Nintendo Labo hands-on: Cardboard has never been this fun

Nintendo's crazy Switch accessories aren't so crazy after all.

Devindra Hardawar/AOL

Leave it up to Nintendo to get us excited over cardboard. Labo, its DIY Switch-powered cardboard accessory line, seemed like the purist encapsulation of Nintendo's philosophy: "Play" is far more important than having the best graphics. At first glance, Labo seems like a unique mixture of digital and analog gaming that kids will likely love. And based on my brief time with a few Labo kits today, it's something adults will likely have a blast with as well.

Entering the Labo demo area gave me flashbacks to elementary school. A name card pointed me to my assigned table, which I shared with another reporter. All of the desks were arranged around the edges of the room, which gave Nintendo's representatives, decked out in bright pink sport coats, plenty of room to show off the accessories. On the side of my desk lay a tray filled with markers, crayons and snacks, all of which really made me question my adulthood.

We started out by building the RC Car Toy-con, which looks more like a vibrating bug than any sort of vehicle. My partner and I punched out the required parts from the sheets of cardboard, then followed along with the Switch's instructions for constructing the toy. The interface was a bit confusing at first -- for some reason, you have to hold down the touchscreen buttons to move the tutorial forwards and backwards, instead of just tapping them. Once we figured that out, though, it was mostly smooth sailing.

The Labo app clearly lays out what you need to be working on, and how exactly you need to fold specific creases to construct each accessory. You can also use the Switch's touchscreen to move the on-screen diagram, letting you see different angles in case you're having trouble. My deskmate and I had our RC Cars constructed within 15 minutes, and we finished them off by sliding on our Joy-cons. I was honestly surprised by just how well they fit into a few cardboard slots.

After that, we attached a cardboard antenna to the Switch tablet (no, the antenna doesn't actually do anything), and used the Labo app to buzz our RC Cars around the table. It's not exactly a complex toy -- it relies on the Joy-con's HD rumble feature to move, and the app lets you control the intensity and direction of its vibrations. Still, it's a quick and helpful introduction to Nintendo's vision for Labo.

Completing the RC Car was also useful morale booster before we were confronted with a more daunting project: the Labo Fishing Rod. It's significantly more complex, since it involves moving parts. All of its components are spread across six cardboard sheets, and they number in the dozens. My partner and I split up the work of punching out the required pieces, and we took turns putting it all together.

First up, we had to construct the three extending portions of the rod, adorably named "Papa bear," "Mama bear," and "baby bear." Furious cardboard creasing and folding ensued, and we had to pay extra attention to the instructions on the Switch. Some components were very large, and we had to make sure the folds and notches were all in the right place. At one point, we ended up building the "baby bear" part instead of "mama bear" (they look very similar, okay?!). We were still able to finish the piece properly, without precise instructions from the app, since we started to understand Nintendo's folding logic.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to finish the Rods in the 50 minutes Nintendo gave us. I was looking forward to seeing how the reeling mechanism gets assembled, but I guess I'll have to wait for the Labo's launch. Nintendo took pity on us, though, and let us play with some finished Fishing Rods. They didn't exactly feel sturdy -- cardboard can only do so much -- but I was impressed by how natural the reeling felt.

After we failed at construction, Nintendo moved us along to a room filled with completed Labo Toy-cons. I hopped on a child-sized bike -- feeling even more ridiculous as kids plopped down alongside me -- and picked up the Motorbike accessory. It's basically just a pair of handlebars, with space for a Joy-con in each, and a nook for the Switch tablet in the middle. It also has a long base, which rests against your thigh or stomach to balance the entire contraption as your playing.

For the most part, I was impressed by how tactile the Motorbike accessory felt in its accompanying Switch game (which comes with the $70 Labo variety pack). I started the engine by hitting a cardboard trigger right under my thumb, and revved up by twisting the right handlebar, as you would an actual motorcycle. It took me a few minutes to get a hang of the motion controls, but it wasn't too long before I was drifting and passing by my opponents. (My kingdom for a Switch Excitebike game that took advantage of this.)

The Labo House was a bit of a curiosity. It basically looks like a dollhouse for your Switch, which interacts with a variety of cardboard accessories. Each of those has a different function: One just rotates, one serves as a large button and another is a switch with two modes. There are slots on the sides and bottom of the house for inserting the blocks, each of which changes the environment for the unfortunate inhabitant inside the virtual house. Popping in two of the blocks unlocks a minigame -- the rotating crank and button, for example, unlocked a conveyor belt that charges up and gets releases when you slap the button. The crank and switch, meanwhile, let me microwave a bunch of ingredients to create a virtual cupcake.

I had more fun with the Piano Toy-con, which turns the Switch into a portable synthesizer for kids. Each of its keys were surprisingly responsive, and it had no problem registering multiple notes when I was jamming down with all ten fingers. You can also alter the notes by inserting blocks at the top of the piano, which turn the keys into things like cat cries and operatic voices. A lever on the left side lets you alter the pitch of the keys, and you can also kick off some pre-recorded songs by hitting the play button. It's the sort of toy that could inspire kids to take music more seriously, even if its own feature set is fairly limited.

I finished off my demos with the Fishing Rod Toy-con and its accompanying game. It's certainly a unique experience, as it's the first title I've seen to use the Switch in its vertical orientation. The console sits in a tray, which also houses the string that connects to the fishing rod. The Joy-cons, meanwhile, are in the base and rotating crank portions of the rod. When you're sitting in front of the Switch, it's as if your physical fishing line is connected directly to its virtual counterpart. It reacts fluidly as you move the rod around, and thanks to the Joy-con's HD rumble feature, the feedback from fish biting and fighting against my line felt almost like the real thing.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to try out the complex Toy-con Robot suit, due to limited timing during our demos. It certainly looks like fun, at least based on the reactions from kids at the session. I can't imagine how long that would take to put together, especially since I couldn't get the fishing rod together in an hour. I'd imagine most Switch owners would start with the $70 Toy-con variety pack, though. It includes the RC Car, Fishing Road, House and Motorbike Toy-cons. You'd have to shell out another $80 for the Robot kit alone.

When it comes to durability, several Nintendo reps at the event assured us that the Labo accessories could easily withstand abuse from overzealous children. Still, at the event it was pretty clear that some components were already suffering from too much playtime. The cranking parts for the Fishing Rod and House felt a bit worn down. I also had to readjust the keys on the Piano a few times, after they became misaligned. I wouldn't be surprised if the Toy-cons could last for a few months, but I seriously doubt they'd survive much longer than that. And I can't imagine parents will be too happy when they see how quickly $70 toys can be destroyed.

After spending a few hours with Nintendo's Labo accessories, I'm even more excited about their potential. The kids at the event were never bored, even as they struggled with complex instructions. Personally, I'm looking forward to gifting Labo kits to kids in my family, and helping them build each accessory. I'd bet it'd make them even more appreciative of their playtime, once they know how their toys are built.