Nintendo’s latest major announcement isn’t a new game or even a new console. Instead, it’s a pack of cardboard sheets they’re calling ‘Toy-Con’ as part of their new Nintendo Labo play experiment. It’s a fittingly weird and quirky idea that could only ever work coming from Nintendo. And that’s in large part due to their heritage as a toy company.
What on earth is Nintendo Labo
You may have seen our article last year about a potential move from Nintendo into the VR space. The patent covered in that article can now almost certainly be tied to the initial development of Nintendo Labo. Perhaps it was early experiments with making their own ‘Cardboard VR’ headset that led them down a wider path. Perhaps we can possibly expect to see a Nintendo Labo kit that includes slotting the Switch into a headset as described in the patent. Either way, the concept isn’t one that’s widely removed from Google’s own Cardboard VR idea. By delivering to users their own flatpack peripherals and by keeping the cost of those peripherals low by using basic materials, Nintendo can provide new experiences for their hardware at a relatively low cost. While full VR headsets costs hundred of pounds and rigid plastic ones like Samsung’s Gear VR cost tens, Google’s Cardboard VR headsets can cost a few quid total. Likewise with Nintendo Labo’s ‘Toy-Con’ packs.
The first of two packs available at the end of April, the Variety Kit, will cost $69.99 in the US, while the second Robot Kit will cost $79.99 US. While that does sound pricey for just a few bits of cardboard, that isn’t what you’re buying. Each Labo kit also comes with Nintendo Switch software designed specifically for the kit. In the Variety Kit, five different accessories can be built: An RC Car, a Fishing Rod, a House, a Motorbike and a Piano. Each has accompanying games on the Switch to work with the finished accessory. The Variety Kit has fairly obvious content centred around the kind of things that you build: racing games; fishing games, etc. The Robot Kit meanwhile revives the Wii U tech demo ‘Project Giant Robot’ to turn the player into the titular robot (which was somewhat presciently demonstrated by Nintendo at E3 in 2014). The included software also walks players through building each Toy-Con as well as a more nebulous ‘Discover’ element. The supplied software helps explain how the Switch and Joy-Cons work together to provide the game’s effects and how you can manipulate it to do something new that isn’t prepared for you out of the box.
In effect, Nintendo has created their own Lego-like platform built around the Switch. There might not be the same pure freedom of Lego, but being able to get your hands dirty in actually assembling the product itself and being able to manipulate it, customise it and tweak it are all straight out of the free-form play book that made Lego the powerhouse toy that it is today.
It’s a strategy that suits Nintendo well, because it’s arguably Nintendo’s true home playing field. While the company’s origins date back to the late 1800s as a playing card company, it’s their later heritage in the post-war era that truly defined them. Their initial entry into the children’s toy market is what inevitably led them to the electronic game market and ultimately to the company they now are today. Though they may have pivoted towards focusing on technology for their products, they’ve never been far removed from the ‘toy’ side of that equation. That focus on being accessible to kids first and foremost of all is what’s kept Nintendo being the unstoppable force at the heart of gaming for over 30 years, even through failures like the Wii U. While there is unquestionably a much wider market for video game entertainment overall, it’s impossible to argue against the fact that the biggest, and most impactful, audience is children. If you’re reading this, it’s almost certainly because you not only played video games as a child – but games either by Nintendo or games not unlike their marquee titles (lookin’ especially at you here, classic ’90s platformers). That early connection with games is what sets us out as fans for life and it’s a market that Nintendo has never failed to deliver on, for all their faults.
Nintendo Labo embraces that classic toy-company heritage to deliver a genuinely new and unique way to play with a video games console. In a similar way to how the Wii introduced a brand new way to play games, and brought a brand new audience to gaming with it, Labo is sure to excite and entice new players just as much. Following the success of the Switch as a games console last year, this year we might see it take off in its success as a toy. That’s a pretty uniquely, and truly, Nintendo scenario to see play out.