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Nintendo Labo Brings the Magic of Cardboard to Video Games

Talk to any parent, and you’ll sooner or later hear a story that goes like this: Someone bought their child an amazing gift, and then the kid spent the rest of the day playing with the box it came in.

And why not? Cardboard boxes have long been a blank canvas for children’s imagination. Markers, stickers, tape and some scissors, and they can easily be turned into cars, cribs, fairy houses and even spaceships.

It’s that magic of cardboard that makes Nintendo’s latest products so charming: The video game powerhouse is set to release two Nintendo Labo-branded accessory kits to its wildly popular Nintendo Switch game console next month. Both kits, priced around $70 and $80, respectively, allow children and children-at-heart to build cardboard creations that extend video games into the real world.

Nintendo recently invited a few journalists and their children to an event in San Francisco to try out Labo, and I brought my two daughters — age 6 and 10 — along to see what the buzz around these cardboard kits is all about. Like me, both of them aren’t big video gamers. We have a Wii, but rarely use it, and both had only minimal exposure to the Switch.

Nintendo Labo

It turned out that none of that really mattered, because Labo is a lot more about hands-on play than high scores. A big part of the event was to experience building Labo creations first-hand. This involved popping a lot of cardboard parts out of pre-stenciled sheets, and then following the Switch’s on-screen step-by step instructions to fold the right seams and put all the pieces together.

The first creation we got to build and play with was a remote-controlled “car” that was driven by vibrations from the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers. Really, it looked and worked more like one of those Hexbugs that used to be all the rage with kids a few years ago than a car, but the assembly was quick and fun. An accompanying Switch app allowed my daughters to race their cars, or let them battle each other. A quick, fun toy that can easily be customized.

Nintendo Labo

After that, we got to assemble the Labo fishing rod, which was a much more involved project that likely needs some adult supervision for the younger ones. We definitely benefitted from Nintendo’s ever-present helpers during our assembly, and still didn’t get to finish the project in time — there are just a lot of moving pieces.

Nintendo Labo

Anticipating the time it would take to build everything, Nintendo had prepared assembled versions of all the Labo toys for everyone to try out. In addition to the fishing rod, my daughters also got to strap on a kind of cardboard exoskeleton to control a robot in a video game by stomping around and punching in the air.

Nintendo Labo

There was a cardboard motorcycle handle to drive, you guessed it, a motorcycle in a Switch game, a cardboard house with an integrated Switch that was running a number of mini-games and finally a cardboard piano that actually worked, complete with the ability to play chords and even change the tune and switch out instruments.

Out of all of those, the house was probably the biggest disappointment. The games were just vaguely related to the actual cardboard construction, and simply not that entertaining. However, my daughters had a blast stomping around as robots, and also spent quite some time trying to catch fish with the cardboard fishing rod. The 10-year-old one really liked the cardboard motorcycle, and the 6-year-old told me that the piano had been her favorite.

That piano, by the way, is powered by a single Joy-Con controller. A built-in infrared camera watches the keys move, and translates every keystroke to a sound, with no noticeable delay. Other Labo cardboard creations similarly make use of the controller’s build in sensors, allowing low-tech cardboard to become high-tech toys.

Speaking of which: Nintendo is fully anticipating that all of that Labo cardboard tinkering will get kids to come up with their own creations. To that end, the company is including a garage mode that comes with some basic visual programming for customized toys.

So what did my kids think? Honestly, they loved it. The 10-year-old said playing with Labo was like “a summer camp that’s as good as the ads for it,” which is high praise from her mouth. And the 6-year-old was so inspired that the next morning, she promptly built her very own flying car at home. Out of an old cardboard box, of course.

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