Even the savviest observer of the Japanese video-game giant Nintendo couldn’t have predicted that the interactive gaming experience it announced last January would involve not a VR headset or a new Mario game, but perforated cardboard, colorful string, elastic bands, and plastic grommets.
These resolutely low-tech items are the stuff of Labo (short for laboratory), a series of add-ons for the breakout Switch handheld console, which Nintendo introduced in March of 2017. As much maker projects as they are games, Labo’s DIY kits let you fold cardboard parts into smart toys that you can engage using the Switch. The $70 Variety Kit provides the makings of a piano and a fishing rod, along with a house, a motorbike, and two radio-controlled cars. Labo’s second offering, the $80 Robot Kit, contains parts for a visor and backpack that, once built, turn the wearer into a Transformers-style automaton. (Crouch down and your character can zip over terrain like a tank; stand up and raise your arms and it takes flight.)
Much of the technology that brings Labo’s structures to life is found in the Switch’s controllers, which detach from the console’s main touch screen. When placed inside a cardboard car, for example, the controllers’ coordinated vibrations propel it forward. Pop one controller into the handle of the fishing rod and its motion sensor detects whether you’re lowering your bait or reeling in a feisty mackerel, with all of the action depicted on the Switch screen in real time. Inside Labo’s piano, a controller uses its embedded infrared camera to identify which keys you’re pressing.
As gadgetry such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift is making entertainment more virtual, Labo’s joyful physicality represents a back-to-basics move for Nintendo, which was founded in 1889 as a manufacturer of playing cards and expanded to make other playthings in the 1960s. It’s hard to imagine the other console kingpins (Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One) offering anything similar to Labo–and that’s the point. Since its earliest days in the video-game business, “Nintendo has chosen to do it their own way,” says Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation.
Staying unique is “challenging, and it’s high risk as well, but it’s something that we embrace,” says Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé. It also requires a willingness to ignore the advice of outsiders. After 2012’s Wii U console fizzled–it reached a total of 13.5 million units sold, versus 102 million for the original Wii–pundits declared that it was time for the company to retrench to safer territory, such as making smartphone games. With titles such as 2016’s Super Mario Run, Nintendo did start bringing its iconic characters to iPhone and Android gamers. Rather than abandoning its own hardware, however, it introduced the Switch. The versatile handheld surpassed the Wii U’s lifetime unit sales in 10 months, and it became the fastest-selling console in U.S. history.
Rolling out Labo just over a year after the launch of the Switch is a way for Nintendo to keep the momentum going. Animated on-screen instructions guide users through the building process, making it feel more like play than Ikea-esque drudgery. Once assembled, the projects, though endearingly wobbly, work well. And each has unexpected depth: The piano, for instance, can also act as a virtual aquarium–and you can create your own fish by cutting them out of cardboard, then scanning them using the camera-equipped controller.
There’s even a simple programming feature, which allows users to devise new functionalities, such as employing the Robot Kit backpack to steer a car from the Variety Kit. They can even fabricate a theoretically infinite array of wholly original gizmos out of their own cardboard.
Its forays into cardboard notwithstanding, Nintendo’s greatest assets are still its signature video-game franchises, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, both of which have been best sellers. But Fils-Aimé relishes Labo’s potential to broaden the company’s audience as new kits are developed. “No doubt, Labo will appeal to consumers that today don’t see themselves playing video games,” he says. “And we love that aspect of the product.”