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Should you buy a Nintendo Labo? Six things to know about the quirky cardboard video game accessory kit

The Nintendo Labo, a build-it-yourself cardboard accessory that works with company’s Switch console, is a whole lot of fun in a lot of ways – but might not be for everyone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 7:19pm

I built a car today. And it only took me 10 minutes.

A remote-controlled car is the first project you make as part of the Nintendo Labo, a new type of build-it-yourself cardboard accessory that works with the Switch console to combine real-world and digital play. After folding and assembling the mini car, I slotted each of the Switch’s detachable, vibrating controllers into it. Then, using the console and its touch screen, I used the vibrations from the controllers to drive it around.

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The car is just one project you can make using Labo, which hit store shelves worldwide this month. It is a pretty out-there product from Nintendo. But Labo, while quirky, taps into a couple of trends right now.

For one, it combines digital play with physical toys, which adds something more to screen time. It also gives kids a chance to improve their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills thanks to coding tutorials in the game and a strong focus on the mechanical side of creation.

Starting at US$69.99, the variety kit includes five projects that each work with a custom Switch game that is relevant to what you build: a car, a fishing rod, a motorbike, a house and a piano. The separate US$79.99 robot kit lets you build your own gaming rig from cardboard, and control an on-screen robot as if you were a (budget) player in Ready Player One.

Without some hands-on experience, it may be difficult to justify spending US$70 on a box of cardboard. I tried it out with a review kit from Nintendo to see if it was worth the cash. Here are six key takeaways after spending time with it.

It taps into something primal

If you have (or were) a kid who loved puzzles, Lego and building blocks, sitting down with Labo taps into that builder’s instinct right away. That’s welcome for parents and children who may be tired of staring at screens and long for something tangible to play with.

It’s also great for building in a group, particularly if you can give everyone his or her own piece of the kit to work with. The kits are sturdy and well-designed – turning the reel on the fishing rod gives a satisfying click, for example – which make you feel like you’ve really made something worthwhile.

It could be frustrating for very small children

Labo is officially rated as an “Everyone” game, meaning that it is appropriate for all ages. While there is nothing in the content that belies that rating, Labo is best done as a group activity if you have inpatient young kids or they don’t have fine motor control. At a Labo event I attended in San Francisco, some of the smaller kids were frustrated by not fully grasping how everything fit together.

It teaches more than just how to build what’s in front of you

The cardboard kits are only a portion of Labo’s appeal. The real fun starts when you put your creation together with the Switch and get them moving around.

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If you are feeling even more creative then once you have mastered some of the basics you can get into the guts of how the Switch works. Children can learn about the infrared cameras in the controllers that let you steer your creations. They can mess around with the non-electronic mechanics of their creations, to understand why they move the way they do. Or they can do a little programming, to make the cardboard doodads they create work with the Switch’s detachable controllers.

It can be boring

Labo is mostly fun. But if you’re not into building, it can get tedious at times – especially for the more complicated kits. The more complex something is, the more pieces it has and the more fiddly it can become. You do get a payoff for the time you spend, but if the thought of many tiny pieces to punch out sends you batty, this is not for you.

If you break a part, you can make your own replacement

Cardboard is not known for its durability, so parents would be justified in seeing this as a potential money grab. But while Nintendo does sell replacement Labo kits, it also gives you the means to make your own replacements. You can use the punch-outs as templates to reproduce their kits, or – of course – you can make your own stuff.

It’s so totally Nintendo

At the end of the day, Nintendo is a company that knows who its customers are. Labo is aimed right at those people.

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From a business standpoint, this might be a good way for Nintendo to tap into the builder culture and win children’s hearts in classrooms and coding clubs. But, at its heart, it is just exactly the kind of oddball thinking that brought us the Wii (and, to be fair, the Virtual Boy). Nintendo is swinging for the fences with this idea or – forgive me – at least thinking outside the box.