Nintendo Labo: Australian Hands On

Image: Logan Booker

La-bow. Yes, like the opera La Bohème, just without the "eme" bit. Or a bow (the shooty kind). This is the first thing Joel, my guide, taught me at Nintendo's Labo workshop on Friday. Pitched within the Pumping Station of Melbourne's Scienceworks museum, the workshop promised to provide a close-up, visceral introduction to Nintendo's upcoming product line of cardboard contraptions. And I can say, without reservation, that I wasn't looking forward to it.

I'll be honest. Upon hearing of Nintendo Labo back in January, I wasn't impressed. I had to wonder: Who would ever buy expensive cardboard for their very digital, very electronic console?

It certainly wasn't aimed at me, or my friends, or even Salisbury, my invisible Scottish terrier. We all gave the Wii Wheel a chance (even old Sals did his best). And we all promptly consigned it to the darkest of cupboards, banishing the white plastic shell to a dusty, lonesome existence.

Sticking controllers inside things and using them to do other things is a neat idea, but one that struggles to be successful in practise. So, what makes Nintendo Labo different?

Well, there's the do-it-yourself aspect, which can be a powerful draw card for crafting enthusiasts. Then there's the lo-fi angle, in that everything is made of cardboard. Except that's a lie -- you'll need string, rubber bands, reflective tape and a few other bits and bobs for the more intricate products. But that's not worth losing sleep over, really.

Finally -- and I believe this is the Labo's greatest strength -- is the co-operative part, the making part. The workshop wasn't just for journos and influencers, there were parents with kids, ranging from six or seven, to about early teens. And they were loving it. Nintendo provided trays of accessories -- googly eyes, fabric, streamers, pipe cleaners and so forth, so people could dress up their creations.

Of course, I didn't indulge (except, perhaps, to lamely dress my Labo-branded coffee cup), but the kids? They were digging it.

The workshop started with the remote-control car, each table getting their own kit. Unlike the other kits, this is a single sheet of pop-out cardboard and is by far the simplest to make. Once you finish it though, you might be confused, mainly because for a car, it's rather deficient in the wheel department.

But that's OK. You slide the Joy-Cons in on either side and then, using the Switch, you can activate the vibration function of the controllers and the "car" will wobble away, much like an unbalanced washing machine. I had a crack and ended up using the sliders (either side the giant grey buttons in the image below) to drive my ungainly disaster. Once you get the hang of it, it's surprisingly controllable.

The RC app even uses the IR sensor as a rudimentary camera, allowing one to spy on on others, as long as they're not alerted by the drone of oscillating cardboard.

Image: Logan Booker

Once we'd set fire to the car and watched it dissolve into ash, suitably hiding my shame, we moved onto the house. This is essentially a tamagotchi, with about as much gameplay as, well, a tamagotchi. You can pick the house up and shake it, the on-screen contents responding to physics, but the primary interaction comes in the form of sticking knobs, cranks and buttons into the holes on the side.

These controls allow you to spin a mobile to send your furry blob to sleep; to fill the room with water (don't worry, the little guy dons a life preserver); and change the time from night to day and back again.

Image: Logan Booker

While very limited, I did find the tech behind it clever. The IR sensor is used to recognise patterns and shapes of reflective tape on the modular cardboard controls, which allows the Switch to recognise which gadget you've stuck in. It's not that complex, sure, but it does open the doors to some niftier interactions down the track.

Next up was the motorcycle. Fortunately, one doesn't have to build a whole vehicle out of cardboard (despite how cool that might sound). Instead, you just need the bit that turns and the bit that sits under the bit that turns. You then push the second bit into your chest and race away.

Image: Logan Booker

There's some attention to detail here on Nintendo's part. First, you have to turn on the engine, using a little cardboard switch on the right handlebar. Then, to accelerate, you twist back and hold the right handlebar. Tilting from side to side has the expected effect of manoeuvring in those directions and if you want to get real fancy, you can yank back on the whole thing to do a wheelie.

Confession time: I was shocked by the amazing force feedback when I did this the first few times, only to realise the cardboard motorcycle was chained to the block beneath me. I blame the two lattes I smashed 30 minutes beforehand.

Before you ask, no, the motorcycle game does not support multiplayer. Actually, none of the games do, except the Robot Kit, which has a versus mode, but Nintendo didn't have the right setup at the workshop to show it off.

Alright, forget the motorcycle! Forget it! We're talking about the piano now. Why put pedal to metal when you can tickle the ivory instead? Lots of reasons, probably, but I've already shut my door and put on a bloody loud sonata.

The piano is the Labo project that, out of the box, best serves as a creative outlet. Not only can you change the type of sounds played when you hit the keys by dropping different knobs in, you can record your tunes and even come up with your own noises. This is done by cutting out sound waves and dropping them into a slot in the back. The Switch will then read in the wave via the IR sensor and transform it into playable notes.

No guarantees your hand-carved notes don't make your ears bleed, however.

You can also use punchcards to create beats to play along to, with each row signifying a different instrument (drums, for example). Here's what an unpunched card looks like.

Image: Logan Booker

The fishing game caught me by surprise, being an oddly relaxing experience. You don't have to flick the rod like a whip to cast the line, instead gently winding it out, letting it go deeper and deeper, the fish eventually devolving into creepy silhouettes outlined by crepuscular rays. While the easier prey hang around in the shallow part of town, stingrays, swordfish and even sharks await you down below.

Image: Logan Booker

You can't just go for the big ones straight away. You'll need to catch a smaller fish and then lower it down to use as bait. Reflexes are important, but I found patience to be more important.

Image: Logan Booker

By far the most popular section of the workshop was the Robot Kit. The stomping, the punching, the awkward crouching that makes you wish you hadn't skipped leg day -- it all gave me flashbacks to hours spent in TimeZone playing Virtual On.

There's definitely a primal chunk of the brain that responds to the physicality of controlling a giant robot via touch and movement, rather than a direction pad and buttons.

Image: Logan Booker

I only had the opportunity to play than the time-limited "destroy everything" mode, which demands nothing of you other than a hate of the world and a love of the smashy. It's Rampage-esque, in that you have to stalk around, punching buildings, hovering UFOs and adorable cars, but you have to move around by lifting a leg, putting it down, lifting your other legs, putting that down... and so on.

Punching is as simple as stretching one's arm out while holding the handles, themselves strapped by string to a box on your back. You can see the counterweights moving behind the robot, which gives you a visual indicator of input deadzones and range.

Stamping your feet isn't the most efficient way to get around, so by sticking your arms to your sides (like an upside-down V) you can blast off into the sky. Alternatively, crouching will transform you into a car with a pair of laser cannons, which are fired in the same way as you punch in robot mode.

While it's no Virtual On (and doesn't pretend to be), it is kind of neat to swing one's limbs with abandon and cause on-screen destruction. But, by then end of my five-minute stint, I was already finding it tedious. No doubt the other modes will hold your attention longer, though one has to ask if it's worth $120.

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The last stop was the "discover" booth, where we were shown Labo's programming capabilities. In the user interface on the Switch, this part is called the "Toy-Con Garage", though the button looks like a manhole cover. Ah well.

You might think that, once you tire of Nintendo's included games and activities, you'll have endless hours of fun tinkering with the Toy-Con Garage. And maybe you will, if you don't get frustrated with the lack of options.

The Garage uses a node-based interface that allows you to hook together three types of elements -- inputs, outputs and the vaguely-named "middle". This means you can connect any input (a button press) directly to an output (playing a sound), or add complexity by sticking something in between (a timer or counter).

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And, while it's possible to get some decent interactions happening, it's going to take quite a few updates before you're making your own games, the biggest hindrance being the limited ways to present visuals on screen. In addition, I can see the node interface becoming very cluttered for involved projects and other than adding comments and zooming in and out, Nintendo's effort with Labo doesn't provide much in the way of organising your "code".

To be fair, it's not aimed at people who want to recreate Mario Kart, but you should be aware if the only reason you're interesting in Labo is to build your own stuff, you're going to be disappointed once the initial novelty wears off.

It shows a lot of promise and I was constantly reassured that what I saw is just the first release -- Nintendo is quite capable of beefing up the Garage in the future. So, if this is the main draw card for you, it might be wise to wait until Nintendo provides more information on updates and improvements.

I think "experiment" is the best way to describe Nintendo Labo. As something parents and kids can share in, Nintendo Labo is ace -- you only had to look around at Friday's workshop to see that. Beyond this, I think Labo has an uphill battle ahead of it. Maybe there's an education aspect that schools might hook into, but it's hardly reusable, unless you want to constantly unfold everything for cough up several hundred dollars at a time.

Which brings us to pricing. $99.95 gets you the Variety Kit, which includes the house, motorcycle, RC car, piano and fishing rod and is clearly the best deal. The Robot Kit is standalone and will set you back $119.95. Then there's the Customisation Set at $14.95, though a trip to your local arts and crafts store will get you more bang for your buck. And of course, you'll need a Switch.

Ultimately, you're looking at $100-$200 for a bunch of cardboard (and the software, of course). Let's not beat around the bush: it's a tough sell.

I also have concerns about durability. The cardboard Nintendo offers is sturdy enough and the use of ringlets to stop cords and whatnot fraying or sawing through things is a good idea. But I can't see, say, the Robot Kit surviving more than three-six months of heavy use. Sure, you can make repairs or even copy the schematics before you fold it together, but I doubt many are going to have the foresight for this.

I think the response to the first wave of Labo products will really set the tone for future packs. Once Nintendo has a better understanding of Labo's "home", so to speak, it'll know where to focus its efforts, be it simple kits like the RC car, full-body interaction and physicality in the form of the Robot Kit or the DIY, programming aspect with the Toy-Con Garage.

While I don't think Nintendo Labo will be a runaway global sensation come April 20, it does show promise, especially for parents and kids with a love of co-operative projects.


Comments

    I am getting the variety pack, it looks to offer way more bang for buck. The other pack having just the robot game is a bit too much for me, although that is the one my kids were most excited about...

    Having a 5 and 8 year old kids means I'll get this day one. Very much looking forward to it.

    Having 0 kids I will getting the variety pack just for the fishing game.

    I wonder how many parents are going to buy this and then realise they need a $400 console to actually make it work. It's a clever experiment but Nintendo is hamstringing themselves by forcing people to use a Switch and controllers. They should have gone the other way and provided a set of control mechanisms that can sync with the Switch or mobile devices and made their money that way.

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