Some would say Nintendo’s video games killed the conventional kids’ toy market, but now they might be bringing it back.
When Nintendo told gamers it would reveal “a new way to play with the Nintendo Switch” on January 18 (Japan time), I naturally assumed the company was finally going to unveil its platform for digitally purchasing classic Nintendo games on the console. After all, the Switch already has an NES emulator buried in its internals.
But nope. The ever-innovative Nintendo pulled off something incredible in the modern era of loose lips and slow-drip teaser videos, and instead announced something completely unexpected with Nintendo Labo: a brand-new line of Switch peripherals made out of cardboard.
Seriously. The newest add-ons for Nintendo’s high-tech gaming gear are wildly imaginative controllers made of thick paper, string, rubber bands, and sponges, and you assemble them yourself, following tutorials displayed on your Switch screen.
▼ Nintendo calls the items “Toy-Cons,” a play on words with the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers.
Because of the Switch’s modular nature, the screen/processor and two controllers can all be docked in separate parts of the Toy-Con, which allows for a huge variety of designs. In addition to the 13-key piano (which is playable), some of the highlights from the announcement video include a motorcycle, fishing rod, robot suit/backpack (complete with head-mounted display), and even a remote controlled car that you control with the touchscreen and moves by utilizing the vibration functions of the Joy-Cons.
The Nintendo Labo’s retail debut is coming on April 20, with two sets being offered initially. The Variety Kit comes with enough materials to make two RC cars, the fishing rod, the house, the motorbike, and the piano.
The Robot Kit, meanwhile, is a stand-alone package specifically for those looking to build the robot suit.
If some of the designs look pretty complex, that’s partially the point, Nintendo is almost billing Nintendo Labo as an educational product, with a tagline of “Make. Play. Discover.” Nintendo is asserting that understanding how the Toy-Cons work is a major component of the fun, and the video even encourages users to dream up their own ways to use their cardboard creations.
Neat as the idea may be, Nintendo Labo sets aren’t going to be cheap. The Variety Kit has a suggested retail price of US$69.99 in North America, and the Robot Kit is even pricier at $79.99 (pricing in Japan is roughly the same). At those prices, you might be wondering what’s stopping people who’re goods at arts and crafts from reverse engineering the sets and sharing blueprints online, but at least part of Nintendo’s asking price is justified by the fact that Nintendo Labo kits come bundled with games designed to be played with the assembled Toy-Cons.
But there’s a bit of a potential problem there as well. There’s no arguing that Nintendo gets high marks for creativity for Nintendo Labo, but the company has shown that it can sometimes think a little too far outside the box. Consider the company’s Virtual Boy, which started with a novel idea (immersive 3-D graphics through a dedicated single-person monitor), but one that severely limited gameplay options and resulted in a limited library of shallow games.
Yes, some of the Toy-Cons shown in the video look like they’d make great substitutes for the buttons, thumbsticks, and D-pads of conventional video game experiences. But when the footage shows a Toy-Con that’s a house with a faucet on its side, used to play a game in which a bunch of jelly beans are bouncing around a living room, it’s all too easy to flash back to Nintendo’s gimmicky and underwhelming 1-2-Switch, which was released alongside the system and failed to parlay its motion controls into a sufficiently enjoyable party game.
▼ And if you can figure out a way to make a game with a bird-shaped controller that’s fun for more than five minutes, you’re a much more imaginative person than I am.
While Nintendo Labo is sure to attract adults as well, Nintendo seems to be heavily pushing it as something for kids (upcoming hands-on demonstrations in San Francisco and New York are exclusively for kids ages 6 to 12 and their parents), which is going to make the cost a definite issue. 70 dollars is a bit on the pricy side for a new video game release, and it’s definitely a lot for a cardboard toy, which might be what parents primarily see Nintendo Labo as. And if parents see it as an arts-and-craft project, that sticker shock is going to be all the more severe.
At the same time, there’s no denying the appeal of the novelty factor, which might get people to open their wallets for an unprecedented entertainment option, and it’s possible that Nintendo has found a deep and lasting consumer desire. And even if Nintendo Labo releases and up being few and/or far-between, the fact that Nintendo Labo also requires a Nintendo Switch seems like a subtle strategy to boost the system’s already impressive sales, and so even if Nintendo ends up not putting out a steady stream of Nintendo Labo sets for years to come, the allure of building Toy-Cons could put its hardware into more homes, and in turn boost the potential audience for its conventional video games.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he eagerly await the creation of a R.O.B. Toy-Con.