Nintendo Labo: Cardboard, Coloring, and Experiential Learning

Make Play Discover Labo
Make. Play. Discover.

Last weekend, almost one year to the day after my initial hands-on experience with the Nintendo Switch, I was back in NYC with another cadre of bloggers, YouTubers, and various media types. While we came from different places representing many different styles and outlets, we all shared one common goal; we were to be among the first to explore the new Nintendo Labo system.

Judging purely on my own friends, family, and broader social media circle, initial reactions to Nintendo’s recently revealed Labo platform seemed to skew one of two ways—“That looks amazing!” or “I don’t get it.”—with the obvious dividing line being parenthood. Those with kids couldn’t wait to get their mitts on these cardboard build kits, while those without generally seemed unimpressed with this strain of DIY gimmickry.

It was with this in mind that I again headed into Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood, this time accompanied by friend and fellow editor GeekMom Corrina, where we were charged to “Make. Play. Discover.” (And also snack, though that part is conspicuously absent from the Labo mission statement.)

To get us all into the arts and crafts theme of the event, we were first tasked with making our own name tags, after which we received a proper introduction to the Labo environment, including a cursory re-watch of the initial announcement trailer.

First You Make.

Seated at our own dedicated crafting table alongside the other guests, Corrina and I noted that a Switch console (with the relevant Labo software cartridge already running) and a couple of extra pairs of Joy-Con controllers were at our easy disposal, as were crayons, markers, the aforementioned snacks, and an eager staff of young helpers in delightfully garish sport coats.

After being handed a positively staggering pile of pre-printed, punch-out cardboard flats, we were given our first true task of the day. We began with the Toy-Con RC Cars project from the upcoming Nintendo Labo – Variety Kit. Taking turns, Corrina and I managed to piece together two “cars” (though they looked a bit more like giant cardboard Hexbugs) using the on-screen instructions provided by the Labo software. We even finished early enough to decorate our rides with various stickers, tape, pipe cleaners, and feathers stored in central bins in the middle of our shared workspace. Of course, that doesn’t mean we didn’t hit a few snags along the way.

While the car kit is pretty intuitive, I was very interested to see how the individual steps and overall process were presented via the Nintendo Switch. As someone with a long, troubled history with spatial relations, I was pleased to discover I zoom in/out and even rotate the 3D-modeled components using the Switch touchscreen. My only problem was the play controls.

Corrina Toy-Con Fishing Rod
Corrina did the lion’s share of our table’s building.

A quick tap of the screen plays a (very) sped-up animation of the entire build process of your current Labo kit, with slower, finer, step-by-step instructions playing as you gradually drag the scene selector through the timeline. Being that I am a middle-aged man who still views multi-touch interfaces as a peculiar brand of magic, it took me an embarrassingly long time—and multiple explanations from NOA staffers—to finally grok this.

With our cardboard creations constructed and our Joy-Cons firmly seated in the cars’ side channels, Corrina and I were off to the proverbial races, again using the Switch touchscreen to control our vehicles. After a few minutes of animated play, we were encouraged to “look under the hood” at a bundle of additional options and features available via a secondary control screen—most impressively, an infrared view from within our current car compliments of the right Joy-Con’s IR camera module.

With our automotive adventure concluded, we were presented with our second build kit, the Toy-Con Fishing Rod. A multi-piece, telescoping rod complete with a real spinning barrel reel, this one was a slower and more delicate process. Cardboard components were reinforced with plastic fasteners, with strings and rubber bands providing the necessary tension, in a genuinely impressive bit of oddball engineering.

But while Corrina and I managed to lap the other build groups making our RC Cars, we were hard-pressed to get our fishing kit pulled together in the allotted 40-minute window. When the time was eventually called, we had an impressive working cardboard rod and reel, but, sadly, nowhere to fish with it.

Then You Play.

Thankfully, this marked the point in the program where we were shepherded into an adjoining room where the Toy-Con Fishing Rod and other remaining builds from the Variety Kit (the Toy-Con House, Toy-Con Motorbike, and Toy-Con Piano) as well as the larger Robot Kit were awaiting us—fully constructed and ready for us to play to our hearts’ content.

I immediately made a beeline to the Toy-Con Piano, and despite my initial misgivings, I discovered it truly plays like a genuine (i.e. not cardboard) instrument. Not only that, but it boasts four separate voicings; its three supplementary sound sets take the form of screw-shaped modules that can be dropped into a port atop the piano and then adjusted to add effects like reverb. The Motorbike was my next stop, and I found myself oddly adept at navigating its circuitous track using a blend of gyro controls and switchable first and third-person views.

The Toy-Con House, it turned out, was more of a virtual pet simulator, with multiple block-like modules (much like those used in the piano) giving the player different options for interacting with your on-screen friend via mini-games. Justin, my helpful PR contact, managed to slip me into one of the dedicated Toy-Con Robot stations when a convenient slot opened up, and it became easy to understand why this product is in a kit all its own.

Consisting of a central backpack filled with weighted sliders connected to right and left hand and foot controls as well as a separate helmet piece (used to change your view), it’s surely a monster of an undertaking to put together. But the results? Well, they are impressive, to say the least. You stomp and swing while your on-screen avatar destroys everything in its path, an act that’s as enjoyable as it is responsive. Yet even that’s not all. You can spread your arms to fly above the cartoon carnage, and, most impressive of all, bend your knees into a squatting position to turn your mech into a rolling, firing tank.

Z Robot Labo
Look, Ma! I’m a Transformer!

With that impromptu workout out of the way, I closed out the day relaxing at the Toy-Con Fishing Rod station, which may well be my favorite Labo module. A rod just like the one Corrina and I constructed connects via a bright, thick piece of string to small platform into which you slide the Switch tablet. Using the various Joy-Con sensors, you can cast, troll, set your hook, and reel in your catch. The more line you feed, the deeper your hook goes, finding larger and more exotic quarry. While “realistic” may be a bit of a stretch, it makes for a perfectly satisfying arcade fishing experience, and one that I cannot wait to experience with my family.

Finally, You Discover.

With the end of the event drawing near, we were again escorted back into our workspace. We had built and played, and now the time had come for discovery.

At first, this simply meant pulling back the curtain on both our constructions and those we’d just experimented with. We took a look at the various sliders stored within the robot’s backpack control module. We examined the tiny IR stickers used inside the piano that allow for precise sound mapping when the corresponding keys are pressed. Then things got really interesting.

Inside Robot Labo
What lies inside the Robot backpack?

It turns out, Nintendo hadn’t merely invited us over to scrutinize these already-revealed Labo products; we were there for a further unveiling.

When I shared my thoughts on the initial Nintendo Labo reveal footage, I mentioned that true scope of the line likely wouldn’t be realized until some industrious hardware hackers cobbled together a proper (if unsanctioned) toolkit that pushed the capabilities of the system further forward. As it turns out, though, Nintendo itself already has this covered.

Toy-Con Garage is the creative playground at the heart of Nintendo Labo. Using simple input and output nodes, it presents a visual programming language where parents and kids can repurpose their Labo tech. Creative minds can create conditional statements that employ existing modules in new and exciting ways.

We saw examples like a touchscreen guitar and an RC Car that follows an IR sticker (or other heat source) like a loyal pup, but those are just the tip of the iceberg. Nintendo Labo is a world of possibilities.

It’s About the Experience.

My only real complaint about my time with the Labo system is that I believe its motto of “Make. Play. Discover.” is somewhat incomplete. There is a fourth aspect of this unique new product line and… well, okay, it isn’t snacks.

It’s Experience.

While it’s possible to divorce one element of Nintendo Labo from another—playing, for example, can occur even if you aren’t around for or even interested in the hands-on learning that goes into assembling a kit—taken together, the three are far more than the sum of their parts; they are a full experience.

Justin Robot Labo
Justin is a leaf on the wind.

You learn by doing. You successfully create by experimenting. You discover by questioning.

In academics, this is commonly referred to as experiential learning. It leverages applied knowledge through reflection and creation. It engages the learner through opportunity and experience.

In Labo, Nintendo has less gamified learning than it has elevated gaming. Play with a purpose is far from a new idea, but the way in which Nintendo has leveraged its popular new home entertainment console as an avenue for this subtle, stealthy brand of education and creative expression is truly admirable.

But even more than that, it’s genuinely enjoyable.

What Comes Next?

Nintendo Labo products will hit store shelves on April 20. This initial offering comes in two flavors: the five-project Variety Kit, which retails for $69.99, and the separate Robot Kit, at $79.99. This puts both noticeably above the standard $59.99 cost for new first-party games, but considering the various bundled build components, I can forgive this specialty product pricing structure.

Admittedly, the Toy-Con Garage feature helps give the products legs, but what can we expect in the way of future Labo releases? Marc Franklin, Senior Director of Public Relations for Nintendo of America, was understandably tight-lipped, but he did mention that additional Toy-Con projects are “under development,” though there is nothing more to announce right now.

Having had some time to make and play and, well, you know the rest, I’m genuinely positive about the Labo system. You, however, may be less so. Perhaps you’re skeptical or even just disinterested. And that’s fine. It does, as the song says, take diff’rent strokes to move the world.

Labo Customization
Admire these expertly crafted Toy-Cons.

But something I can confidentially say is that Nintendo Labo represents more than just your standard video game. Think of it as a project. Think of it as a science kit. Think of it, like I said before, as an experience.

While playing with these motion-enabled, movement-tracking creations brings in shades of Wii-era fun and wonder, the related games and activities aren’t exactly Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. You won’t likely be missing out on a valuable aspect of the gaming zeitgeist if you let them pass you by.

However, if you’re a parent or caregiver, if you’re a maker or a tinkerer, or even if you just have someone in your life with which you can share the joys of discovery and wreckless creativity, Nintendo Labo is just the experience you’ve been waiting on.

Travel and accommodations for this event were provided by Nintendo of America, but they had no input into the content of this post.

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