This article may be the epitome of “better late than never,” but with the world basically burning for the greater part of this year, I needed something to help keep my mind of things. That’s why, after all this time, I finally decided to try out Nintendo Labo — Toy-Con 03: Vehicle Kit, to be exact. The interactive cardboard toys for Nintendo Switch seemed like a great distraction to have while being stuck at home, and better yet, all of the collections seem to be on clearance (if you can find any in stock at all); that right there is what spurred me to create this article. After trying out Nintendo Labo for myself, I see why Nintendo made such a big fuss about it when it first released two years ago. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the world was ready for this almost ludicrously simple, yet ingenius idea.
The genius and gratification of Labo
I had avoided Nintendo Labo for a long time, despite being intrigued with it when it was first announced. This was mostly due to the fact that I’m far from a “craftsman.” But, I ultimately figured: “Well, this stuff is meant to be simple enough for even kids to understand, so I can’t be that bad at it.” And sure enough — that’s exactly the case!
Anything dealing with assembly is typically a long, arduous process of constantly going between a little instruction manual and the physical item, all while scratching your head and sweating profusely at the “missing” screw you magically can’t find. But with Labo, Nintendo did something amazing: interactive instructions.
Having a 3D model of the Toy-Con you’re building right there on the screen at all times is so intuitive. And these 3D models are spot-on, even down to the little indents in the cardboard, so you can literally make a 1:1 match as to what you have on the table versus what’s on-screen. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’re following something like a YouTube tutorial and what the instructor is saying seems different than what’s in front of us. It looks like Nintendo’s engineers really thought hard about that scenario. I was particularly blown away by how even the Toy-Con pieces are designed to be as deliberately self-explanatory as possible. The markings, the slots, the creases, the folds — everything serves a purpose for not only engineering, but also the construction part of the process too.
Yes, putting together these cardboard creations still took me several hours, but I was pleasantly surprised that the “work” turned out to be really fun; it was so satisfying to bend creases and snap tabs into place. And the cherry on top was seeing how such dirt-simple materials like cardboard, string, and tape can come together in the craziest way to make functional game controllers is mind-blowing. I’m way beyond the target demographic for Nintnedo Labo, but turning sheets of cardboard into simple machines is still truly amazing to me—especially when you finally get to play with it.
I guess it’s similar to constructing a complex Lego set and seeing it all come together. The whole “Make, Play, Discover” tagline of Nintendo Labo is beautifully demonstrated in its core software. Playing it whimsically demonstrates how the complex tech housed in the Joy-Con works together with these simple cardboard machines to allow for the physical creations to interact with the in-game environment. Altogether, really feels like a product that only Nintendo would have bothered to make, and I think that Labo is better because of this. Nintendo is known for its wacky ideas. Like the Nintendo Switch itself, Labo is just weird enough to be a very interesting concept rather than something too off-putting. In other words, it’s weird, but it’s also weirdly exciting.
How did Labo go wrong?
Yet, despite Nintendo’s surprisingly valiant efforts to make Labo attractive enough to play with and to encourage people to discover this brave new world, Labo has ultimately all but fizzled out at this point. My thing is—this clearly isn’t a bad product at all. It wasn’t an outrageous idea like infamous flops such as the NES Power Glove or the Virtual Boy. So, why has it basically tanked at this point?
Too creative for its own good?
I mentioned earlier how not considering myself a craftsman was one of the reasons why I initially avoided Nintendo Labo. Not only was the idea of building the Toy-Con intimidating to me, but I was also thinking of the time investment involved in the setup. And since the complete gameplay experience requires everything in the set to be constructed, you can’t cut corners to save time. I think this alone already alienated some folks. Many older gamers often complain about not having enough time to jump into regular titles, so something like this certainly wouldn’t help. I even have a friend who, like me, thought Labo was cool when he initially saw it, but he confessed he wouldn’t get it because he didn’t want to fiddle with the building aspect.
Aside from the time investment, space is also a concern. Unlike the aforementioned Lego sets that can be constructed and deconstructed as need be, Labo Toy-Con are basically permanent. Well, yes, it is cardboard, so you can deconstruct it to flatten it out—but then you’ll need to reconstruct it again. And taking the Toy-Con apart is basically just as long of a process as putting it together, thus defeating the purpose. And also unlike Lego, the may Toy-Con look cool, but I wouldn’t exactly call them showpieces. Thus, you’ll probably regulate them to some closet or, ironically, a bigger cardboard box. And certain Toy-Con like the Steering Wheel are considerably huge, so it’s not like storage is really easy at all. I just so happen to have enough space in my bedroom closet, but I can see how storing the Toy-Con would be a hassle for anyone that lives in a small space.
Really though, the meat of the experience is of course the software. And as fun as the Nintendo Labo games are, none of them are some super in-depth experience that you’ll lose hundreds of hours in. The Vehicle Kit in particular has a surprisingly robust open world to explore, but like any game, it will eventually wear out. And it’s not like Nintendo has been supporting it with additional content. Likewise, development surrounding Labo in general never really seemed to take off.
Aside from the core Labo games, an extremely small handful of first and third-party titles have supported the Toy-Cons. And not only that, but only specific Toy-Con have been utilized, like the Steering Wheel and Fishing Rod. When I first started playing with the Vehicle Kit, I was astonished that more games didn’t support any of the Toy-Con since they all work so well. However, when I tried out GRID Autosport with the Labo Steering Wheel, I then understood why: You really have to build your game in mind with these Toy-Con for them to truly add to the gameplay experience. In other words, shoe-horning them just makes it all feel terrible.
The Nintendo Labo Toy-Con are a very special-use set of creations, and they’re much better suited in environments built for them. So, this is likely why third-party developers didn’t bother. But, again, not even Nintendo really pushed Labo very heavily outside of its own core game; thus softly admitting that it’s not something that could be decently utilized anywhere and everywhere.
Even when Labo was initially announced, it was easy to see that this would be a niche product. But, at least it burned brightly for its 15 minutes of fame within that niche. The crafting classrooms for kids and talented creators looking to make creative custom games with the Toy-Con Garage all flocked to this cooky concept because it was made for consumers like them. I guess it’s a lot harder than it looks to keep the wind in the sails of a product so specific, however.
Still one for the books
Nevertheless, I really have to hand it to the engineers that designed Nintendo Labo—they all put real thought and effort into making this as intuitive and engaging as it is.
I would love to know have been there live to watch the initial pitch meeting unfold (pun intended) between the developers and Nintendo executives as the devs excitedly told their idea of creating cardboard toys that would interact with the Switch hardware. As we can clearly see, somehow those suits were convinced.
Nintendo took a concept that sounds silly on paper (on cardboard?) and made it work. From the construction portion, straight up to the play sessions, this was a product designed with care and attention, and I am quite fond of it. Nintendo may not talk about Labo anymore and may even not be producing any additional units (considering the remaining stock is seemingly trying to depleted), but the company was really onto something here. In a world of gaming that’s obsessed with 4K, ray-traced visuals, and complex VR headsets, sometimes having a good cardboard toy is still all you really need to have fun.