On Wednesday, Nintendo told the world via social media that later that day it would share news about a “new interactive experience for Nintendo Switch that’s specifically crafted for kids and those who are kids at heart.” Imaginations ran wild immediately, but not even the most creative minds would have guessed what came next:
Nintendo officially announced Labo, a concept that is at once silly, charming, creative and expensive.
In a nutshell, Labo is a collection of mini-games for the Switch, sold with a variety of kits made of cardboard sheets that can be punched out and folded together to integrate with the two Joy-Con controllers in myriad ways. When combined with the Joy-Con, these cardboard kits become what Nintendo calls ‘Toy-Con’ and they can turn into surprisingly elaborate mechanisms.
Take for example the piano, which features 13 individually articulating piano keys that the Joy-Con reads and translates into music notes coming out of the Switch speakers. It’s a novel, cute little trick but there’s a lot of robust technology behind its low-fi appearance. Here’s Sam Machkovech’s understanding of the way it works, from Ars Technica:
“We do know quite a bit about Labo based on hands-on reports that went live at the same time as Nintendo’s Wednesday video. The Labo Variety Kit was demonstrated at length to various outlets, and the “how” of the Variety Kit’s cardboard piano—which recognizes 13 distinct keys and a number of modulating knobs—was explained as follows by The Verge:
The Joy-Con that slots into the back [of the Labo piano] 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.
To be clearer: the right-side Joy-Con, which ships with every Nintendo Switch, comes with an infrared camera and four additional infrared sensors. These are apparently enough to create Labo’s distinct combination of positional and visual data. When fed by patterns on the cardboard parts and “reflective” stickers, they can individually recognize no less than 14 simultaneous points of interactivity.”
That’s just one example of the incredibly innovative ways that Nintendo is making magic out of simple cardboard cutouts. In addition to the piano, Toy-Con can replicate a motorbike, a house, a fishing rod and even a backpack, with a visor and handholds that work together to turn the player into a fully articulated walking robot.
But while making the kits out of cardboard is a comparatively cheap, environmentally safe and astoundingly simple material to use, the retail price for Nintendo Labo is still prohibitively high. Launching April 20th in North America, the variety set (which includes the smaller items like the piano, fishing rod etc.) will cost $70 USD, while the Robot Kit will cost $80 and a separate customization kit featuring stencils, stickers, and colored tape will be an additional $10.
Labo, like a lot of Nintendo’s unique ideas, has us in a bind: We love the creativity at play here, and of course, the Switch doesn’t have the option of implementing a VR option to the console. This is a great way to offer a very Nintendo-style “augmented reality” experience. We also see the immediate appeal of Labo as a family purchase: Constructing Toy-Con out of the perforated cardboard kits harkens back to long-standing parent-child activities like building model cars, or model train sets. It’s a great concept and looks effortless on a clean soundstage with careful, perfect construction. On the other hand, we don’t see many Labo sets sliding together with sharp corners and clean lines all around. There are bound to be tears, creases, and mistakes along the way, and even if assembling your Toy-Con works out without a hitch, it’s going to be all too easy to get them dirty, wet, or broken. $70 is a steep tab for accidentally sitting on a cardboard cutout.
Nintendo Labo may not be much more than a short-lived diversion, but it highlights the bizarre and lovable personality that Nintendo’s brand has come to represent over the past 30 years. And with the Switch’s first-year success in 2017, who are we to get cynical with just the latest venture for a company that has nearly created an industry out of their devotion to play?