Nintendo has long been the quirkiest major video game publisher, a company eager to buck industry trends in pursuit of fun. Last year, as competitors at Sony and Microsoft continued to turn consoles into living room PCs, Nintendo released a comparatively underpowered tablet that blurred the line between portable and home gaming, and turned it into a huge success.
Now, the company plans to follow up the red-hot debut of the Switch with a new initiative that taps into what Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima calls “new ways of playing” — and it involves a lot of cardboard.
Today, the company revealed a new initiative dubbed Nintendo Labo, which involves DIY cardboard accessories that can transform the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers into everything from a fishing rod to a piano to a full-on robot suit. These accessories are then used to control a variety of mini-games, essentially turning the Switch tablet into a tiny arcade. The goal of Labo is to get kids involved in playing games on the Switch in a more hands-on, tactile way.
It’s the kind of experience that seems like it could only come from Nintendo: clever, charming, and completely unexpected. “Labo is unlike anything we’ve done before,” says Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé. It could just be the thing to keep the Switch’s momentum going in its second year — but more importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun.
The Labo platform is defined by three key characteristics, according to Nintendo: make, play, and discover. The product itself comes in the form of a kit that includes a Nintendo Switch cartridge and a series of cardboard sheets, along with a handful of other building accessories like string and plastic connectors. After you pop the cartridge into the Switch, a series of on-screen instructions on the tablet take you through the steps for building each of the different accessories, which Nintendo is calling Toy-Con (a play on the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers). It’s a setup that is particularly well-suited to parents playing with their children; one person can handle the instructions, while the other builds.
The process of making these accessories varies quite a bit in terms of how complicated they are to put together, but each involves folding various bits of cardboard into shapes and fitting them together. I was able to test out a few of the simpler creations at a Nintendo event in New York City, and found the process incredibly streamlined — and surprisingly enjoyable. The first thing I built was a simplified RC car that looked a bit like a cardboard insect. The instructions displayed on the Switch screen took me through every detail of the process, and everything slotted together as it should.
Then came the “play” aspect of Labo. Each of the Toy-Con accessories has an associated interactive experience that involves the Joy-Con controllers. For the car, you place the controllers into slots on both sides of the cardboard construction. The Switch tablet becomes the controller; using the touchscreen, you’re able to make the left and right Joy-Con vibrate, effectively steering the cardboard car around. The controls aren’t the most accurate, and it was tough to get the car exactly where I wanted to go, but it was a lot of fun just moving this seemingly simple piece of cardboard around a table.
Constructing the fishing rod is a slightly more involved endeavor. It took me about 15 minutes to build from start to finish, and it featured some surprisingly intricate parts, including an extendable rod, which connects to a cardboard Switch stand via a piece of string, and as a reel that you can actually turn. You slot one Joy-Con into the base of the rod, and another into the reel. The associated mini-game, naturally, involves going fishing. You can lower your line deeper and deeper into the water by turning the reel forward, and you’ll feel a vibration when you get a bite. Once you’ve got a fish on the line, you can start reeling it in. You’ll also need to move the line back and forth to ensure it doesn’t snap. The game is simple, but also impressive; I had no issues with the responsiveness of the controls, either when it came to moving the rod around or reeling in a fish. It just worked, and it was a blast — especially as you catch bigger fish like sharks and rays near the bottom of the ocean.
The most remarkable of the lineup of Labo accessories I saw was a functional 13-key cardboard piano. It’s a much more complicated creation — I didn’t get to build one myself, instead testing a pre-assembled version — that includes moving keys and a slider that can alter the piano’s pitch. To make it work, you slot a Joy-Con into a hole in the back of the piano. You can then see all of the same keys on the Switch’s screen, and as you press the cardboard keys, the associated ones on the Switch will also be pressed and make a sound. As with the fishing rod, I had no issues with responsiveness, even when I mashed all of the keys together at the same time. There are even tiny cardboard knobs, separate from the slider, that you can slot into to completely alter what sounds come out. One turns the on-screen keys into a choir of cute meowing cats.
There are other Toy-Con coming that I didn’t get to test or see in person, the most elaborate of which is almost like a cardboard robot suit for kids. It involves building a large backpack and visor, which then become a full-body motion controller that you use to play a game in which a robot runs around a virtual world, smashing things.
These creations become even more impressive when you understand how they work, and this is especially true of the piano. The Joy-Con that slots into the back has a camera, which can see the back of the keys so that it knows which ones you’re pressing, and then relays that information to the Switch. The sound-modifying knobs, meanwhile, each have distinctive stripes that are associated with their respective sounds, so that the camera can tell them apart.
It’s a clever hack that ties into the third aspect of Labo: “discover.” Not only are you able to build your own accessories, but the platform also helps teach you the basics of how things work. When you complete the final step of the creation process, you’re able to check out a 3D model of the Toy-Con you just built, which will explain how the inserted Joy-Con are able to turn a cardboard fishing rod into a functional video game controller. It’s a simple, but likely effective, way of getting kids to learn about digital technologies like motion controls and infrared cameras.
Labo is both unlike anything Nintendo has made before, and something that feels distinctly Nintendo. The company has a history of exploring trends in unique ways, like with the exercise game Wii Fit, or the Brain Age series of puzzle games, inspired by the work of neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. Labo similarly takes something very of the moment — the idea of giving kids a better understanding of the technology that surrounds them — and fits it into an unconventional and playful package. Labo isn’t going to teach children how to code, but it could very well be the starting point for getting them interested in being more than a passive consumer of technology.
As a parent of two kids under five, what I’ve seen of Labo so far seems like it will be a hit in my house. The process of making the Toy-Con itself is not only a lot of fun, but also surprisingly rewarding, considering how solid and full-featured the cardboard creations ultimately are. It’s satisfying in the way that putting together a big Lego set is. When you couple that with Nintendo’s knack for creating playful, exciting experiences, it seems like a winning combination.
For Nintendo, Labo offers an opportunity to continue to broaden its audience. The Switch had a very successful first year, selling more than 10 million units, almost half of them in the US. But keeping that momentum going will be a challenge — especially given that the company already released two of its biggest games with Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Labo could allow the company reach new people outside of its existing subset of fans. “We see this as helping in our quest to broaden the audience for Nintendo Switch,” says Fils-Aimé.
Right now the focus is on kids, and creating a social experience that can also be enjoyed with friends and family. That’s one of the reasons the Toy-Con are made of cardboard; it’s not only easy to manipulate, but something kids can customize with markers and paint afterwards. (Nintendo isn’t commenting right now on whether it will offer replacement parts if your cardboard piano gets squashed.) If Labo proves successful, it’s possible we could see more complex kits aimed at older audiences; Fils-Aimé notes that “I do think there is an opportunity for this to go quite broad from an age-perspective.”
Nintendo Labo launches on April 20th, and will be available in two versions. The “Variety Kit” features five different games and Toy-Con — including the RC car, fishing, and piano — for $69.99. The “Robot Kit,” meanwhile, will be sold separately for $79.99.
When the company teased this morning that it would be announcing a “new interactive experience for Nintendo Switch that’s specifically crafted for kids and those who are kids at heart,” few people probably guessed DIY accessories. But as strange as Nintendo Labo sounds at first, when you have it in your hands it makes a lot of sense. It feels quintessentially Nintendo — and could end up being a great companion to the Switch.