Nintendo Labo hands-on review

Forget the old-fashioned looks – this is a new frontier for kid-friendly gaming

20 February 2018
by Stuff Staff

The Nintendo Labo may well be the most family-friendly gaming setup since the Wii arrived in 2006.

As the home of Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Pokémon, Nintendo has always been the most child-focused of the big three consoles, but even in that context Labo moves things on a notch – and then some.

The basic concept is simple: you create gaming accessories out of bits of cardboard, then use them together with the Switch to play, play and play some more. But that simplicity hides a plethora of possibilities both in gaming and, if your children are so inclined, basic object-oriented coding.


Labo’s slogan is Make; Play; Discover, with the Make bit (obviously) referring to the bit where you build the accessories – or Toy-Cons in Nintendo-speak – in the first place.

There are two bundles available at launch: the Variety Kit, which lets you build an RC car, house, fishing rod, piano and motorbike, and the Robot Kit – which gives you all you need for a really cool Iron-Man-style robo suit.

I attended the Labo hands-on event with my two eight-year-olds, and both enjoyed the building part almost as much as the later gaming side of things. You start off with a sheet of cardboard containing pre-punched sections which are easily pushed out, and plenty of markings showing you where you need to fold. To further reduce the likelihood of tantrums, a video on the Switch itself gives you step-by-step instructions as you construct your masterpiece.

My kids both found it easy enough to follow, although some of the folding does need to be done to a fairly exact standard, so be prepared to either give them a hand or make a few adjustments once they’ve finished.

With the building done, your kids can decorate their Toy-Cons to their hearts’ content, before moving on to the next stage. And that’s where things get really good.


What Nintendo’s done with Labo is let you create a mass of new accessories using only cardboard. That might make it sound massively overpriced – £60 for a few sheets of cardboard! – but really what you’re paying for is the ingenuity behind how the Toy-Cons combine with the Switch.

The RC car is the simplest of the six launch Toy-Cons, in that it’s, well, just a car. The Joy-Cons slot on to its sides and you use the main Switch unit as your RC controller to drive it around, race it against other Toy-Con cars, and play a sort of Robot Wars-style sumo game with it.

Ultimately it does what cars do, though, and it probably wouldn’t hold a child’s attention for that long on its own. That said, there are hints of what’s to come: you can customise the controls to a huge degree, using sound or motion to make it spring to life in much the same way as you can a Sphero.

The fishing rod is also fairly limited in terms of gameplay, although the fishing game it works with is great fun for a few minutes, as you delicately try to entice fish on to your line then frantically reel them in. My kids certainly enjoyed it. And again, you can also use the rod in other games; more on this later.

The piano is really quite neat. Once it’s built you slot the Switch into the front and the Joy-Cons into the side, then plink and plonk at it as your musical talent (or lack of) allows. You can select several different sounds – the cat miaow was a clear winner here – and record your tracks for later playback.

What’s more, when playing your tune back you can record a new tune over the top of it, allowing you to successively layer tracks just as you would with a proper setup. Well, alright, not just as you would – this is only a cardboard piano with 13 keys, after all. Still, given that you can lay down a total of eight channels, it allows for a fairly complex composition. Or, where my kids were concerned, an unlistenable mess.

The motorbike is also great: it gives you cardboard handlebars either side of the Switch screen, and you can drive it by leaning from side to side. There’s even a throttle on one side, operated by twisting the cardboard towards you, and you start it up with an ignition button. It was, in one daughter’s words, “just like driving a real motorbike” – although how she’d know at the age of eight I’m not sure.

The house offers a multitude of mini-games. It comes with three sort of plug-like er… plug-ins, which slot into either one of the three holes on the sides/bottom. The differing combinations control which game you play, so putting one on one side and one on the bottom will give you a different game from if you put one on each side. The mini-games are simple but fun – one has you driving a minecart along a track picking up gems and avoiding bombs, another gives you a pet to look after and make-over.

Those five Toy-Cons all come with the Variety Kit, and that’s probably the one to get if you want all-round family entertainment. It certainly seems like the best value for money, given that the robot is a tenner more expensive and only has the one game. Then again, what a game it is.


The Robot Kit is by far the most impressive of the launch Toy-Cons. And how could it not be – you get to control a massive robo dude/dudess as it stomps around smashing up buildings and laying into flying saucers.

It’s not virtual reality – you’re still viewing the action on a screen rather than in a headset – but it comes close to that feeling you get from VR as you see your own body movements translated perfectly on to the onscreen action.

It’s also a complex setup that’ll take around four hours to construct and that comes with a multitude of different parts: there’s a backpack, hand and foot controllers linked by string and a visor which lets you switch between third- and first-person mode.

In use, it’s tremendously entertaining – a bit like the old 8-bit classic Rampage but with far better graphics and sound. Oh, and there’s the fact that YOU’RE CONTROLLING IT BY MOVING YOUR OWN BODY. You definitely couldn’t do that in Rampage.

My kids absolutely loved smashing up buildings and worked out how to switch between stompy-robot-mode, flying-death-robo mode and bulldozing-robo-car mode without even needing the tutorial. It’s all very intuitive.

My only fear around it concerns longevity. It’s all very sturdy once built, but I’d worry about its ability to withstand repeated play sessions – or, more likely, to withstand being stepped on after it’s inevitably been left on the floor at some stage. With the Variety Kit there are enough options that the odd part getting broken won’t be a problem, but with the Robot Kit you just have the one game.

It also feels like it needs a few different levels or some extra challenges to keep the attention for more than a few weeks, although multiplayer will also be an option if a friend has their own kit.


Nobody would dream of launching a child-focused electronic product these days without including a coding element, and Labo is no exception. Actually, coding is maybe overdoing it here – your kids can’t break out the C++ and start reprogramming it – but the Discover app will certainly get them on the right track.

Essentially, Labo lets you create your own custom recipes for games and control modes. You can, for instance, set it up it so that the RC car can navigate around using the Joy-Con’s IR camera. Or so that touching the Switch’s screen will cause the fishing rod to vibrate. Or you can create new sounds for the piano. And so on.

Our demo didn’t involve a huge amount of time in this area, and my kids were far more interested in smashing things up while wearing a cardboard robo suit, but it clearly gives Labo a life outside of gaming. Before long people will probably be linking it with a Raspberry Pi and using it to send Joy-Con rovers to Mars. Kids today, eh?


Tess (8): “I really liked it, because you can get creative. I enjoyed the making bit because you can imagine what you want them to look like, then colour them in and decorate them. My favourite game was either the motorbike or the robot. I really liked the robot, because it was sort of another way to exercise! And the game was really good too.”

Lyra (8): “I think that it’s cool because you can imagine new toys then build them using the Joy-Cons. I liked the playing the games more than building them, but I did like building them too. My favourite game was the robot one, but the house one was also good, because you could easily transform it into different games. I would love to have it at home.”


Labo’s an exciting and seriously impressive new development in family-friendly gaming.

With the Variety Kit, the crafting element alone would give you several weekends’ worth of family entertainment, and the games would keep your kids occupied for plenty more. The Robot Kit, meanwhile, is definitely the one I’d want to have a go on myself – although on cost alone it is harder to justify at this stage.

Is it worth considering if you don’t have children/young relatives? Probably not at this stage. The games are all of the casual variety and won’t hold an adult’s attention for more than an hour or two, plus half of the fun is in building and then decorating the Toy-Cons. And you’re not going to sit in on a Saturday night doing that now, are you?

But for kids it’s a different matter. We’ll spend a bit more time with it before giving you a full review closer to the 20 April launch date, but at this stage it seems like Nintendo’s on to another winner here.



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