A comedian, a reality TV star and a tech journo walk into a science museum…
It sounds like the start of a pretty bad joke but as it turns out it was my Saturday afternoon attending a preview event for the soon to be released Nintendo LABO system. Flanked by comedian Hamish Blake, ex Bachelor Sam Wood and a host of other invited guests I was ushered into Melbourne’s Scienceworks’ Pumping House where it became shockingly apparent that unlike everyone else there I seemed to be missing something: a child.
LABO, which I was quickly told is pronounced La-Bo (as in bow tie) and not Lab-O as I originally thought, is something definitely marketed towards a younger demographic or the parents of them. I’m pretty sure your “hardcore” gamers types that own a Switch and play Dark Souls & Skyrim aren’t going to be running out to buy LABO kits anytime soon. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy them though because despite being the oldest kid, I certainly wasn’t the oldest man, and some of them were into it a hell of a lot!
Each of the things you construct out of the templated cardboard is called a “Toy-Con”. Constructing these varies in time and complexity ranging from a few minutes for the RC Car to more than an hour for the House and Piano. Building them is assisted with the LABO app running on the Switch. The guide interactively walks you through every step from popping the pieces required from their cardboard sheet to folding them and applying the system’s magic sticker in certain patterns to make some of the Toy-Cons work. You can scrub through the guide using arrows on the Switch’s screen and they can be stretched to progress or rewind your steps at a faster rate if need be.
Constructing the RC Car using the app was very easy however it is the simplest of Toy-Cons and probably could’ve been done without any instructions at all to be honest. We weren’t shown any of the more complex instruction sets but I can imagine them being quite the challenge in places and could quite easily turn into one of those throwing the instructions across the room type situations.
After building my RC Car I was given the opportunity to decorate it using a wide selection of art and craft supplies on hand. This was by far the most interesting part for the kids but then how often do you have a literal infinite supply of paint, stickers, pipe cleaners and googly eyes to use how they please? As you can see from the photos I went with a more realist approach, clearly having the imagination of an old man whom yells at clouds.
The cars operate by each of the Switch’s Joy-Cons sliding into its sides and then making use of the HD Rumble packs to vibrate them forward. The problem is they don’t really go forward, they tend to move at a diagonal or go around in a circle. Depending on how you’ve decorated your car and how straight the cardboard is making the thing move forward can involve fiddling with advance settings and adjusting vibration frequencies in each Joy-Con to balance things out. It was easy enough but most kids aren’t touching that and to be honest most wont care, they were happy just seeing their “car” buzz along doing donuts at a snail’s pace.
One hidden feature that I got to play around with on the cars is its ability to operate in an automatic mode. Inside one of the Joy-Cons is an IR sensor that is used time and time again to make a lot of the Toy-Cons work. In the case of the House for instance the IR sensor reads different reflective/iridescent tape markings on the buttons inserted into to identify them. For the Piano the IR sensor is what looks for the iridescent spots on the backs of keys to know what note has been played. In the case of the RC Car when in its auto mode it will look for and follow iridescent tape placed on the ground or chase smaller spots in its field of view.
RC Car aside, I had the opportunity to spend time with every Toy-Con included in the LABO Variety Pack, but it each was already constructed and waiting for me. The Motorbike Toy-Con is relatively simple and feels like a sadder, cut down version of Mario Kart that I feel wont get a great deal of love. The House is a modern day version of a Tamagotchi that can be manipulated and played with using a series of buttons/plugs that fit into the house and can be turned or pushed to do different things.
The Piano is the most complicated to put together as well as the most extensive app to use. It’s basically a midi-keyboard with a full octave’s worth of keys that can be bumped up or down octaves via a lever on its side. You can record and play your own tunes as well as load in new sounds via cardboard waveform cards that you can create yourself. I was quite shocked by how in-depth it was although I feel like a lot of it will be a rabbit hole little explored.
As impressive as the Piano was my favourite was the Fishing Rod. This was more to do with the fishing game than the Toy-Con itself. Catching a fish can be as easy or hard as you want it depending on the depth you fish at and the whole system’s physics and use of control and HD Rumble made for a lot of fun.
The LABO Robot Kit, which is sold separately to the Variety Kit, is a full body system that includes a cardboard backpack and pulley system for you to wear. Strings attach to your hands and feet that run into the backpack and allow you to control a robot on your Switch’s screen. It was by far the most popular for the kids and undoubtedly the one I felt the dumbest using throughout, but it also felt like the easiest to break. The games that make use of the kit vary slightly but in the demo today I was controlling a giant robot who’s sole objective was to smash everything it could.
Buried away, hidden beneath all the cardboard is Nintendo’s magic “One more thing” moment they call “Toy-Con Garage”. The Garage allows LABO to grow with its audience introducing an entirely new and exciting system that allows anyone to program both the Switch and its Joy-Cons to work with any of the LABO kits functionality.
The Garage is implemented as a series of inputs, conditions and outputs that a user can visually connect to create their own wonderful games and creations. From the simplest pressing of a button to vibrate another or flash a screen to the complex reading the IR sensor and activating components when identifying certain areas within it. LABO’s Garage will serve as an early learning launching pad for many programers to come in the most wonderful way.
It’s no doubt that when Nintendo LABO launches on April 20th it’s going to fly off the shelves. It’s quite magic that they’ve been able to create a product that will appeal to children of many ages and that even much older kids like me can enjoy too. While I would never spend the A$99 for the Variety Kit myself there isn’t a parent with a Switch that I would have no qualms recommending it to. The more expensive Robot Kit at A$119 might have a greater appeal to those of you with older children (8+) but personally I’d prefer the options and price the Variety Kit has, not to mention the opportunity to decorate a lot more.