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- Very clever engineering.
- Cool Toy-Con Garage feature.
- Robot suit Toy-Con is the only one to build.
- Not much variety in gameplay.
- Few clear ideas to inspire working with Toy-Con Garage.
The Nintendo Labo Robot Kit walks you through building a very clever cardboard robot suit for stomping around in the included Switch game. There isn’t much meat to it, though.
Nintendo’s cardboard Labo system sounded crazy at first, using craft supplies to make toys that work with the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers. The Labo Variety Kit impressed us greatly, showing just how clever Nintendo can be when it’s at its best, and offering loads of opportunity for kids to experiment and learn about engineering and programming. The Variety Kit was launched alongside another Labo product, the Robot Kit. Unlike the Variety Kit, the $79.99 Robot Kit doesn’t walk you through building a selection of Toy-Cons with different game modes. Instead, it focuses on a single cardboard robot suit, and builds on it. However, at $10 more than the Variety Kit, the Labo Robot Kit ultimately feels a lot less substantial.
Building a Robot
The Labo Robot Kit includes a game card with the Labo Robot software and a box full of all of the cardboard, cords, straps, and tape you need to build the robot suit Toy-Con. To get building, you need to load the Labo Robot game into your Switch and access the first of its three main game modes: Make.
Make walks you through every step of building the robot Toy-Con. It’s a long, complicated process with many steps and dozens upon dozens of different pieces of cardboard folding and fitting together. Every step is clearly defined and animated, showing each individual piece and crease in the process. You can fast forward, rewind, rotate, and pan around each step, which is helpful if you want to make sure you’re doing everything correctly and the default camera angle doesn’t show you what you want to see for a step. It’s a very direct, clear set of instructions kids can easily follow.
The Labo robot suit consists of a visor and a backpack. It took me about three hours to put everything together, which is in line with Nintendo’s estimate of three to four hours for construction. Like the Toy-Cons in the Labo Variety Pack, the Robot Toy-Con consists almost entirely of cardboard, with some nylon cords and straps, plastic grommets, and reflective tape. The cardboard pieces are perforated and precut, popping easily out of their cardboard sheets. The perforations also make folding everything as directed very easy, and I didn’t have any issues with tearing, dangling cardboard, or otherwise ruined pieces when building it.
It’s a clever piece of engineering, like the more complex Variety Pack Toy-Cons. The cardboard backpack, once assembled, contains four sliding pistons weighed down by stacks of cardboard and connected to four cords that come out of the top of the pack. These cords end in two handles (to control the robot’s hands) and two looped nylon foot straps (to control the robot’s feet).
Swinging your arms and stomping your feet makes its respective piston move up and down, which translates to movement on the screen through the right Joy-Con’s infrared camera. The right Joy-Con slides into the back of the backpack and constantly watches the pistons, which have strips of reflective tape on them. As it sees the different strips move up and down, it tells the Labo Robot game on the Switch to move the associated robot limb. This is all done with the camera, without any physical buttons or motion sensors. It’s a testament to the cleverness of Nintendo’s design, and impresses us just like the piano Toy-Con does in the Variety Pack.
The visor is a cardboard rectangle that flips down in front of your face, suspended on a nylon headband. It looks like a goofy costume object, but it plays just as important a role in controlling the robot as the backpack does. The left Joy-Con slides onto the side of the visor, and follows the movement of your head. It lets you look in different directions, and even turn left and right by tilting your head in either direction.
Flipping the visor up and down over your face changes the view from a third-person perspective of the robot and a first-person mode. The Joy-Con next to your head also lets you interact with the menus, since the right Joy-Con is inaccessible in the backpack while it’s in use. You can use the analog stick on the left Joy-Con to choose different game modes, and press the L button to make choices. Unfortunately, the Capture button is covered by the cardboard holder of the visor, so it’s awkward to take screenshots of robot action.
Cleverly, the backpack can hold everything you build, including the visor, when not in use. When you’re done playing with it, the handles and foot straps fit in a compartment inside of it. A hook on top even lets you hang it up neatly.
You can also build two “tools” for customizing your robot (that also fit in the backpack for storage). They’re big cardboard bolts with reflective tape that you insert into holes on the backpack in the Hangar mode under the Play menu.
The Hangar lets you customize your robot with the tools. Opening the top of the backpack reveals a hole in which you insert one of the bolts, while the other slides horizontally into one of three holes on the right. In the Hangar, turning the top bolt switches between different parts of the robot, like the head, chest, and arms. Turning the right bolt in its different holes lets you adjust the hue (color), saturation (vividness of color), and brightness of each part. I didn’t come across any alternate designs for the robot parts, but just changing the color palette is a nice option.
The second item under Play is Robo-Studio, which lets you customize the sounds your robot makes when you move around. There are 10 different sound banks, including clanking robot noises, different musical beats, and giant monster sounds. It’s another minor point of customization that adds a bit more fun and personality to the game.
The third mode is VS, and it lets you pit robots against each other. Two sets of Joy-Cons in two robot backpacks and visors can be used to set up head-to-head boxing matches. Of course, you need a second backpack set for that kind of action. You can use the individual parts of the first Toy-Con as a guide for cutting your own pieces out of cardboard, but you probably won’t get the precision cuts and perforations that make assembling the Toy-Con from the included materials so easy. You can also order replacement packs of cardboard, along with the necessary cables, straps, and reflective stickers, from Nintendo’s online store for just over $60. That’s a pretty pricey versus mode.
The fourth mode, Robot, is the main game mode for the Labo Robot software. It gives you five minutes to stomp around a city, smashing buildings and punching UFOs. At its most basic level, this involves walking in place to make the robot move with your steps, and stretching out your arms to punch forward. While the actions are goofy and loud thanks to the thunking of cardboard as the pistons move up and down, your movements translate instantly and directly to the game.
Besides walking around and punching, your robot has some other handy tricks. Sticking both of your arms out at once makes the robot fly into the air, which is difficult to control but lets you get a better look around the city and even stomp down on buildings and UFOs. Bending your knees turns the robot into a car that can zoom around the city faster.
Then there are the special moves, which you unlock by playing the fifth Play mode, Challenge. Challenge consists of five sets of three stages. Each set corresponds to a new skill for your robot: Charge Punch, Drill Kick, Plane Mode, Quick Jump, and Special Beam. Beating the first stage unlocks the skill and lets you use it in other modes. Beating the other two stages powers up the skill, making it more effective. These stages are much more direct and goal-focused than the Robot mode, giving more structure to the stomping robot experience.
The last Play mode is Calories, which isn’t actually a game type or a customization mode. It simply shows you how many calories you’ve burned playing as a robot, based on your weight.
Programming Your Bot
The Discover section of the Labo Robot software contains a collection of text and video guides for using the robot backpack in different ways. While the Make section details how to put everything together, Discover shows how everything actually works, and explains how to troubleshoot problems. It even offers suggestions for customizing the robot backpack with stencils, markers, and tape.
The section also offers access to the Secret Lab, or Toy-Con Garage. The Toy-Con Garage is a simple and powerful programming interface for your own Toy-Con creations, using the Joy-Cons and Switch as inputs and outputs. The simplest example of a Toy-Con Garage project is pressing a button on a Joy-Con to make another Joy-Con vibrate, but you can do much more with the tools available.
Toy-Con programming is tile-based, with different input, output, and logic modifier tiles arranged on a stark black-and-white field and connected with lines. Inputs include button presses, physically moving a Joy-Con in different directions, and tapping parts of the Switch touch screen. Outputs can involve making a Joy-Con buzz, making the Switch make a sound, or even lighting up a section of the touch screen. Modifiers, or middle tiles, can set times, dictate thresholds, and otherwise tweak what triggers an output from an input. It’s a deceptively simple programming interface that has a ton of potential for kids to experiment with basic programming and engineering and make their own Toy-Cons with the Labo software.
The Toy-Con Garage included with the Robot Kit is identical to the Toy-Con Garage in the Variety Kit software, and that’s where the Robot version falters. While all of the same tools are there, the Robot Kit only walks you through building and playing with a single Toy-Con: the robot suit and visor. It’s a complex Toy-Con and impressive in its own right, but it doesn’t provide enough of a look into just what Toy-Cons can do. The Variety Kit has five drastically different Toy-Cons to play with, each with their own unique mechanisms and gameplay elements.
Basically, if you build everything in the Variety Kit and open up Toy-Con Garage, you’ll have plenty of varied ideas about what you can do with Toy-Cons. If you build the robot suit and open up Toy-Con Garage, you probably won’t have as clear a picture of just how mechanically unique and creative your Toy-Cons can be. The Discover section of the software has plenty of guides explaining how Toy-Cons can work, but the Robot Kit doesn’t give the hands-on experience of building different ones that the Variety Kit does.
Variety Is Spicier
The Nintendo Labo Robot Kit is an engineering marvel of craft supplies, and a fun, stompy experience for anyone. However, as a total package it feels much less satisfying and educational than the Labo Variety Kit. The robot backpack Toy-Con has a few fun modes to play with, but nothing particularly substantial. Even with the full power of the Toy-Con Garage included in the software, the Robot Kit doesn’t include enough variety of ideas and mechanisms for different Toy-Cons to get kids on the right path to building their own. The Robot Kit costs $10 more than the Variety Kit, and feels like it offers much less.
Labo is still a fantastic concept, and Nintendo should continue to explore new things to do with it. The Variety Kit is one of the most remarkable combination game/craft/STEM education kits we’ve seen in some time. The Robot Kit is still fun, but it just doesn’t come close to offering the hours of fascinating, educational construction and gameplay of the Variety Kit.