TORONTO – For all of the advancements over the decades in kids’ toys, from remote-controlled gadgets to video games, nothing has enjoyed the longevity or versatility of the simple cardboard box.
Many a parent has a tale of their kids being gifted a new toy, only to eschew to the expensive item for the packaging it came in. The cardboard box’s popularity is so widespread it was enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005.
Nintendo’s new “Labo” toy system, the latest big release for its popular Switch system, is the answer to the question ‘what if the expensive toy WAS the cardboard box?’ By combining the box’s inexpensive material and creative potential with the unique control features of the Switch, Nintendo has created something kids can enjoy both as a video game and an introduction to engineering and coding.
The “Labo” launched last week with the “variety pack” and the “robot pack.” The variety kit is the recommended entry point into the “Labo” system and includes plans and material for five projects or “toy-cons” — a remote-controlled car, a fishing rod, a set of motorcycle handlebars, a piano and a house — that utilize every facet of the Switch’s unique control system.
The introductory project, the RC car, takes around 20 minutes or so to build. When it’s done it looks like a box with wavy appendages on the bottom with the joy-con controllers attached to the sides. The car can then be steered from the Switch’s touch screen by setting off vibrations in the joy-cons — setting both off at the same time move the car forward while just the left or right will steer in the desired direction.
Other projects use other parts of the Switch’s functionality in equally imaginative ways. The fishing rod, for example, fits one joy-con into the reel of the finished project while another goes into the rod. The motion controls are then utilized in a simple fishing game. The piano has bits of reflective tape on the back of each key that is read by a joy-con’s infra-red sensor to determine which note to play.
Projects outside the RC car can take anywhere from an hour to three hours to build, depending on whether there is adult supervision. While the instructions to build are easy to follow, cardboard is flimsy. The odd fold can take a bad turn, or a tab might get bent when putting two pieces together. Fortunately, the designs allow enough reinforcement to be forgiving of the occasional flub.
If a piece gets squished or damaged beyond repair, you can try making a replacement one. Failing that, Nintendo does plan to sell replacement parts.
The projects that come with the variety pack should be enough to keep prospective builders engaged for several hours. Once the interest in catching virtual fish or noodling around on a toy piano has waned, however, there are a couple of different directions to go to freshen up one’s Labo experience.
The first option, a more expensive and ready-made one, is to buy the robot kit. It actually retails for about $10 more than the variety kit, but comes with a more advanced project that results in a wearable robot suit that you can use to stomp around a city, smashing everything in sight, with the accompanying software.
The other, and one where the true potential of the product is revealed, is in the “toy-con garage” that is included with both kits. This is essentially a basic coding interface, with input and output nodes that can be connected. For example, an input node to press the “A” button on the right joy-con can be connected to an output node to light up the Switch’s screen, or make a noise. Timers and delays can also be added to these functions.
String enough of these together, and you can expand your “Labo” products in myriad ways, from steering the RC car with motion sensors to creating a basic table tennis game. And of course, with the key material being cardboard, it is easy to customize “Labo” creations with markers, tape and decals.
Games like “Minecraft” have inspired younger gamers to give voice to their creative instincts, and the “Labo” has the potential to do the same. There are already YouTube videos of people banging out their favourite tunes on the piano, or making a guitar using “Labo” components and a broom.
Kids have always enjoyed toys that allowed creative expression, from building blocks to sandbox video games. The first two kits offered by the “Labo” are an evolution in that concept, and it’s interesting to see where the product will go from here.
The “Labo” is rated “E” — suitable for all ages — and retails for about $90 for the variety kit and $100 for the robot kit.