Editor's Note: We reviewed the Toy-Con 01: Variety Kit and other Labo kits individually — if you like the sound of this first kit, check out our verdicts on the Toy-Con 02: Robot Kit, the Toy-Con 03: Vehicle Kit and the Toy-Con 04: VR Kit.
As unusual and ‘out there’ as its concept appears, Nintendo Labo is perhaps the most Nintendo thing Nintendo has ever created. From the safe and rewarding nature of its built-in design suite to the simple pleasure of building its cardboard sets, it ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a company that once made its name in hanafuda cards and toys - all the while offering something no other platformer holder would ever dream of (never mind have the guts to invest so much time and effort into).
And that’s what makes it so special; a core concept that takes the basic principles that make Nintendo Switch what it is - the HD Rumble, the IR camera, the motion controls of the Joy-Cons - and conjures up something so bizarre it somehow works. Whether you’re using Switch’s screen in portrait mode while you use a makeshift fishing rod to dangle a real (and virtual) line to catch fish, or playing a light symphony (with cat meows, naturally) on a homemade keyboard, it’s just the kind of wholesome silliness that follows in the footsteps of Wii Music and 1-2-Switch.
Right out of the box, Nintendo Labo comes in three distinct experiences; 'Make' (where you’ll follow on-screen instructions to create the physical Toy-Cons), 'Play' (where you can play the games that utilise each Toy-Con build) and 'Discover' (and mode that serves as both tutorial, inspiration board and programming suite). Each one weaves into the other, and there’s far more to do here than simply 'make things out of cardboard', as some of the product's critics have stated.
The Toy-Con 01 Variety Kit comes complete with a multitude of flatpack sheets, each one with a symbol, lettering and colouring system to ensure you know which one applies to each of the Toy-Con designs (even if you mess them up - which you almost certainly will in the maelstrom of making them). Each of the five designs included with this kit has a handy rough guide to how long it’ll take, and outside of the Joy-Con holder you make in the tutorial and the RC-Car, most take anywhere from an hour and a half to three-plus hours to build.
The cardboard designs themselves vary in quality - some are thick and pliable enough to fold into their respective shapes, but some are a little too flimsy, so don’t be shocked to make the occasional accidental fold. None snapped or tore during any of our builds, but they’re not built to withstand the usual rigours a children’s toy gets put through.
The builds are chunky too, so it’s probably best to have somewhere to store them (the Motorbike, Fishing Rod and Piano builds are particularly bulky). There are a handful of spare pieces included with each box, although perhaps not enough to justify its hefty £70 price tag. You can use cardboard you have lying around the house if you need to repair or modify these builds, but it's best to rely on the corrugated stuff Labo uses if you want these additions to last.
The on-screen tutorials are designed to be followed at your own pace, with an on-screen button (which can also be controlled by holding ‘A’ on the Joy-Con) moving the process forwards and back. They’re simple enough for even tiny players to follow, with witty on-screen prompts and words of encouragement showing that Nintendo really is aiming to cater to every age group in a family.
The process is much like putting together a sizeable LEGO build, with each Toy-Con build broken up into sections to make its lengthy creation sessions more manageable for smaller attention spans. The length of each build will make this a tougher sell for those of you with very young children, and it would have made more sense to have had two larger models and three or more smaller-to-medium-sized ones to make its 'Build' mode seem less of a slog.
On the plus side, there’s no cutting or glueing involved. Everything just pops out of its cardboard frame and can be folded and slotted into place with relative ease. Bar the occasional piece of string, IR-friendly sticker, rubber band or washer, the process of actually making everything from the simple RC Car to the elaborate Piano is a joy. You can rewind and pause the instructions at any time, and with Switch’s kickstand you can simply take it anywhere, set your console up and follow the on-screen tutorials.
Whether you’re putting these builds together on your own or in the company of a child (we built all the kits with a mixture of the two), it becomes one of the most involving and rewarding co-operative experiences. Which is a strange thing to write for a game based around making things out of cardboard, but it’s a collaborative conceit that’s infinitely more involving than any other toys-to-life concept that’s come before it. Being able to use Switch’s touchscreen to view each step in full 3D simply adds more agency to an already empowering mix.
Initially, the 'Play' area of Labo appears the shallowest. The five core games of the Variety Kit (controlling the RC-Car, fishing with the Fishing Rod, interacting with a ball-like creature in the House, riding around a track on the Motorbike and playing a tune on the Piano) are fun, but the basic nature of their premises means they’re unlikely to hold your attention (or that of a younger players) for as long as it took to make the bigger builds. Some do feel like glorified tech demos, but others manage to keep that Labo magic pumping away. Being able to scan objects to create custom tracks for your makeshift Motorbike is a trump card even Mario Kart 8 Deluxe can’t match, although it’s a shame you can’t draw or design them from scratch.
The RC Car (well, it’s more like an ‘RC Bug’, but we’re not going to knock a remote control vehicle that moves without wheels), is more of a toy in and of itself, with Switch’s touchscreen doubling for an RC controller. You can even use the IR camera to see through your new creation. Sure, it looks like you’re trying to view the world through the medium of Game Boy Camera, but it’s just another little dimension that’s both weird and cool all at once. There are three more mini-builds to make (one based on the House design, and another two for the Motorbike) but they don’t add anything particularly groundbreaking to the mix. But that’s not to say Play serves no further purpose past these select experiences. In fact, these games are just the beginning...
It’s in 'Discover' mode that Labo’s real genius - and ultimately, its true longevity - really lies. Hidden among the cartoonish mini-game ideas and customisation prompts you’ll find a manhole cover. Give it a tap and you’ll find the Toy-Con Garage. It’s easily Labo’s most important feature, and one that might not be immediately apparent to first-time users (or, in fact, those yet to be convinced its more than a childish fad). It’s effectively a simplified programming suite, which enables you to take the Toy-Cons you’ve already built and make them do entirely new things. And that’s not even touching on the brand new creations you can create with any old cardboard around the house, some sticky tape and a few well-placed nodes.
From a working clock to a convincing Game & Watch build - and so many other things in between - it’s an ideal way to introduce users to the world of programming and simple engineering principles. If you know your way around the world of coding its simple presentation isn't going to change your world, but it's the exactly the kind of mode young users need to begin their journey towards anything from engineering to game design. And all from the safety of a Nintendo handheld console.
Nintendo Labo might seem like a gimmick - and it is, to a certain extent - but there’s far more it than at first meets the eye. It’s a collaborative concept as rewarding in its construction as it is in its final result (much like any LEGO build you’ve ever worked on), and one that utilises every facet of Switch’s DNA in a way only Nintendo could pull off. With the unbound potential of Toy-Con Garage at its heart, Nintendo Labo mixes the physical and digital so seamlessly even its hefty price tag shouldn’t put you off.