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Nintendo is so good at making you feel like a kid again

Quartz/Mike Murphy
It’s like Lego, but cardboard.
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

I can’t remember the last time I had to hang my coat up in a cubby hole.

At a press event in New York last week, Nintendo set up something that felt very similar to the art rooms that grace many schools across the world. There were easels, desks, markers, stickers, and even some snacks. I was at the event to test Labo, Nintendo’s new set of cardboard additions for its Switch console. And it seemed I missed a memo: I was pretty much the only reporter there who hadn’t brought their kid with them. (Note: I have no kids.)

When Nintendo announced Labo in January, I was skeptical. How was Nintendo going to convince anyone to pay $70 to $80 for some pieces of cardboard that you connect to the Switch? What’s so fun about cardboard?

It turns out, I was mistaken.

I don’t remember exactly when it was, but at some point while I was following the onscreen instructions, folding, inserting, and connecting various pieces of cardboard together, rushing to finish a fishing rod before all of the literal children who were at the event with me, I realized two things. Labo is a lot of fun which I can actually see parents and children spending time together making (unlike most STEM toys), and I need to reevaluate my life if I’m trying to beat kids.

Like many things Nintendo has made, Labo is a simple, quirky idea. Here’s how it works: You buy one of the sets, which includes various sheets of cardboard with pop-out sections, and software. You follow along on your Switch, tapping through various stages of instructions to build your cardboard creations.

You can spin around and zoom in on any of the digital models in the game to get a better look at what you’re doing. It feels a lot like an interactive version of the instruction manuals that come with Lego sets, which may well have been what triggered my sense of joy as I was running through Nintendo’s demonstrations. I felt the same sense of enjoyment and calmness that I used to get when building Lego, and I got a similar sense of fulfillment when I completed each creation.

After you’ve built your cardboard machine, you’re instructed to insert the Switch’s removable (and motion-sensing) Joy-Con controllers into various slots on your creation. Depending on what you’ve built, these help the Switch figure out your creation’s orientation, or help it move. The first thing we built was a small thing that looked like a computer chip or a bug, although Nintendo insisted it was an “RC Car.” I attached the controllers to its side, and then tapped at controls on the Switch to send it buzzing along my desk. I could race other people’s creations, and Nintendo provided stickers and markers to decorate our projects. I am not very creative:

Quartz/Mike Murphy
My RC car.

Nintendo then set us on a more ambitious cardboard project, a fishing rod. This one featured multiple moving parts, rubber bands, and string. The RC car had taken one sheet of cardboard, but this one had half a dozen. The company gave us an hour to play around, but a representative told me that we weren’t expected to finish building it. That sounded like a challenge. I raced through the steps as fast as I could, folding and inserting cardboard tabs into other pieces of cardboard while the person I’d been partnered with decorated what I’d built. It was a great partnership.

Eventually I’d built the entire rod and contraption the Switch sat in and wanted to play. One of the reps looked at me and said, “Erm, I guess I should show you how the game works. We didn’t think anyone would get this far.”

Quartz/Mike Murphy
My fishing rod creation, elegantly decorated.

I looked around at all the children I’d raced to beat and noticed how they were all diligently building along with the parents that had brought them, smiling and laughing as they worked, and I thought about how great it would’ve been to have a toy like this when I was growing up.

Nintendo eventually had to pull me away from my fishing rod (I was trying to catch a really big marlin in the game!) to bring me to a demonstration area where it had set up completed versions of the Labo cardboard creations. In addition to the ones we tried, there was a motorbike racing game, an odd house-controlling contraption, a tiny, working piano, and a large backpack and headset combination that lets you pretend to be a giant robot smashing buildings.

Even though I am ostensibly an adult with a job, a 401(k) account, and back problems, for a brief period that day, I felt like a kid again. I was doing something that was just fun in and of itself. It’s impressive how often Nintendo manages to elicit this feeling, and I’d say it’s something it does better than any other games company. It continues to produce games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that are both challenging and engrossing, as well as hardware that’s revolutionary. And every so often, it peppers in completely zany ideas like Labo that few other companies would consider even trying.

Nintendo may well have weaponized nostalgia to sell adults new variations on the same things it produced and loved as kids in the 1980s and 1990s, but the kids at the event weren’t even glimmers in the eyes of their parents then. Nintendo is winning over a new generation with great new ideas, which means it has yet another generation of people to repackage products to in the 2040s.

Its future is secure.

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