Nintendo’s freshly announced Labo, a cardboard construction-set-cum-videogame, looks like the purest playset, real or concept, to have emerged from a mainstream game developer in recent years. It is a return to the age of wonder, a product that, even in the world of bemusing consumer technology, makes little to no sense to the layperson.
Labo will consist of a series of flatpack kits, to be built into a range of creations. Their cardboard slats and folds integrate with the Switch’s Joycon controllers and screen in ways that might as well be magic, so obscure are the mechanics behind their actual workings. The kits range in complexity from simple housings and car shapes to telescoping fishing rods and even a functioning miniature piano.
Strings will pull levers, infrared sensors will pick up specific symbols, and these cardboard machines will come to life and motion through the startlingly accurate vibrations of the controllers they will house. Nintendo’s trailer for the kits, demonstrating these uses, plays almost like a well-budgeted corporate April Fool’s video; this company is a marvel, and surely the only developer who would willingly pour money into so unique a project as this.
Rare is the Nintendo game unsuitable for most ages, and their attention to one of the purest pillars of gaming is remarkable. While other studios have explored the capacity for deep storytelling, affecting drama or total immersion, Nintendo have steadfastly explored the future of play. If you would like to play a game with a child present, or indeed participating, there is no other choice of creator.
Super Mario Odyssey is the latest in a storied line of platforming masterclasses with gorgeously welcoming design and increasingly generous difficulty scaling. The Legend of Zelda series dials up the sense of occasional threat, but presents puzzles and combat in which a slightly older child will revel. Mario Kart quite simply defines split-screen play, and cleverly balances its rewards for skill against its help for those struggling to succeed. All these with nary a automatic rifle, drop of blood or swear word in sight.
With Labo Nintendo have brought AirFix, Skaletrix and countless other threatened heritage brands blinking into the light (or, alternatively, they’ve hammered another nail into their Meccano coffins). Its market success is surely unpredictable, but its worth is already unquestionable.