Tech

Nintendo Labo tests, part one: Robot Kits cardboard stomps are fun but shallow

  • The Nintendo Labo Robot Kit, fully assembled with Switch Joy-Cons inserted. Sam Machkovech
  • The cardboard backpack with its hand paddles and footholds attached. When you punch your hands or stomp your feet…
  • …the colored twine pulls on smaller cardboard boxes inside the backpack. That moves four pieces of reflective tape…
  • …which the right-side Joy-Con's infrared camera recognizes and translates into hand and foot movement.
  • This cardboard visor completes the set. It tracks your head's movements for the sake of turning and aiming.
  • Putting the set together requires popping large pieces out of laser-cut cardboard (and a gallery below shows how that process is tutorialized in cute, complete fashion).
  • One huge gripe: the tutorials do a bad job of emphasizing how many tiny bits have to be punched out of the cardboard sheets. These little bits and bobs add no less than 20 minutes to the construction process.
  • The author poses with the completed Labo Robot Kit.
  • Other side. The holes let you insert a cardboard knob for a robot-customization feature. And, yes, that's my shower curtain. (I need better mirrors.)

There's a lot to unpack with the build-your-own-controller series of Nintendo Labo kits. Figuratively, the two boxed releases, dubbed Variety Kit and Robot Kit, include many opportunities to build, play, experiment, and learn, and that's worth exploring. Plus, they have to be literally unpacked before you can even get started—because you have to clip a zillion cardboard pieces together to turn your Switch into a range of weird toys.

As such, my colleague Kyle Orland has taken his time to play with the Variety Kit since its April 20 launch, specially because he has invited his young daughter to participate. Nintendo Labo absolutely screams parent-child participation in its advertisements, packaging, and in-game presentations, and it opens up the opportunity for families to build weird stuff like a functional piano, a motorcycle, and a Tamagotchi-like cardboard house.

In the meantime, I've given Nintendo's pricier Robot Kit a different kind of spin: as a grown-up kid-at-heart who might buy this for solo use, since it looks a little more "gamer"-y. My findings, however, are that the package is a bit of a bummer for all ages.

Robot-em-up

  • Ahead is a gallery that shows some of the Labo tutorial process in action. It's not a comprehensive, step-by-step look at how to build, so many steps are missing. But our captions highlight its particular successes and charms.
  • Building any Labo "Toy-Con" requires folding and combining many small pieces, often with non-cardboard add-ons. Here, we combine two cardboard pieces with a plastic washer.
  • The tutorial process is very good at breaking down individual objects with strong visuals and clear, welcoming instructions.
  • Meaning, by the time you have to awkwardly connect two bigger pieces…
  • …everything about the combination feels simple and natural, not awkward.
  • A mannequin occasionally appears to make sure you can fit your completed works onto your head, hands, or feet.
  • Looks good.
  • Labo does a lot to encourage users' folding.
  • Tie some knots.
  • You'll pack folded cardboard into Labo's levers, which add weight for your punches and kicks.
  • These simple boxes are great for kids to put together.
  • Every time you need to break new pieces out of your main Labo box, you're given this kind of instruction.
  • By doing the simpler, smaller pieces first, Labo builders can build up confidence for the more elaborate stuff.
  • Labo automatically moves its camera around for clear perspectives, but you can grab a joystick and move the camera manually at any time.
  • "Like a little UFO."
  • Any time the tutorial shows something being folded or inserted, the game makes cute Nintendo-caliber sounds.
  • The zig-zaggy cuts in Labo's cardboard are really great for guiding these potentially complicated straps.
  • A good example of Labo's automatic camera framing things in clear fashion.
  • This complicated step…
  • …is made easier with clear instructions and great camera angles.
  • One big complaint: I could never get these cardboard straps to fold down as shown here. The stuff is rigid (which is better than it being too flimsy, to be fair).
  • The end of every phase includes a guidance to take a break. And for good reason: you've got over two hours of building ahead of you, possibly as many as three.
  • Smaller parts of the build come together in fluid fashion.
  • Important info.
  • The Kit won't work without a Joy-Con infrared camera looking in.
  • Nearly done.

The Labo Robot Kit, unlike the $70 Variety Kit, costs $10 more and includes a single large project's cardboard parts. You don't get a variety of small "Toy-Con" cardboard-controller options here; instead, you'll spend over two hours building a multi-part backpack with matching hand, foot, and head attachments. Clear instructions and easy-to-assemble pieces keep the building-process friction to a minimum, at least, and you can get a taste of it in the above gallery. (Throughout the instructional phase, Nintendo's English translation team has fun with puns and silly phrases of encouragement. This helps the hours pass with a few more smiles for you and any nearby kids.)

The assembled backpack includes four sticker-covered cardboard levers, and each of these connects to one arm or foot handle. Put the backpack on your back; stick foot-sized holders onto your feet; and hold onto two cardboard handles with your hands. In a corresponding game, backpack wearers stomp feet or punch hands to move these levers, and the Switch's Joy-Con IR camera, inserted into the backpack, will read the levers' reflective magnetic tape to make a giant, on-screen robot stomp and punch in kind. The Switch's second Joy-Con affixes to a visor, and you can lean your head and body to turn your robot's orientation accordingly.

The setup is like Nintendo took the X and Y axes of two joysticks and pulled them out so you have to move hands and feet to control them, with a pinch of head tracking to boot. This is all kinds of clever, and there's no understating the feeling of your stomps and punches matching an on-screen avatar while your cardboard kit makes childish "bonk" noises. That kind of controller transformation seems ripe for multiple mini-games or experiments, particularly since the set requires so much build time compared to the separate elements of the other, slightly cheaper "Toy-Con" kit.

However, Robot Kit only ships with a single "destroy a city" game referred to as Robot in the software. You land in a simple-polygon future-city, like something out of Star Fox 64, and your robot must punch and stomp its way through everything in sight. Like a classic arcade cabinet, the game is shaped by a timer, an objective of getting the highest score possible, and a "combo" multiplier (like in Devil May Cry and other modern beat-'em-ups) for when your robot destroys multiple objects in a row.

  • Destroy a simple, low-poly city by stomping and punching around.
  • Should you want to get around the city faster, extend both hands to turn on flight mode.
  • Your fastest maneuver is this tank mode, which requires crouching. Older players will not enjoy the constant swap between crouching and standing required to max out the game's score and combo counters.

This combo mechanic exposes Robot Kit's biggest frustration point: that it's awkward to quickly, comfortably, and reliably pilot your giant robot from one point-scoring object to the next. Yes, it's fun to chain actions together and feel like you are this monstrous robot; Nintendo's design prowess is evident even during this game's most awkward segments. But stomping in place makes your character move very slowly forward, and leaning your body to turn is hard to do during any frantic "punch all the things" moment when it just makes more logistical sense to turn your entire body (and thus face away from a television set). I'm a grown-up who understands the limitations of controllers' motion sensors, and I still found myself turning my full body on a regular basis. Triple that for an excited kid who believes he/she has become a city-stomping robot.

Most of the game's other maneuvers—like holding both arms out to "fly" or pulling your visor down over your face to enable a first-person laser—don't add the critical speed needed to keep the combo counter ticking. The exception is a faster tank mode that is enabled by physically crouching. Labo players of a certain adult age can expect to feel uncomfortable alternating between standing and crouching to fulfill the combo counter's timing requirements—and these are the kinds of players who will likely care about a high score, as opposed to little kids who may not give a hoot about scores as they stomp around.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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