Hands-on with Nintendo Labo – Nintendo’s next experiment
Recently Nintendo Australia hosted an event for Nintendo Labo and unlike other preview events, this one was not stuffed with media and industry people, offering up a bevy of alcoholic drinks. Nope, this was primarily kids 12 and under and lots of craft supplies; this was Nintendo Labo.
Going into the event, in which I took my niece with me, I knew what to expect — there would be some building of items and of course playing the game — but what I did not expect was just how much fun people would have with it. The maker scene is quite large, yes, but I never thought it would be something I would witness on this scale; there were tables everywhere, with pens and pencils, felt material, and googly eyes and the kids were loving it. After the usual welcome speech that these events are required to have, we were given the RC Car kit to build and along with a Switch with the instructions, that was all we needed, and we were off.
Building the Car was quite simple, given that it’s the easiest build in the variety kit, but even then, you need to pay attention — the software on the Switch screen made sure to highlight the things you needed to pay attention to before you made your first fold. The car, which was made up of three major folds, can be assembled in only a few minutes, there are a few things to watch out for of course, but it’s simple if you pay attention. Of course, once created, then comes the decorating, and this is where the kids were having a lot of fun. There were some kids that decked out their cars with hair and tails, others decided that the included elephant head was the ideal accessory, there were some that were green, others that were pink, some were spotted, and some were quite plain, the sheer variety on show was crazy.
Once built and decorated, it was time to put it to the test. Nintendo had two tables set up, for two different types of events: Racing and Sumo Wrestling. The racing just required you to follow the line around the track, something that the kids got easily, while Sumo required you to either push your opponent out of the ring or knock them over. The catch came from the most unlikely of sources, just how heavily-decorated the cars were, due to the rumble of the Joy-Con being the driving force, if your car was heavy, you needed to increase the frequency of the rumble. If the vibration on one side was too light for the weight, your car would spend its time spinning in circles — it’s not a common thing for the basic designs, but I noticed some of the more decorative ones required a lot of calibration. After this, it was a matter of moving onto the playing with the rest.
This is where Labo shined, with the motorbike, house, fishing rod, and piano, the sheer variety (pun intended) in the first set was great, with my niece’s personal favourites being the motorbike and piano. Of course, everything was played and while I expected the learning curve to be a little high for some, with a little instruction from the hosts, we picked up and played. The motorbike was the favourite for a lot of people, the Giant Robot being the other, but with the motorbike, if you have ever ridden a bike before, you will be ok here, same with fishing. The piano can be played in the most simple mode possible, just swapping out the bolts to change from piano notes to cats and old men, or you can jump into the more advanced mode, which in turn will give you some pretty intense options, including things like reverb, pitch and of course, being able to record your cat symphony.
The house was far and away the most complex and simplistic item from the Variety kit, while once built, the amount of moving parts is small, the combination of pieces that you can insert into the spaces can give you some strange results. But it’s not just those that you need, picking up the house, shaking it and turning it around, results in things changing on the screen, if we assembled this, it might have been more intuitive, but in the end, fun was had. The Robot kit was by far the most complex to get used, but the resulting fun was perhaps the easiest to see. With the piano, the kids can make noise, yes, but there are dozens of toy pianos on the market, the giant robot was something else. Each hand and foot required a string is attached, for the feet, this meant loops around the shoes, the hands, just some cardboard handles to hold onto. Of course, the thing people with notice first is the very large cardboard box that is worn on the back, this contains the mechanisms that make it work. All the kids that I witnessed playing it loved it; throwing your arm out resulted in the same arm punching something on the screen, it was the most interactive by far and even the younger ones were able to enjoy it, purely because it was all about them just messing around. The other part of the event was the Discover section, which went over a lot of the kids’ heads; it’s basic programming, using the touch screen and the Joy-Con — if you know programming, you can jump in with little worry, but those who are new to that world may struggle.
Sadly, I noticed an issue with the Toy-Con, the name for the cardboard creations, and that was wear and tear. The switches that were being used with the house, the cardboard ones, not the console, were falling apart and we were in the third session of four. The fishing rod we used literally had pieces dropping off of it, which caused it to not work and the robot kit, the feet straps, which loop through some cardboard, were falling apart. Some of the hosts mentioned that their items had been replaced after the first two sessions, others would be replaced after the third and when each play session was only two hours, that is not great. Given how rough kids can be, having to replace pieces within 4-6 hours is not a good thing, especially when the prices are not cheap. I can fully admit that as this was an event, some of the kids or even adults using the Labo kits might have been more impactful than you or I might be at home, but it leaves a lot to be concerned about.
Leaving the Labo event gave me a good appreciation for what Nintendo was doing; Labo is not for me, it’s for kids, and if the reactions of them at the event were any indicator, they are on the money. The future of the series is still up in the air though, due to the cost of the kits, not something your average kid can get on their own, but also the durability of the items, but as always, it’s never wise to count Nintendo out.
To start with, I got a chance to sit down with the Toy-Con RC Car found in the Variety Kit. It serves as a great intro to the whole Labo experience. It’s a simple build that I had up and running in no time at all. It was the first chance I had to get my hands on the cardboard sheets that you’ll be using for all the different Labo builds. My initial concern was that the perforated pieces would not remove cleanly. After plenty of experiences in the past with perforated cardboard, this concern was almost immediately expelled. The cardboard isn’t that thick, and in the case of the RC Car, it’s mostly one big shape. It comes with a small ‘antennae’ to put on the Switch itself, it is of course just a cosmetic addition but that is for young people and not guys nearing their mid 30’s — not that it stopped me from sitting down and customising my own RC toy. For the event, Nintendo had provided a section filled with all kinds of crafty bits and pieces to add to the RC shell. I settled for some felt, googly eyes and pipe cleaners, and got to work. While the official Labo customisation kit doesn’t contain those things, it wouldn’t cost much to get all kinds of things to decorate your creations with. Even better is that the RC Car sheet comes with two shells, to either pit them against each other or put towards a small army of Toy-Con RC monsters.
Once everything was folded and decorated, it was time to attach the Joy-cons to each side and see it all in action. There were some reflective stickers attached to little targets. Here, one of the Labo crew demonstrated how the IR camera in the Right Joy-con comes into play. The example I got to try out was having the RC car aim for the reflective targets and home in on them. I got to control it myself and sent my pipe cleaner-armed beast wiggle around the table and put the IR camera to the test. Even after seeing some of the Labo videos in the last month or so, I am still surprised to see the capability of the IR camera. It can be used to see where the camera is pointed, detecting targets and switching over to heat vision so you can make your own little Labo Predator alien.
The House was the first of the bigger builds I got to have a look at in the Labo Play area. It’s also the part of the Variety Kit that isn’t so obvious in what it does, so it was nice to muck around and see what it is. A Switch console slots into the front of the house acting as the interior. Inside sits alittle round creature going about its business. On each side of the house and in the floor are slots where you can insert three different devices into a crank, a dial and a springy button. There’s a series of minigames tucked away, and to find them you’ll need to mess around with different combinations of devices. One moment you can be filling up the room with water after making a giant tap appear out of the wall when you insert one of the devices. Another has you operating a microwave to cook a meal for your creature. As you explore the different games you’re often rewarded with different things to feed the creature that can do a few things, like change its colours or designs. While it was fun to muck around with, I have a feeling it’s more focused towards kids overall, but with the house build, there is a lot of potential for anyone to customise and make some neat houses to show off.
The Piano is what I had been looking forward to checking out the most. While I have no musical talent, I dream of one day being able to play something past the opening theme of Star Wars on a piano. While on the surface, the Piano lacks enough keys to cover the full range on a real one, it doesn’t take long to see not only is it capable of the full range, but it can do so much more. On the side there is a lever that controls the octaves, to gain the full range of a piano. On the top, there’s a slot where you can place a few numbered dials. Each one alters the sounds of the piano, one option is a choir, other cats, or a choir of grumpy old men. Naturally, you can’t help but mess around with the cat and grumpy old men options. They are fun to listen to, and the visuals that accompany on screen are just as charming. You can also turn the dial which shortens or lengthens the note.
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of meowing kitties shimmering with power and reverb. The visuals have a real WarioWare/Rhythm Heaven look to them and just adds a layer of cuteness that doesn’t need to be there. The piano itself was something I really wanted to check out and see how the cardboard keys would feel. As with the RC Car and House, you could do so much to modify and customise the Piano. Everything is accessible to colour and detail however you wish, as long as it doesn’t get in way of all the reflective markers inside that make everything work. The keys work as they should, and they spring back in a nice way. It pays to be gentle because I did manage to hit one of the keys and nudge it out of place. Fortunately, it was easy to put back in its place and didn’t happen again. There’s a ton of value in the piano alone, even without the rest of the kit.
When you dig a little deeper you’ll find there’s a music studio to tinker around with, and there’s access to a variety of instruments you can set up rhythms with. You can lay down a drum track, percussion, record and edit your tracks. Like all of the Labo builds there is so much potential. There is also a card slot on the top of the piano. There are small flash cards that can be placed in it to be read by the IR camera. When scanned in it can do some really interesting things. One example was a card that was cut with a sound wave into it. Once scanned in the studio would replicate that, so you can edit notes and sounds to how you want them. Another cool feature was a flash card that has a grid where you can punch out holes to set up a rhythm. One line of the grid is the drum beat, another is the bass and so on, allowing you to program your own backing track before you’re even playing within the studio. I could keep on going on about it all, but the Piano and studio combined could provide a great gateway to budding musicians making and recording their own tunes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fishing rod. It certainly looked the part with the full cardboard fishing rod with reel and line connecting to the box that holds the Switch. The line that goes from the rod to the box does an excellent job of making the line appear it is going straight into the Switch screen as you lower and raise your hook. If you’ve played almost anything that contains a fishing minigame, you’ll have some idea what to expect with this minigame. Reel in the line towards you to lower the hook into the depths, and reel outwards to bring it back in. When you get the attention of a fish and they start to nibble, so you flick up the rod to catch the fish on the hook.
When I got to check this out personally there was no issue catching the smaller fish in the shallower waters, so it wasn’t long until I was ready to take on the tougher and much bigger fish like the shark. I found myself quickly out of my depth. To have the best chance of catching the big fish you need to lure it in with one of the smaller ones. It seemed a little cruel hooking a small fish and dragging it down to the ocean floor, but I would have a much harder time landing the shark without one. Once it took the bait I could only keep the shark on the line for the total of five seconds. The tougher fish put a lot of tension on the line and as an inexperienced fisher, I didn’t have enough time to keep the Labo oceans shark-free.
While I might need a bit of work before I can tackle the big fish, I also got the chance to see how the flashcards from the Piano could be used to design your own personalised fish to scan into the fishing minigame. It was a pretty basic but fun feature, that would be suited to kids getting to muck around with cutting out shapes they want to slap some eyes and colour on and release into the in-game aquarium.
The Motorbike kit is one of the games I’m looking forward to seeing what people will do with it once they get their hands on the software. The Motorbike has the Switch placed in the middle of the handlebars, and while you hold the handles there is also a support that your rest on your chest or stomach to keep it in place as you lean and turn the handlebars. I didn’t expect the amount of detail with the handlebars, twisting to accelerate, pressing in the level to start up the bike and just the range of movement you could get out of it. I was plonked into the middle of a beginner’s cup, racing against a bunch of AI to see if I had what it took to be a real-life Excitebiker. It turns out it was super easy. The AI at the easiest level had no real interest in racing and was happy to just let me get the boost from drafting from riding just behind them. I didn’t get a chance to check out any other cups to see how much of a challenge there is but I’m hoping there are some tough races ahead.
There is also a track editor where you can build your own tracks if the ones included don’t go far enough. I didn’t get a look at this but from what I saw of the maps and just the mini-game in operation, I can imagine it would be a pretty editor to fill with classic Mario Kart tracks. Speaking of Mario Kart, it was using these Motorbike controls that it finally felt like they nailed motion control steering. Sure it’s with a cardboard handlebar resting on you to make it work, but I would love to see them make a more fully fledged bike game with a similar control scheme.
Initially, I doubted that I would be able to get a chance to try the Robot kit out, being a somewhat out-of-shape adult shape with a head too large to wear normal hats. Turns out the Robot gear fits all kinds of sizes, so it was time to suit up and punch some buildings. The cords that attach all the separate parts to the backpack are easily adjustable, whether it’s for your children or yourself. Grab onto the hand grips and get the loops on your feet and you’re ready to go.
I was thrust into a time attack mode where all I could really do was punch up some buildings or hovering UFOs. I stomped around, punched things and very briefly crouched and turned into a tank, made somewhat more awkward to do with a team of Nintendo Labo assistants finishing up for the day. It was fun to be able to do an Iron Man pose and have the robot take to the skies before landing on the top of a building to break. I’m unsure if it was an old fashion calibration issue from the old Wiimote days, or if I was just not getting the motion right, but trying to get the robot to turn was not as easy as I had thought it would be given the amazing accuracy other kits had demonstrated.
I could see kids having a lot of fun with this, and like all the other kits there is all kinds of modifications and customisation that could be done to show off. I’m not sure how much fun this would be for older crowds. I can imagine it would be fun to build, and when hopping into the Toy Garage you can program the Robot actions to do other things. One of the Labo demonstrators was telling me about how he was programming the suit to function as a one-man band when you move around. This to me sounds more fun than Robot time attack mode.
The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit, Robot Kit, and Customisation Set are all out on Friday, April 20th. Thanks to Nintendo Australia for inviting us to play.