hours to build!
A pro-tier Toy-Con, the Robot is an incredible feat of cardboard engineering that essentially turns Labo into a motion tracking device like the Playstation Eye, or Kinect - only one that's much more accurate than the latter. What looks like a giant cardboard backpack and a few pieces of string is actually a complex system of pulleys, infra-red markers, and the all important infra-red camera built into the right Joy-Con controller. Slot your feet into the foot controller loops at the bottom, and grab a hold of the cardboard hand controllers, and you'll be able to take control of the robot in the bundled game. Lift your foot, and the in-game robot will do the same. Punch forward, and you can demolish an entire building.
It's a seriously impressive bit of kit - but it is worth noting that the Robot Kit is a lot lighter on the mini-game front. What you get is a high-score mode, which sees you having to level a toy city in order to earn points; a versus mode, if you happen to know anyone who also happens to have their own Labo Robot pack; and a challenge mode, which offers a handful of brief challenges to try and complete - like destroying X amount of enemies in a certain time.
If you look in the video above, you can see what the infra-red camera is tracking in the bottom right corner, too. As you move your arms and legs, the pulleys move up and down, and your robot moves in the game!
Nintendo Labo: Vehicle Kit
A late entry to the Labo family, the Vehicle Kit launched mid-way through September. However, being the latest kit to market also brings with it a few benefits, as this is arguably the most game-like kit of them all, with a variety of mini-games to get stuck into, and an at least reasonably chunky open world to explore in one of three vehicles - a plane, a buggy, and a submarine, each of which you'll control in style with the intricate constructible Labo cardboard controllers. The pack includes:
A key part of the Vehicle Kit, and one of the very first things you'll make, the Toy-Con Pedal is essentially what makes every single vehicle go. One of the easiest builds here, there's a lot of layers of cardboard here for re-enforcement, and a little slot for your Joy-Con to clip into. Unfortunately, it's not all that easy to fit the Joy-Con into the slot without accidentally pulling the pedal to pieces, while the body of the pedal itself probably isn't as sturdy as it needs to be - especially the bit where you'll be resting your foot. But still - it does the job.
From here on in, the Toy-Cons are all somewhat unusually named after the vehicle you control them with, rather than what they actually are. Easily the lengthiest build in the kit, Nintendo reckon this one'll take you anywhere between 150-210 minutes to finish - that's somewhere between two and a half to three and a half hours. However, the wheel is also one of the most intricate Toy-Cons so far. Essentially functioning as a proper steering wheel controller, you'll start by slotting your Joy-Con into the centre of the wheel, and turning it like a key to start the ignition, before turning the wheel as you would in real life to steer the vehicle through the power of Nintendo magic. It even comes complete with a gear stick (albeit one that only lets you choose reverse); a rip cord you can pull to get a boost; and two kind of indicator type stalks that can be used for other functions. The wheel can be used to take control of the buggy.
One of the coolest, yet simplest Toy-Cons, the stick is an actual, fully working flight stick, made entirely out of cardboard. There's no spring, no plastic, and no trickery here - just a fancily folded piece of cardboard at the base, and an equally orgami-ed block to form a trigger. Easy to build, what's most impressive is quite how good this feels to use - if you hadn't made it yourself, you wouldn't realise you were using something made entirely out of cardboard. As you've probably guessed, you use this one to fly the plane.
A really clever little device, the Submarine controls essentially work a bit like a tiller, letting you rotate the jets on the back of the submarine up or down in order to move yourself around. How it works in its cardboard form is even fancier - inside this bi-wheeled box is a pair of small gears, which interlock with a similar gear attached to each wheel. Rotate the wheel, and the gear on the base of the box will spin. How the magic happens is that the gear on the base of the box has some special infra-red tape strapped to it, which the Joy-Con at the top can "see". When it sees it rotating, it knows how you're spinning the wheel, and so adjusts the angle of your submarine's rotors to suit. Magic!
As mentioned before, the Vehicle Pack arguably has the most "gamey" aspect to it, as there's a variety of different modes and mini-games to get stuck into here. As soon as you've finish the pedal, you can try your hand at Slot Cars, a Scalextric style mini-game where all you really have to is put your foot down to increase/decrease your throttle and guide your car around the track. Up to four friends can play together on this one. Circuit is a slightly more complex race around a variety of tracks, only this time you can steer, while Rally is a pass-the-checkpoints affair across all three vehicles. The two most inventive modes here, however, are Adventure, the aforementioned open world to explore with all three vehicle types, and "Battle", which lets you take on either the computer, or a friend in a car based battle to the death (or at least, explosion).
Each and every Toy-Con is packed with secrets, and tonnes of really fun little touches that are just waiting to be discovered, encouraging you - and your children - to really get stuck in with experimenting.
So, which pack should I buy?
With the launch of the Vehicle Kit, this one's a lot less easy than it was, as it's really a toss up between the two. One thing's for sure though - if you're just starting out with Nintendo Labo, no matter how cool you think the Robot pack might look, go for the Variety Kit or the Vehicle Kit first. The Robot pack is very much the hardcore Labo experience, with a single Toy-Con that took us four and a half hours to build. That might have been OK if after finishing each step, you unlocked a little mini-game to play, but instead, there's really nothing game-wise you can do until you've completed the whole robot. Needless to say, it's a real slog - and it's a really complex kit to build too, with many more moving parts than the others.
The Variety Kit and Vehicle Kit, on the other hand, are both perfect for beginners, and do a much better job of keeping young minds active with their wizardry and wonder. For younger kids, we'd probably lean towards the Variety Pack, as you get so much more instant gratification - the RC Car takes literally all of five minutes to build, and provides a fantastic introduction to the incredible world of Labo, while most of the other Toy-Cons can be completed in around an hour and a half, making them much, much more manageable than the Robot Kit or Vehicle Kit - but the Vehicle Kit, with its complex controllers and cool mini-games, is probably the best pick for older players.
So, you said Labo is educational?
We did! At times, Labo can feel like real magic, and even though you've built the kit from scratch, young minds may still be left bemused as to how it all works. Brilliantly, Nintendo isn't shy about sharing their magician's secrets, and so there's a whole hub of the game here called "Discover". Found right next to the Create/Play section, Discover is a fascinating delve beneath the surface of the technology behind Labo, delivered in bite sized, kid friendly chunks, which explains exactly how the magic happens in language that's easy to understand - and gives you live examples, so you can test it out for yourself!
In a minor spoiler, a lot of how Labo works relies on the infra-red camera, and the special IR stickers that the game has you place in very specific locations - like on the floor of a box, or on the very bottom of a switch/handle - and the Labo Discover section lets you see exactly how these work, by showing you what the IR camera is seeing. It also talks you through the Joy-Cons' many secrets, and shows you how their infra-red sensors function, why the "HD Rumble" is the trick that lets the RC Car move, and explains how the controllers can manage to track motion with its accelerometers and gyros.
What age is Labo suitable for?
That's a good question. Although the box says it's suitable for 6 and up, we'd say you'd need to be a little bit older than that to handle some of the trickier bits here.
In the Variety Kit, a six year old could probably handle some of the simpler Toy-Cons, like the RC Car, and would probably have a good go at some of the trickier ones, if they're a careful, cautious type that doesn't go rushing ahead. With many of the cardboard pieces having large cut outs, it can be all too easy to bend them in the wrong place - and while that isn't disastrous, it can make some later sections harder, or generally weaken the final Toy-Con. You'll also need to be very, very careful to make sure you've got your piece of cardboard round the same way as the one on screen, as sticking the stickers in the wrong place, or bending it the wrong way genuinely could be a disaster. Some sections, especially those that involve tying knots, or slotting elastic bands into retaining pieces of cardboard can be more than a little bit fiddly, too, with the latter requiring you to really stretch an elastic band - something that could be a bit dangerous if young hands overdo it - so some parental supervision is likely to be required.
For the Robot Kit though, the Toy-Con itself is a lot more complex. With more of the tricky bits from the Variety Kit - more knots, more bits where you'll need to awkwardly slot a chunky rope through a far-too-small slit in a piece of cardboard, and with many more moving parts that'll need to line up pretty much perfectly, the instructions here can be much more complex to follow, and require that little bit of extra care and attention. With the whole construction process being so lengthy, too, this is best suited to those with a bit of extra patience, too, so we'd say it's better for those 8 and up (or a very diligent 7 year old).
How about lasting play? Is this the sort of thing that'll just be used once on Christmas day?
Well, when it comes to something quite as complex as Labo, the honest answer is "it depends on the kid". To distil at least some of the fears, it's unlikely this is going to be a true one hit, or one day wonder - with so many Toy-Cons to build in the Variety Kit, and with such a hard slog ahead with the Robot pack, you'd be lucky to build everything in a single day.
On the other hand, how much replay value the packs have will depend largely on the child. For the Robot Kit, it's difficult to see this having very much in the way of replay value, as it's possible to see and do everything in the mini-games in only a few hours once the kit's been built. The Discovery section should add some extra interest to the mix, though, as the Robot is a genuinely fancy Toy-Con, and it's fascinating to see how it works.
The Variety Kit, on the other hand, offers so much more, well, variety, there's a much greater chance of finding something you'll keep coming back to in order to have a play - particularly things like Motorbike, the RC Cars, and the Piano, which either have a lot of depth to the mini-games/applications, or which are simply fun enough it'll keep you coming back regardless. With the Motorbike Toy-Con being compatible with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, too, it can be useful outside the game as well!
If there's one thing I know, it's that kids and cardboard don't mix. With no lamination, is Labo durable enough to keep going? And if it doesn't, can I get a replacement Labo pack?
That's another great question - and the truth is, we just don't really know. In all honesty, this depends a lot on the child. If they're rough and boisterous, Labo won't last - no matter how sturdy the cardboard might be, the Toy-Cons have not been designed to take a pounding. It's not flimsy, but it won't withstand the roughest of play either, and any pulling or tugging could simply tear it apart.
Slightly more concerning is how the Toy-Cons are going to wear in the long term. With much of the cardboard being unpainted - and with kids' fingers not having a reputation for being the cleanest - the chance of things getting really grubby, really quickly is a very real risk here. That said, although hands around Everybody Plays towers don't tend to be grubby, they are usually quite sweaty, and we can report that so far, none of the Toy-Cons have shown any notable signs of wear - so that's something. Needless to say though, any spilt drink could be enough to end your Toy-Con - so be careful about where you put it!
Similarly, it's important to be aware of just how big these things are. Although they may not be that massive when flat-packed, the fully constructed Toy-Cons are a lot larger than you might think - and they don't come to pieces all that easily, either. Instead, before you buy, it's worth having a look around to figure out where you'd store them all. These aren't things that would cope well with having things piled on top of them - and once they get bent, or distorted, they're not going to be anywhere near as good.
On the plus side, it's not like Nintendo aren't aware that accidents do happen, and as such, they've provided two solutions. The first is that the Labo Discover section comes with a lengthy tutorial explaining how to repair any damage to your Toy-Cons for the best - usually involving lots of tape, and a bit of elbow grease. For Toy-Cons that have found themselves beyond repair, Nintendo are also offering complete replacement kits - and the good thing is, they're actually not that pricey. And entire replacement Piano - some eight sheets of card - will set you back £9.99, while a replacement RC Car pack is a bit pricier at £3.49.
And with that, we hope we've covered everything you'd need to know about Nintendo's incredible Labo kits - from how they work, to how much they cost, and how durable they're likely to be in the long run. If you enjoyed this piece, please do give us a follow on your social media of choice - and if there's anything we've missed, feel free to drop us a comment, and we'll do out best to answer/update!