This is going to make us sound like grumpy old people, but the kids of today will probably never appreciate playing with an old cardboard box, pretending it's a house or a car. Thankfully, the eternally-playful Nintendo has found a way to modernize that kind of joy with Nintendo Labo, cardboard construction kits for the Switch. New Atlas went hands-on with the sets and found a solid combination of the fun of video games, the DIY satisfaction of Lego, the creativity of crafts and the sneaky education of a STEM toy.

For the uninitiated, Nintendo Labo is a set of cardboard contraptions for the versatile Switch console, turning it into a wearable robot suit, a playable piano, a fishing rod and whatnot. But before you jump into those games, you have to build everything yourself, following detailed instructions to press out, fold, slot and assemble sheets of cardboard into accessories that Nintendo calls "Toy-Con."

Once that's done, the Switch's Joy-Con controllers and the console itself slide into various slots on the cardboard creations, bringing them to life using motion controls, vibrations, infrared sensors and the touchscreen. The way Nintendo combines the high- and low-tech is clever, and although you're following extremely careful step-by-step instructions, they do a great job of making you feel like some kind of mad inventor.

Getting crafty

Your first port of call should be the fairly simple RC Car kit, which is where our hands-on session began. About as complicated as a paper plane, Nintendo says this set should take about 10 minutes to put together, plus whatever crafty customization you want to put into it. Within maybe 20 minutes, we had our own cardboard "car," complete with an elephant head, googly eyes, and a Give Way sign for good measure.

Your creation is powered by two Joy-Cons slotted into its sides, and controlled by tapping on their virtual counterparts on the Switch screen. Pressing the left or right buttons will set that controller vibrating to make the car turn in that direction, while pressing both sends it in a straight line. Sure, it's pretty simple, but the RC Car is a testament to Nintendo's relentless creativity – this must be the first time ever that a game is played using the console itself to control the controllers.

True to the DIY nature of Labo, there's no set game to play with the RC Car, but Nintendo had set up a racetrack and a Sumo ring as examples. It's not hard to imagine crafty kids sending them through obstacle courses, taping action figures to their backs or inventing their own games to play with them.

Variety is the spice of life

The other kits and the games to play with them get progressively more complicated, with components like rubber bands, string, plastic rings and reflective tape thrown in. While we didn't get to build any of the others, we did spend a couple hours trying out the finished products and peeking inside to see the clever mechanisms that make them work.

The Motorbike uses a Joy-Con in each handlebar to register the movements of turning or cranking back the throttle, lets you race or battle Mario Kart-style or design your own tracks. Fishing is surprisingly meditative, as you wind out the line to lower the hook, jerk it up sharply to hook your prey and strategically tug the rod side to side to keep the line from snapping as you reel in your catch.

Individually, we're not sure the games are deep enough to keep people playing for very long, but like other mini-game compilations the value probably comes from how many there are. The Variety Kit packs the pieces to build the RC Car, Motorbike, Fishing Rod, House and Piano, and when you factor in the build times – Nintendo says the Piano could take around three hours – you're looking at a decent amount of stuff to do for the asking price.

We're less convinced that the separate Robot Kit will be worth the extra cash though. It's easily the most in-depth set of them all, made up of a backpack, a flip-down visor, two handles, two foot straps and a pulley system to connect it all together. But the game itself, where you punch and stomp your way through a city by moving your actual arms and feet, seems surprisingly short-lived.

The other obvious downside is the material itself. Granted, the cardboard used is about as thick and durable as cardboard can get, but we'd be surprised if these things are still in good working order after a year of use – and that's being generous. If you're letting younger kids have at it, you could probably halve that window.

The Nintendo reps at the event did say that people can follow the on-screen instructions to build the Toy-Con out of any old cardboard they want, but given how precisely pre-cut and creased the supplied pieces are, it's not going to be the same. Maybe Nintendo will sell replacement kits, but that's a bitter pill to swallow after spending so much already.

DIY Discovery

The longest-lasting parts of Labo might just be Discovery mode and the Toy-Con Garage. Included in both the Variety and Robot Kits, these modes pull back the curtain to show kids exactly what's going on inside these toys and ideally, inspire them to build their own.

Discovery mode reveals all the little tricks Nintendo used to bring the cardboard contraptions to life, and it really makes you appreciate the clever mechanisms at work. Most of them make good use of the infrared sensor built into the right Joy-Con, a piece of tech that's been laying dormant in the Switch since day one.

The RC Car, for example, streams a feed from the IR sensor on the front of the car to the screen, meaning you could run it through an obstacle course in the dark. In the Piano, each press of a key pushes a small reflector upwards into view of the IR sensor, telling the console which note to play. And the Robot Kit can track the movement of all four limbs with a single Joy-Con, as the pulleys move reflectors in and out of view of the sensor.

If Discovery mode lays out the tools Nintendo used to make Labo, then Toy-Con Garage hands those tools over to you. Following in the footsteps of STEM toys like the Sphero SPRK+ or the Osmo Coding set, older kids can roll up their sleeves and fiddle with simple, block-based programming to make their own games with the hardware.

By connecting dots between IF/THEN statements, it's easy to chain together commands like making a noise if a button is pressed or vibrating if the Joy-Con is turned face-up. One of the Nintendo reps at the event floated an idea he wanted to try – laser tag. And it sounds achievable too: if the IR sensor picks up a reflective tag, then score a hit. Stick these tags to people's foreheads, run around with the Joy-Cons as guns, and suddenly you've got yourself some DIY laser tag.

Strangely, although it's something Nintendo usually excels at, the interface for the Toy-Con Garage mode isn't very clear. Google and the Photon robot have done similar things with much more child-friendly menus, and it feels like this section isn't quite finished yet.

Even so, it's very clearly designed to appeal to the Minecraft generation, and if Nintendo can inspire curious kids to tinker with their toys, YouTube could soon be brimming with demos of quirky homemade gizmos.

Full STEM ahead

We have our reservations about the price and durability of Nintendo Labo, but if any company should be sniffing around for a piece of the STEM toy pie, it's Nintendo. These cardboard construction kits look like the perfect project for kids and parents to dig into together, especially if you want to nudge the young'uns towards an interest in engineering or programming.

Nintendo Labo launches globally on April 20, with the Robot Kit available for US$79.99, the Variety Kit for $69.99, and a Customization Kit full of stickers and stencils for $9.99. It's been hinted that other sets might be released further down the track.

Product page: Nintendo Labo

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