Whenever an invite is extended to check something new and interesting at Nintendo's offices immediately after a Nintendo Direct broadcast, it's easy to fall into the trap of making rash assumptions. Given that it has just been confirmed that Dark Souls is Switch-bound, we took it almost as a given that the hands-on session we'd been booked in for would revolve at least a little around that; other possibilities were the unveiling of the much-anticipated online subscription service, which is supposed to be coming at some point this year. What we actually got was something wouldn't have guessed in a million years, yet it could be one of the most significant ideas to come out of Nintendo's R&D labs since the inception of the Switch itself.
Ushered into Nintendo UK's lavishly-decorated Windsor showroom - adorned with Miyamoto artwork, framed sets of Hanafuda playing cards and even Wil Overton's iconic Retro Gamer cover featuring some of the company's most famous characters - we were initially befuddled to discover a large table festooned with art and craft material. The video presentation began to roll, and we were shown a assembly line of cardboard sheets which would eventually become fishing rods, pianos, houses and other toy-like objects. Even at this stage, it felt impossible to shake the idea that this was merely an elaborate stylistic choice; that these cardboard creations would be replaced in the video by fully-fledged plastic accessories, ushering in "Wii Era 2.0". Just as we were inwardly grimacing at the thought of filling our cupboards with yet more plastic tennis racquet attachments, an anonymous finger fell onto the cardboard piano's keys. One of the other journalists in the room summed up what we were all thinking with a simple yet perfect exclamation: "No!"
At first sight, it's easy to dismiss Nintendo Labo; DIY creations like Google's Cardboard VR headset have perhaps prejudiced us against this cheap and disposable material; however, Nintendo is using cardboard to shape the future of creative play - not just in the realm of video games, but in toys as well. At its most basic Labo is a selection of flat-packed creations - dubbed "Toy-Con" - which are assembled with the aid of on-screen instructions like those seen in Lego Dimensions. These play out on the Switch's screen and show you step-by-step how to construct these objects, allowing you to rotate the model in full 3D to ensure you've got everything slotted in the correct place.
The Toy-Con all make use of the main Switch console and Joy-Con in unique ways. The most basic creation is the Toy-Con RC Car (which is actually a remote-controlled bug-like creature not entirely dissimilar in concept to the Hexbug Nano range of toys) and this takes around 10 minutes to make and uses the HD Rumble of two Joy-Con to move around the room; you control the action with the Switch touchscreen and you can even view the world through the right-hand Joy-Con's IR camera, sending the bug on secret missions inside unexplored nooks and crannies. Outside of that the potential for competitive play is obvious; one of the demonstrations we took part in was a sumo battle where the last bug inside the circle wins.
At the other end of the scale there's the aforementioned piano, which is utterly, utterly ingenious. Everything is made from cardboard, right down to the keys which use folded flaps to spring back into place when pressed. The Joy-Con slots into the back, with its IR camera pointed at a small slot just above the rear of the keys. When one is pressed, it pops into view through the slot and reveals small strip of reflective tape - the camera picks this up and plays the relevant note. The same visual trick is used to change the tone of the keyboard, adjust the pinch, record patterns and much more besides; you can even use the slot on the top of the piano to insert a cut-out (created by yourself) which changes the sound of a keypress based on the shape of cardboard.
The first time you witness this, it's nothing short of magic. You can't fathom how this primitive cardboard assembly is producing these sounds with such accuracy (despite the promotional video showing it quite clearly). Run your finger down the keys and it plays a perfect sequence of notes; turn the dial on the top-left and the tone of each note is subtly altered. Even when you realise the IR camera is behind all of this - perhaps the best application it's ever had, in fact - you'll struggle to withhold your amazement. It's jaw-dropping stuff, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Nintendo takes delight in lifting the curtain and showing how it's done; the app even presents you with a real-time read-out which shows the "hit boxes" the IR camera is looking for so you can place the reflective tape correctly. Even when fully constructed, the piano has an easy-to-access flap which allows you to open it up and view how it all works inside; there's a child-like joy in seeing these tricks revealed.
The only other Toy-Con we got to play with on the day was the fishing rod, which features a clever telescopic design and is a fairly lengthy build. One Joy-Con is inserted into the handle which can be turned to reel in your catch, while the other Joy-Con slots into the bottom of the rod to track how you're holding it. The Switch slots into a cardboard dock which connects to the rod itself via "line" - the physical line disappears over the top of the screen and appears on the display, creating a surprisingly convincing connection between the real and virtual worlds. When you get a bite a quick flick of the rod snags the catch, then it's a case of gingerly reeling in your prize without putting too much tension on the fragile line. Sink your hook down into the shadowy depths of the ocean and you'll pass wrecked ships and larger fishes - including some which can only be lured by first hooking a smaller fish and using it as bait. There's a degree of depth (no pun intended) here which isn't immediately obvious at first glance, and all of the Toy-Con models included feature similarly engaging activities and games.
Elsewhere, there's a house into which the Switch is inserted, presenting a living doll's house which can be interacted with using special buttons attached to the side (again, it should be stressed that everything is fashioned from cardboard here). The IR-enabled Joy-Con is placed in the chimney and "looks" for reflective tape on the button, causing something to happen on-screen (or, in this example, "in the house"). Another Toy-Con is a set of motorcycle handlebars complete with a turning throttle and string-linked brake pedal; the Switch is mounted to the handlebars and presents a view of the road. Turning into corners is a given, but like Sega's Super Hang-On, you also need to lean into the tighter bends.
The most basic Toy-Con won't take long to construct but the piano - the most complex build - could take you almost two hours to complete, depending on your skill level. While the idea of spending that amount of time folding cardboard might not seem all that interesting, it's incredibly satisfying in practice; a gloriously tactile experience which has universal appeal. Nintendo's message with this concept is simple; it wants to make "screen time" seem less like screen time. It's easy to see how Labo can bring families together; the bigger builds are more fun with helping hands. The on-screen 3D instructions are crystal clear and superbly written, shot through with just the right amount of humour, and the sound of tabs slotting home never gets old.
Everything we've discussed so far relates to just one of the proposed Labo packs you'll be able to buy this April. The second pack - which we sadly weren't able to sample - is more focused and includes a single build, but it's a doozy. You make a cardboard backpack into which you place your right-hand Joy-Con. This reads a series of reflective markers (like the piano) which are attached to a series of ropes. These in turn are linked to your feet and hands, allowing your real-world movements to be replicated on the TV screen; another Joy-Con is attached to your bonce for head tracking. You assume the role of a massive, Optimus Prime-style transforming robot who stomps around a massive cityscape (comparisons with the ill-fated Project Giant Robot were made by several people in the room). As we didn't get chance to demo this pack we can't comment on its depth or accuracy, but the video footage alone had us yelping with excitement.
After the initial surprise had worn off, concerns about Labo as a concept began to swirl and form in our consciousness. While the Toy-Con are expertly designed, with marvellous engineering which ensures that points of stress are reinforced by additional pieces of board, it's not as robust as plastic and all of these items will have a limited lifespan. However, because it's cardboard, there's nothing stopping you from repairing ripped or snapped sections, and while Nintendo UK representatives couldn't confirm it on the day, it's highly likely that some kind of spares service will exist which allows you to purchase individual boards and replace broken parts. A key feature of Labo is customisation - the announcement video shows Toy-Con being painted, covered in tape and much more besides - so it stands to reason that Nintendo would want to make it as easy as possible to keep your designs fresh with new (and replacement) boards. Long-suffering parents concerned with how well these items will fare when left into the company of unruly children will no doubt appreciate such a service.
What initially feels like clutching at straws soon gives way to something truly revolutionary; we could happily have spent an entire day mastering the fishing game, while the adorable piano is such a remarkable feat of technical engineering it could easily have been sold as a stand-alone product. The promotional video shows other Toy-Con in action, which hints at more packs in the future and more creations to uncover, but it's truly stunning just how much content is being included in this initial pack. Many of the builds come with optional extras and once you've done with the "play" side of things you can move onto the "discover" part of the game, which adds even more value and playability.
Nintendo, it should be remembered, was a toy company for many decades before it revolutionised the world of video games. That history is glaringly apparent when you look at Labo; this is unquestionably a master toy maker at work. While its rivals clamour to conquer the world of Virtual and Augmented Reality, Nintendo has thrown a curve-ball by creating actual reality; games and toys which, while dependant on hardware such as the Switch and its Joy-Con, become living, moving objects that you can touch, move and interact with.
Can this cardboard-based concept really find a mass-market audience? How easy will it be to order spares? Will Nintendo open up the idea and allow players to create their own code and manufacture their own Toy-Con in the fullness of time? While we can't answer any of those questions at this moment in time, we're still stunned by the inventiveness of this concept and the fact that we weren't expecting it in all our wildest dreams.
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Nintendo Labo will go on sale on 20th April 2018 with a $69.99 price tag for the Variety Kit (Toy Con 01) and $79.99 for the Robot Kit (Toy Con 02).