First, it was plastic music accessories. Then it was unnecessary motion controls. They both ended up being video game fads, gathering dust in the discount bin as players returned to the traditional gaming experiences they’ve enjoyed for decades, but they still served a purpose.
Though players eventually moved on, these new, novel concepts helped bring new audiences to video games, some of whom surely stayed around after the plastic instruments and Wii Sports had worn out their welcome. And both of these fads had one thing in common: They were popularized by Nintendo. In a generation that has become increasingly complacent, Nintendo plans to get players excited again with its latest invention, the cardboard-based Nintendo Labo. It might not last, but it’s exactly the kind of creative idea our industry needs right now.
Keep it simple
The concept behind Nintendo Labo is both simple enough to draw in those who don’t play games and broad enough to pique the interest of creative designers. Sold alongside special game cartridges, each Nintendo Labo set contains cardboard components that players assemble into a creation they can use for Nintendo Switch. The first two sets shown allow players to make their own fishing rod, RC cars, and even a robot suit, and the included software even demonstrates how the different parts function – there are no secrets here. Nintendo didn’t come up with Labo because an engineer cracked some mysterious code, but because its designers dared to think outside the confines of the Switch itself.
Thus far, we’ve already seen Nintendo use its cardboard accessories, as well as the Switch console, in ways no one outside Nintendo ever saw possible. The RC cars simply make use of the “HD Rumble” feature on the Joy-Con controllers, gradually moving from point to point by shaking. A cardboard piano functions through the use of the Joy-Con camera, which can tell which key is being pressed and signals the Switch accordingly. The announcement trailer even appeared to show off a point-and-click camera, a shotgun, and a car’s steering wheel and accelerator.
A cardboard future
The possibilities for Nintendo Labo are absolutely endless – we wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo created a laser tag game that made minimal use of the console, or if it allowed multiple aspiring musicians to perform an orchestral concert together. To kids, these certainly sound like neat toys to try out, but it’s perhaps how adults view Labo that is more important. Seeing that trailer brought me back to my own childhood when my friends and I would use only our imagination to have fun on a boring summer day. Oftentimes, our creations would involve Nintendo’s characters, and anything that could have made them seem more real would have been welcomed with open arms. Perhaps I sound like an old man yelling from his porch at the age of 23, but the youth need to appreciate this.
“In a generation that has become increasingly complacent, Nintendo plans to get players excited again.”
Disappointingly, I’ve the same dismissive line pop up in internet comment sections again and again since the reveal: “It’s just cardboard.” That’s like saying a drawing is just pencil and paper. It’s what you do with it, and what Nintendo’s tools allow you to do with it, that are important. Had that line been correct, kids would have created cardboard pianos years ago. It’s not like cardboard technology has evolved that much. But it required a company as creative and unusual as Nintendo to consider the potential of something so simple for so many different applications.
Less creative companies are almost certainly planning to look to Nintendo for “inspiration” in regard to Labo. We saw it with the rise of music accessory games after the success of Donkey Konga, such as Guitar Hero and later Rock Band, and we saw it with PlayStation Move on the PlayStation 3 and even Kinect on Xbox 360. Of all the video game fads to appear over the last few decades, perhaps only “toys to life” is where Nintendo has had to play catch-up, as its Amiibo released much later than Activision’s Skylanders – but Amiibo could be used across several games for multiple purposes.
The “Nintendo effect”
Will copying Nintendo Labo serve any useful purpose for other companies? We can’t know for sure, of course, but consider this: Nintendo is one of the few game developers that doesn’t seem to deal with “growing pains.” Its first attempt at a 3D platformer, Super Mario 64, is still one of the best games of all time. It entered the competitive shooter space with Splatoon and had similar results. I have little doubt it can follow suit with Labo, but how many other companies are going to stick the landing right off the bat? If they fail to make an impression with their own paper creations, then critics will have a point: It’s just cardboard.
“Nintendo is one of the few game developers that doesn’t seem to deal with ‘growing pains.’”
In the current age of news at your fingertips, gaming fans have access to development information on projects years in advance, and by the time they actually release, there is little left to discover. Nintendo’s specialty is in surprising us with things we didn’t know we wanted until we got our hands on them, and this is particularly true with Labo. Nintendo had teased it as an “interactive experience,” and I assumed it was going to be some sort of television series. But being surprised, even if it’s occasionally for the wrong reason, is necessary for the growth and sustainability of a creative industry like video games. As horrendous as most view it today, even disco helped pave the way for future musical genres, and the 3D animation was built on the back of rough flipbooks.
Could Nintendo Labo turn out to be all smoke and cardboard mirrors? Of course. But the company already succeeded not in giving us a polished final product, but by expanding our definition of “gaming” to something that goes beyond the bounds of a screen or even a VR headset. It’s why Nintendo has been revered for decades, and I can’t wait to see what weird idea they come up with next, even if it isn’t a hit – that is, as long as it isn’t something as grating and terrible as Threediots.
Disclaimer: The following article was written freely based on the author's opinion, and it may not necessarily represent Inven Global's editorial stance.