Nintendo Labo: The Quarantine Review

Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 03: Vehicle Kit is a cardboard modeling kit paired with a Driving / Flying Sim developed and published by Nintendo. Toy-Con 03 released on September 14, 2018. It is a Nintendo Switch exclusive. MSRB is $70, but you can find it on sale for cheaper.

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Like Ring Fit Adventure, I was initially skeptical about Nintendo going out into left field again with their Nintendo Labo experiments. In 2018 and 2019 I saw them as quirky yet useless things that were 1) not for me and 2) not worth the steep price of admission. After spending several months at home for social distancing, however, I felt a strong need to shake up the routine. Reviewers said that Toy-Con 03 was the best set, and so I got this one on sale for half the MSRB.

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You essentially have two experiences with Nintendo Labo: one is building with cardboard, and the other is playing games with the sets that you built.

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Each Toy Con is a remarkable showcase for all the bells and whistles built into the Joycon.

Most reviewers out there compared building the Toy-Con to building with Lego, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. It’s more akin to building a model airplane, only without the super glue mess or smelly paints. The instructions are incredibly detailed, with 3D models of the cardboard that you can freely rotate to get your bearings, and a fast-forward and rewind feature. They were a godsend for the trickier steps. The writing for the instructions is actually quite funny — you won’t find technical writing for other projects that use scientific words like zoop! and fwoom!

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Building the sets can take quite a bit of time; I spent most of a weekend putting the four major pieces together. The steering wheel and submarine controls especially took upwards of 2 hours each. The most magical part of building these things is seeing a flat piece of cardboard take shape into a physical object. And outside of a few rubber bands and reflective tape, it really is held entirely together by folded cardboard. It reminds me of Japanese wood joinery. The engineers who made up all of this stuff deserve quite a bit of credit for making it all work.

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After you’ve built the controls for the three main vehicles: car, plane, and submarine, you’re left to play with the games available. Slot Cars is nothing special, and Circuit Mode is a charming, albeit short, racing game. Rally Mode is basically a Pilotwings game using all three major vehicles. Battle Mode is very basic and is really only viable if you know someone else who also has the Vehicle Kit. Paint Studio allows you to customize your in-game vehicles, which is cute.

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The real draw is Adventure Mode. Here is where I think the Vehicle Kit earns its keep as a full game. You’re plopped into a delightful open world with 10 different biomes to explore however you want. You can change vehicles on a dime, and there were plenty of secrets to make exploring feel rewarding. Each biome will have several quests and collectibles — it wasn’t the longest or most in-depth game ever, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has that Nintendo level of polish.

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The Vehicle Kit is also compatible with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and I was able to get 2nd place at 50cc with it. I wouldn’t recommend playing at any higher speed than that. While Labo’s controls and physics work well for the Labo games, I don’t think they translate well to Mario Kart. It’s arguably worse than controlling with a Wii Wheel.

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The controls are remarkably responsive for being just cardboard, rubber bands, and reflective tape. The Toy-Cons hold up well, too. Even after several hours of use, I thought the petal for sure would get warped, but it actually still looks new. I know the running joke is that you’re paying $70 for cardboard, but at least it’s quality cardboard.

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The last part of Nintendo Labo is Discover, which is basically a workshop for how the Toy-Con function and a programming lab for you to make your own controls and minigames. I didn’t spend much time in this mode, but for the person who likes programming / engineering, I think this would be a fascinating part of Labo. I hope someone comes up with cool inventions with this.

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Even a jaded adult such as myself found a lot of fun with Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 03. Nintendo is the King of Left Field not just because they make lots of these weird risks, but because they execute them rather well. The Vehicle Kit reminded me of the days I built model airplanes and Warhammer 40k minifigures, only this time I could actually play with my creations instead of have them sit on a desk. For anyone with older kids, or kids that are interested in STEM, this kit comes highly recommended.

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