Brow Beat

Nintendo Unveils the Future of Video Games, and It’s … A Cardboard Piano?

Nintendo is placing a considerable bet on the old saw about kids ignoring their new toys and playing with the cardboard boxes they came in. On Wednesday, they announced Nintendo Labo, a series of cardboard toys that, when assembled, come to life with the help of the Nintendo Switch, their newest console. As you probably know, the Switch can be disconnected from the TV and used portably, and Nintendo is leveraging that technology to the fullest; their introductory video shows the Switch working in devices as disparate as a cardboard fishing rod, cardboard motorcycle handlebars, and a Schroeder-sized one-octave cardboard piano.

There’s a real wow factor to watching someone fold flat sheets of cardboard into a piano that actually plays, and some of the games look like fun, particularly a cardboard house with switches and knobs that seems—based on the short time it’s on screen—like it has sort of a GNOG feel. And mixing physical and virtual worlds in ways like this will almost certainly be the future of gaming, whatever form it ultimately takes. But these are foldable cardboard toys with moving parts, which seems like a recipe for catastrophe, unless the assembly is impossible to screw up. Otherwise, Nintendo Labo might treat kids to both the frustration of building model airplanes and the agony of losing at video games. Also, the finished products don’t look like the most durable contraptions in the world, particularly the telescoping fishing rod. And then there’s the price. “Toy-Con 01: Variety Kit” includes everything you need to build 5 separate projects: RC cars (2 models), 1 fishing rod, 1 house, 1 motorbike, and the piano. But this list of the contents doesn’t seem like $69.99 worth of raw materials:

• 28 sheets of cardboard
• 3 reflective sticker sheets
• 3 sponge sheets
• 1 orange string
• 1 blue string
• 1 set of gray eyelets
• 1 set of blue eyelets
• 2 large rubber bands (plus spares)
• 6 small rubber bands (plus spares)

It also comes with the software that lets you play with the assembled toys, and the retail price for a Switch game is about $60, but it seems unlikely these games will have the replay value of Breath of the Wild. (It’s almost worth buying just to see how on earth the action on a thirteen-key piano works with only 8 rubber bands and 3 sponges that to potentially drive the key return, but I’m not sure that’s $70 worth of curiosity.) For $79.99, they’ll sell you “Toy Con 02: Robot Kit,” which is a backpack-like contraption that pairs with a game where a giant robot mimics your motions—so, sort of like Kinect, but with strings tied to your feet and hands, plus a backpack and visor. An additional $9.99 gets you the “Customization Set,” a set of stencils and stickers you can put on your Nintendo Labo creations. The worst case scenario here is a toy that combines the impermanence of those Polaris submarines they used to sell in comic books with the uselessness of the Nintendo R.O.B. Still, the last time Nintendo bet on making their video game consoles more toy-like, they came up with the Wii, and early Twitter reports of kids “losing their shit” at the trailer make it seem like Nintendo Labo is going to sell well, at least at first. The question will be how long the assembled toys last in the wild. We’ll find out on April 20, when Nintendo Labo hits stores.

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Matthew Dessem

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.