Nintendo LABO is bringing imagination back to virtual play
A couple of weeks ago, Nintendo broadcasted a Direct Mini showcase showing what the Switch had to offer over the next few months. There was little in the way of surprise. A few unexpected remakes and footage of already announced games made up the size of the conference. This was followed up, merely six days later, with a reveal that challenges the original Wii announcement in respects to innovative, groundbreaking, divisive features: Nintendo LABO had arrived.
If you haven’t seen the reveal trailer for Nintendo’s new initiative, please do. In short, LABO is a series of cardboard peripherals that you build yourself and insert the Switch Joy-Cons into to simulate new ways of playing. The lovingly-named Toy-Cons range from fishing-rods to RC cars to a piano to a fully-functional mech-suit. These cardboard structures make use of the Joy-Con’s dynamic rumble and motion features as well as the Switch’s touch screen controls. It’s pretty incredible and opens the door to building on the Nintendo Switch’s nascent but already established legacy.
The Switch’s first year has been a wild ride. Between fostering two games that will undoubtedly be remembered as the greatest of their generation (I’m talking about Mario and Zelda, fight me), its portability has re-energised video gaming for so many lapsed players. However, it’s prowess has been attributed mainly to its software yet, as we all know, no-one does hardware better than Nintendo, and LABO is another entry into the company’s pantheon of controller innovations.
To kick off I want to talk about LABO as a physical thing. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s cardboard. Nintendo have always been a company looking to future-proof themselves - this is echoed in their design philosophy but more on that later. LABO is economically and environmentally friendly in that if your kids hate the thing, you can toss it in the recycling bin and move on. The additional bonus here is that it’s cheap to produce. Though the starter pack - which contains almost everything except the mech-suit - is retailing at about £60, that’s reasonable considering the amount of playability each Toy-Con potentially comes with.
What’s crucial to remember is that this is marketed primarily for kids. LABO is about reinventing play and what comes with that is the curation of one’s own experience. As the reveal shows, each Toy-Con is privy to a whole mess of customisations. Though Nintendo is being stingy with the patented cardboard designs to stamp out any physical modding opportunities, the ability for kids (and grown-up kids) to create bespoke gaming experiences is hugely innovative and something that is rarely offered outside of financially gated means like VR.
On a purely tactile level, Nintendo have cracked the postmodern nut of seamless integration between physical and virtual play. Though peripherals through history - from R.O.B the robot to Guitar Hero instruments - have attempted to imprint the virtual experience with tangibility, LABO seems to capture the essence of energising virtual play with the unstoppable power of imagination. Just try to imagine how cool it would feel to stomp around your living room in the LABO mech-suit.
And therein lies what I admire most about the LABO. From an omniscient viewpoint, this is a logical next step for Nintendo based on their design practice. What makes Nintendo as a developer unique - and given them the legs to innovate across 30 years - is that they design from a verb-based standpoint. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri talks about how “masterpieces are created from new verbs” in his book on the philosophy of game design. He references Pac-Man and the Japanese word taberu which means ‘to eat’. Likewise, Pokémon was designed around the verb koukan suru, ‘to trade’. If we think through Nintendo’s vast catalogue, even entries into the same series, each game has a distinct linguistic function attached to it. It’s harder to spot the more complex and modern games compared to the simplicity of the original Mario entries being built around ‘to jump’ and Ice Climbers’ ‘to climb’. Yet, a game like Breath Of The Wild could arguably be designed around the means ‘to explore’, something that game will be remembered for forever.
This is all to say that LABO, though convoluted to articulate, is based around verbs - lots of them! The actual DIY element of the flat-pack peripherals is ‘to make’ your own experience. But more profoundly, kids are placed in a position where their gaming will be enhanced by their ability ‘to imagine’, ‘to move’, and ‘to customise’. LABO is a perfect embodiment on this linguistic design and its beauty is in its accessibility.
To dive a wee bit deeper, Youtube creator Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit coined the phrase “form follows function” to discuss Nintendo’s design ethos. In short, this means that how something looks is determined by how it functions. In LABO’s case, its cardboard form is secondary to the idea of bridging the gap between virtual and physical play without rigid, unsightly plastic peripherals. It’s seamless because it feels personal and allows one’s imagination to curate the experience over what the experience the peripheral designers want you to have. To an extent, that is, I’m very interested to see what other games Nintendo have in store for mech-suit Toy-Con. I’m definitely here for a Punch-Out remake.
So naturally, because it’s a new Nintendo joint, there’s been a lot of push-back in the gaming community against LABO and it’s kitschy, economical swerving from the hardware status quo. I don’t want to dwell on the negativity because, in all honesty, most criticisms are baseless. The critics of LABO are the usual consumer-first gamers that define gaming innovation by how widespread its appeal is to the consumer base at large. This is bonkers. LABO is designed for a young audience, it’s clear in the marketing. The insistence of these type of people that gaming companies should always have their interests at heart because they are the original gamers is ridiculous. The way many sneer at any attempt to diversify the gaming audience and make entry more accessible for newcomers is indicative of a community that maligns progression. And if the LABO is anything, it’s progressive.
Obviously I have some concerns. Though the reveal trailer shows that you build the Toy-Cons along with video instructions on your Switch controller, no doubt there’ll be mistakes in the physical design that can cause rips and subsequently, if you have kids, tears. I wonder how robust this cardboard is fresh from its packaging and how it deals with the wear-and-tear of ham-fisted children. Also, LABO needs innovative, fun and long-lasting software to be worth the investment. Last year’s 1-2 Switch was a flop since waggling the Joy-Con aimlessly with your friends lost its appeal after one or two tries. The LABO can’t afford to make this mistake because it’s audience can’t afford such a space-consuming and time-intensive investment if it doesn’t have the pay-off.
If you hadn’t guessed yet, I’m all in on Nintendo LABO. There’s an upcoming workshop in London to demonstrate the Toy-Cons in practice - the catch is you need to attend with a child. And what this represents is that the key to innovative gaming lies simply in the foundations of play which are best demonstrated by children whose imaginations are still flourishing. When we were kids playing Legend of Zelda or Pokémon Blue or Metroid Prime, what brought those games to life was how much of ourselves we projected onto Link, Blue and Samus. This hasn’t changed but what LABO strives to achieve is reaching out through accessible and dynamic means to enhance this experience and power-up your gaming experiences using nothing but a few bits of cardboard and a whole heap of imagination.