How to Build Bonds (and Cardboard Toys) With Your Kids

By Jonny Casino

In January of 2018, Nintendo announced a product that would change the way games are played.  At least, this is how they teased it.  When the Labo sets were revealed, gamers did not get what they were hoping for.  I remember Twitter blowing up with mad tweets about how it looked stupid and childish.  The word “childish” came up a lot and there is a reason for that.  They were designed for children.

Nintendo, according to Reggie Fils-Aimé, was attempting to “extend the age-audience for the Switch.”  This meant making a product that would appeal to young kids.  I have no idea how well Labo did this.  I believe it was far from successful.  Many gamers just saw it as stupid cardboard that came with boring games. 

If kids were the ones making purchasing decisions, Labo might have been a big hit.  The reality is that it came across cheap to adults, who were the ones putting out the money.  Cardboard is everywhere.  If kids wanted to build anything from it, all they have to do is wait for the next Amazon delivery.  Why would anyone just buy Labo unless they were hardcore Nintendo collectors?

On a personal note, I always wanted to try it.  I had no expectations for greatness, but I wanted to see what it was.  Two things kept me from making the purchase.  The first was that I knew it I would build the set and then they would just take up room somewhere for the rest of eternity.  The second was the price.  $70 for a bad game was just too high.

Skip ahead a couple years and I start seeing these sets on sale for $20.  Even at that price, I kept myself from making the purchase.  The price is fine, but I still fear them sitting around unused for the rest of time.  Eventually, after making a random comment to my wife about it, she tells me to buy one.  There were two available, at that price, and I ordered the vehicle kit.

I decided to tell my 9-year-old son, Ryan, right away.  I wasn’t sure how he would react to this.  He knew about Labo and had asked for it once or twice.  I just wasn’t sure about the level of excitement he would have.  Well, he was excited.  The way he shows excitement can be amusing.  He didn’t jump around or anything, but he would look at me, very calmly, and say, “Dad, I am really looking forward to the Labo showing up in a couple of days.”  It was oddly formal, but my son often acts older than he really is.

The day finally came when the Labo kit arrived.  Ryan was ready to dive into it as soon as possible, so that’s what we did.  I want to be very clear that this is not a review of Nintendo Labo.  The game itself, which I will touch on later, is mediocre at best, but it is technically impressive.  The experience of building Labo is where it shines.

Ryan is a smart kid.  He can read.  He can follow directions.  He can put things together.  He’s also a 9-year-old, which means even though he can do those things well, he often won’t.  I don’t remember a lot about being nine, but I am sure that I paid attention to directions as well as he does.  The other thing about 9-year-old boys is that they still love doing things with their dads. 

When we started unboxing the cardboard, Ryan and I had our roles.  His was to find the correct sheets, pop out the pieces, and fold it all together.  Mine was to advance the directions in the game, make sure he was following the directions properly, and make bad jokes.  We both did our parts well. 

I really appreciate the way the game gives the directions.  It shows you the pieces you need to get and which sheet they are from.  It shows you every single fold that you will make.  It doesn’t just show you where you will make folds, it shows the cardboard being folded.  I still had to make sure Ryan folded all the right parts the right way.  As I said, he’s 9 and doesn’t always follow directions as well as I know he is able to.

The vehicle kit has three vehicles you can make, a key, and the foot peddle.  The game makes you put together the key and the foot peddle first.  These only take a few minutes and do not have that many parts.  The key holds the right JoyCon and is the backbone of the entire setup.  The foot peddle is interesting.  It has a rubber band that gives resistance to pushing down on the peddle, and the left JoyCon goes into the peddle to detect the movement.  From there, we started on the car steering column, which had the most parts. 

Folding and connect cardboard can get a bit tedious.  When I could see Ryan start to lose interest, I tried to find ways to make it more entertaining.  One way was having him make the same sounds the game made when he was folding.  Surprisingly, he found this hilarious.  Eventually, the folding and connecting got to be too much and we needed to put it away for the day.

The next day, Ryan was ready to go again.  I had to make him wait until I was finished with my daily Animal Crossing activities, and then we dove back into folding cardboard.  He was very determined to finish the car in one sitting.  Once again, we had a great time doing this together.  I directed and checked his work, he folded and made silly sounds.  In the end, we had a very intricate car steering column.  It has a lot to it.  It has a fully turning steering wheel, two rotating nobs on the sides, and a lever.  On the inside, the nobs and levers have reflective tape.

This is when the game comes into play.  Like I said before, it’s not a great game, but it is technically impressive.  As expected, Ryan wanted to play the game as soon as the steering column was complete.  The first thing it has you do is put the key in the steering wheel.  This starts the car up.  Remember, the right JoyCon is in the key.  Ryan then pushed on the peddle, which is used for all the vehicles, and the car started going.  If he pushed it a little, it went slow.  If he pushed it all the way, the car went fast.  He and I were both very impressed with the accuracy of this because it is only using the IR and motion sensors of the JoyCons.

As Ryan continued to drive around, we discovered that pulling on the lever gave the car a boost.  If he rotates the nobs on the side, it changes between bombs, refueling line, and radio.  All of this, along with the steering, worked because of the IR sensor in the JoyCon.  We were blown away that is worked flawlessly.  As impressed as I was, Ryan was even more blown away.  On top of that, he also was having a great time driving around.

Over the next couple of days, Ryan and I finished putting the rest of the kits together.  The game was the same for each, but the vehicle would change as you put the key into different things.  The controls for each vehicle were as impressive as the car.  Everything just worked and Ryan could not have happier.

I truly believe the Labo kit will only be played a few more times.  Soon, the parts will just be sitting on a shelf in my game room.  Maybe I will bust them out to show them off to random friends.  Even if it is never played with again, it was totally worth the money.  The game might not be great, but the experience of building it with my son was wonderful.

Video games play a major role in my hangout time with Ryan.  Having a “game” that is more than just button-pushing is such a nice change.  If you have kids and can find a Labo kit on sale, you should pick it up.  Spend some time with your child as they build the kit, try out the game a little, and then recycle the entire thing if it doesn’t continue to get played with.  I think it is worth it.

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