No doubt the recent reveal of Nintendo Labo came as a massive surprise to many who were expecting the Japanese veteran to reveal something like Virtual Boy 2 or finally have the ill-fated Vitality Sensor brought back to life for Switch, but when you put down that pitchfork and really stop to think about it, it's actually one of the most Nintendo-like things Nintendo could have possibly done.
While on the surface it might be easy to dismiss Nintendo Labo as a gimmick aimed at kids, when you think about their intended audience – families – the idea makes perfect sense. While the concept of Nintendo Labo is unlikely to get your pulse racing if you're a purebred gamer, it's probably something that only a company such as Nintendo with its roots as a toymaker would have come up with.
Nintendo was making toys for years before video games came along; indeed, some of its most significant successes in the post Hanafuda era were toys and gadgets, both mechanical and electronic. Nintendo Labo is, in many ways, the natural successor to these toys.
In honour of Nintendo Labo's announcement, we’ve cherry picked some of the weirdest and most wonderful toys that Nintendo made during the 1960s to the 1980s before the Kyoto company entered the video game market.
Rabbit Coaster - 1964
Nintendo’s first entry into the realm of toys was the interestingly-named Rabbit Coaster in 1964. The idea was simple, but compelling. Kids would place little capsules on a track which would roll down a twisty slope to see which capsule would reach the end first. Many variations of this toy were made over the years including one with a monster resembling King Kong. Even before Donkey Kong, Nintendo was obsessed with the giant ape!
My Car Race - 1965
My Car Race was Nintendo’s first electronic toy and in a way it was like the aforementioned Rabbit Coaster on steroids. Electricity was used to power a conveyor belt that would move plastic cars placed on it to the top of the track. Who would get to the finish first?
Ultra Hand - 1966
A special mention has to go to Ultra Hand as it was devised by none other than Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game & Watch, inventor of the D-Pad and original designer of the Game Boy... yes, that Gunpei Yokoi. Anyway, the Ultra Hand was just a extending arm that reached out to let you grab objects from far away. While it sounds simple, it was very compelling to many a Japanese child in the swinging '60s and became one of Nintendo’s best selling toys. As a strange factoid, Nintendo would later release Grill-Off with Ultra Hand! For WiiWare which demonstrates how fond it is of this particular toy.
Love Tester - 1969
Just as the '60s Summer of Love was drawing to a close, the old romantic Gunpei Yokoi created a toy affectionately known as the Love Tester which could apparently calculate if two people actually loved each other. The idea was that the happy couple would hold hands and in the other hand hold one end of the Love Tester; a harmless electrical current would be passed through them. We’re not sure that a simple measurement of how conductive two people are actually determines if they love one another, but you have to give credit to Nintendo for the marketing effort here.
Ele Conga - 1970
One of the most fun Nintendo Labo toys is undoubtedly the piano set, but back in 1970 Nintendo was making a different kind of music with Ele Conga. This drum-like device was concocted by Gunpei Yokoi (yes, him again) and it made electronic sounds when drummed. It sounds rather cool to us, but it was a bit of a commercial flop at the time. You can’t win ‘em all, Gunpei.
Paper Model - 1974
Long before Labo was a twinkle in the Big N’s eye, Nintendo had a large range of paper models. In these kits you’d get various cardboard pieces and follow instructions to make things like cars and planes, depending on the theme of the kit. Sounds very Labo-like, doesn’t it? Around 40 of these model kits were made and they appear to have been quite popular at the time. This could be seen as the real forerunner to Nintendo Labo.
Duck Hunt - 1976
Nintendo had released quite a few light gun games by this time under Gunpei Yokoi’s careful watch, with Duck Hunt perhaps being the most popular of them. The package comes with a projector and a light gun which is battery powered. The device would project images of flying ducks on to your wall and was clever enough to detect when you hit one. Just watch the video above, it’s pretty amazing tech for its day really. Without this we wouldn’t have had 1984’s NES launch game Duck Hunt, of course.
Crossover - 1983
We’ll finish off our round-up of classic Nintendo toys with one of the rarest and indeed the last non-electronic toy to be made by Nintendo. Crossover was another Gunpei Yokoi creation, this puzzle game took the form of a 4x4 grid where players would slide tiles back and forth in order to solve the puzzle. If you have one of these sitting at the back of your cupboard, you might be surprised at how much it's worth these days.
These are some of our favourite classic Nintendo toys, which ones caught your attention? Let us know if you think Nintendo Labo will continue in this great tradition of toys from the Big N with a comment below.
Thanks to Erik Voskuil, author of the excellent book Before Mario for letting us use the images and videos above. Be sure to check out his book to learn more about Nintendo's history as a toymaker.