Nintendo is no stranger to thinking outside the box. That's how projects such as "Mario Paint," Game Boy Camera and the Wii Fit are created. The Japanese company takes risks, and they're sometimes rewarded.
For its latest project, Nintendo didn't think outside the box. They thought about the box, and with Nintendo Labo, the company is harnessing the power of the do-it-yourself movement. The process is giving players both young and old an opportunity to express their creativity by building nifty contraptions out of cardboard.
I spent some time with a coworker's son at a Nintendo event, which showed off the potential of Nintendo Labo. We worked on, played with and discovered secrets behind the game. Here's what I thought of each phase of the project:
This was my favorite aspect of Nintendo Labo. The developers do an excellent job of guiding players through the creation process. It's a lot like putting together Ikea furniture except the process is much more transparent and hands on thanks to the Switch screen.
At the beginning, the game lets players know which cardboard pieces to pop out. From there, the instructions tell players which pieces to fold together. What's great about this process is that players can go at their own speed when working with the guide.
They advance to the next step by sliding their finger along an arrow on the monitor. If they're confused about a piece, they can zoom in or turn it around by manipulating the touchscreen. Even with the high-tech guide, the process of making something takes a while. Expect to spend a chunk of an afternoon making projects such as a fishing pole or two Toy-Con cars. Looking forward to assembling that Toy-Con Robot? That may take a whole day or a weekend.
One of the more enjoyable parts about working with the cardboard is that it's sturdier than I expected. It takes some effort to rip it. The other fun part about working with the material is that players can decorate and customize their creations however they want. For best result, it's best to organize the craft materials before working on a project.
The only qualm I have is that players may be confused about which way to fold the cardboard even though it has perforated sections.
Once players are finished with the construction, they have to connect the Switch pieces to it. With the RC cars, the Joy-Cons act almost like wings. Meanwhile, the Switch touchscreen acts as the controller. To move, the Joy-Cons vibrate inching the car forward.
With something as complex as the Toy-Con robot, putting on the backpack and the Velcro straps is a bit cumbersome, but once players start the accompanying game it works like magic. Punch and the robot punches. Duck and the machine transforms into a tank. If players punch while crouched, the tank shoots its cannon.
Players can also make the robot fly by holding both hands straight behind their back. To actually move around, players have to lean one way or another to turn and make steps in place. Lastly, there's a zoom that players can activate by flipping down a visor wrapped and attached to their head.
It will take a while to adjust to all this, but it feels natural after a few minutes. As for the game itself, I played a mode where I had to destroy buildings and alien craft for a score. Moving around so much was a surprising workout.
The other Nintendo Labo project I saw was the Toy-Con piano. Although there aren't many keys, the inventive contraption offers enough options that players can easily carry a tune and explore the mechanics of the instrument.
The Toy-Con piano has a whammy bar that can make notes wobble. Meanwhile, a knob on top can switch the sound of the notes from regular piano keys to the sound of cats meowing to the voice of an old man singing.
On the surface, there's a lot of ways to have fun with Nintendo Labo," but it's the secrets of the technology that give it potential, especially for young people who want to get their feet wet with coding and robotics.
The secret behind Nintendo Labo lies in the technology of the Joy-Con. Hidden in the right controller is an infrared motion camera. On the RC Car, it allows players to essentially see where the gizmo is going on the Switch screen.
When combined with special IR ink and clever programming, it allows Nintendo Labo to do some special things. It's the magic behind the Toy-Con robot. The IR camera is fitted to the rear panel of the backpack and it reads the IR ink that's attached to weights inside. When players punch, the weights are lifted and the Joy-Con interprets that as a punch. Lifting the legs lets the machine interpret that as footstep.
The same technology is what makes the Toy-Con piano work. The camera reads the keys when they are pressed. What's even more impressive is that players can cut out their own fish shapes and insert it into the piano. The IR camera in the back will scan the paper and turn the object into a fish game. Like other Nintendo Labo, there's a craftiness to how Nintendo makes the technology work.
Lastly, Nintendo is introducing Toy-Con Garage. It's for players who want to expand what Nintendo Labo can do. It's a mode that teaches players simple programming using visual blocks. It's similar to Scratch Blocks, a coding language developed by MIT and Google.
For example, players can program the Toy-Con fishing rod to move the RC car. They can connect different Toy-Con commands for different actions. There's even the option to turn the Switch screen into an instrument. Although it may seem daunting, the coding doesn't appear to be super complex. At the most, players have to deal with if/then statements to make Toy-Cons do more imaginative things.
Nintendo Labo will be released April 20 in two kits. The variety pack, which has a wide variety of Toy-Cons, goes for $69.99. It's probably the best value. The Nintendo Labo Robot Kit goes sells for $79.99.