Now you’re playing with cardboard: The lowdown on Nintendo’s brilliant, sturdy ‘Labo’

Posted June 25th, 2018

If you haven’t raised a kid or been one yourself recently, it’s easy to forget the wonders and possibilities contained in an empty cardboard box.

Didn’t you know a cardboard box is also a spaceship you can fly around in? And a house you can climb into and decorate with windows you can’t see through? 

Don’t you know a cardboard box is the perfect sled to drag across the tile floor and a great hiding place when the world is ending because of big, scary monsters? Are you dumb? Why in the world would you throw out a gigantic appliance cardboard box?

Of all the major companies making video games today, it tends to feel like Nintendo is the one with the firmest grasp on what it’s like to be a kid with a big, playful imagination. Nintendo also tends to take wild swings in unexpected directions, sometimes with a thud. But -- as is the case with its “Labo” products launched this year -- sometimes the company hits on something vital and with big potential.

Labo is, basically, a collection of cardboard projects that work with the Nintendo Switch console. Two sets have been released: a “Robot Kit” ($80) that assembles into a wearable robot costume and backpack; and a “Variety Pack” ($70) that contains cardboard parts to make a surprisingly functional fishing rod, a motorcycle handlebar, a toy piano and other things.

If you are a grownup who hates whimsy, fun or tinkering, you’ll hate it. Most of the time you’ll spend with “Labo” involves folding creases and punching perforated holes out of sheets of cardboard and folding them together into objects using an on-screen tutorial you can view on your TV or on the portable Switch screen.

Omar L. Gallaga/American-StatesmanCarolina Gallaga, 8, assembles a power piston as part of the "Nintendo Labo Robot Kit." The kit mixes a Nintendo video game, tutorial and box of cardboard parts to put together.
Omar L. Gallaga/American-StatesmanLilly Gallaga, 10, assembles a power piston as part of the "Nintendo Labo Robot Kit." The kit mixes a Nintendo video game, tutorial and box of cardboard parts to put together.

Folding cardboard is supposed to be fun? In a weird and unexpected way, it is. There’s something zen-like about putting the projects together with your hands and following the tutorials. It simply feels right. The instructions are funny, clever, and extremely easy to follow; you can zoom in and out, rotate the objects in view and go forward and back at whatever pace you like. If this whole games business ever goes bust for Nintendo, they could make billions improving corporate training videos or making IKEA furniture manuals easier to follow.

My kids, who are 8 and 10, had a chance to play with the “Variety Kit” when their uncle brought it over and they went to work assembling the fishing rod. They also are in the process of making the “Robot Kit,” provided by Nintendo. The cardboard in each set is sturdy enough to feel like it’s not going to fall apart, but pliable enough to work with and when a toy like the rod is done, with its clicking reel and brightly colored strings, it feels like a wonder in your hands that it works at all.

The software each kit comes with has games that interact in clever ways with the assembled object. You might be playing house or catching fish or smashing things as a giant robot, or playing music as Ariana Grande did with the Roots on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Not everyone will think that $70 or $80 is a worthy investment on what is essentially a box of cardboard sheets and some software that probably falls best under the “minigame” genre. But if you have kids, the act of putting together the projects is itself the reward; it’s about as frustration-free as DIY gets and has that Nintendo spit-and-polish that elevates a good gaming experience into something special.

Yes, it’s just cardboard. 

But as any kid will tell you, it’s also so much more than that.