Nintendo Labo hands-on preview: Can cardboard really be the next step for Nintendo?

Steve Hogarty
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Cardboard. Often seen mashed into a pulpy brown rectangle on the side of a rain-soaked street or driven through at high speed by a getaway driver fleeing a daring museum heist, this ubiquitous corrugated material has permeated modern life in a way that few others can boast.

Tin had a good run. Stainless steel is right up there with, say, styrofoam and some types of polyurethane. But cardboard is the robust brown friend we keep coming back to. Reliable, dry, sort of unpleasant to run your fingers along, cardboard.

But just when you think you know what cardboard’s whole deal is, along comes Nintendo to blow your preconceptions out of the water. Not content to coast on the roaring success of its Switch console, Nintendo Labo is the company’s latest and perhaps strangest project yet: a set of ready-to-be-assembled cardboard toys, including a fishing rod, a robot suit, a functioning piano and a simple RC car. Each new toy comes in the form of one or more large perforated sheets of printed cardboard that can be popped out and folded into shape, and then wirelessly powered by the Nintendo Switch hardware, which neatly slots into parts of the cardboard object you’ve constructed.

Where Microsoft and Sony have gone high-tech with their recent add-ons, enhancing their consoles with virtual reality whizzbangs and motion sensing doodads, Nintendo has gone about as low-fi as you can get, innovating with the cheap material that their rivals’ products come packaged in. As if Nintendo needed proving right, gaming audiences responded to the video reveal with unfettered adulation. So did investors; Nintendo’s share price jumped four per cent on the back of news that it would start selling cardboard to kids for £60 a pop.

So how does it all work? At a hands-on preview event – and surrounded by children – I spent 20 minutes constructing an insectoid-looking remote controlled drone out of folding bits of cardboard, by following step-by-step on-screen instructions. Along the left and right flanks of the drone were slotted the Switch’s pair of Joy-Con controllers, and by pressing corresponding buttons on the Switch’s touchscreen the controllers would vibrate, which would turn the car left or right on its legs. Press both buttons and it judders forward and around like a drunk aunt near a buffet table.

Labo has the potential to be the most important kids’ toy of a generation

Labo is laser-focused at the younger end of the gaming market (though naturally still irresistible to the fully grown men and women who tirelessly consume everything Nintendo creates). It merges creativity, art and crafts – we were encouraged to go to town on our little creations with Pritt Stick and googly eyes, which I was only too happy to do – with a dose of basic engineering and science. The cardboard creations, simple as they look, can be remarkably complicated on the inside.

The piano, for example, comprises a full set of keys on individual pivots, with reflective tape on the hidden side that’s read by the infrared sensor of the Joy-Con controller, which then translates the visual feedback into a software input, and plays the note aloud from the console speaker. The robot suit comprises a backpack, with strings and pulleys attached to your arms and legs to create a full-body motion-sensing device to play a city-smashing game on the TV.

If Nintendo’s collectible Amiibo figurines – which used contactless NFC tech to reward players with new in-game features – were an experiment in bridging the gap between the physical and digital realms of play, then Nintendo Labo is the realisation of that ingenuity. Labo has the potential to be the most important kids’ toy of a generation, part LEGO, part Art Attack and all mad, seductive Nintendo fun.

Nintendo Labo launches 27 April

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