Whether you’re four or 40, toy construction sets have something to offer you.
Nintendo Labo, the gaming company’s cardboard toy construction set for use with its Switch system, releases this month, and it’s unlike any video game peripheral we’ve seen before. Combining the “do it yourself” approach to building sets like LEGO and K’NEX with traditional gaming elements displayed on your television screen, Labo aims to stoke your problem-solving and creative fires while providing you worthwhile incentive in the form of a fully playable console game.
It’s a brilliant idea, and in the weeks following Labo’s announcement, I saw a number of commenters make the same point: “I wish this existed when I was a kid.”
Though it is certainly meant first and foremost for kids, Nintendo also encourages “kids at heart” to try it out. Labo and other toy construction sets are a great way for people of all ages to engage more directly with their entertainment and feel a sense of accomplishment upon completing a build. And for parents, it’s a great way to bond with their children.
Nintendo Labo is, at its most basic level, a cardboard model. The two sets available at launch, Variety Kit and Robot Kit, come with sheets filled with individual cardboard pieces that must be popped out and assembled using the instructions included with the set’s Nintendo Switch game software. Various pieces of Nintendo Switch hardware, including the individual Joy-Con controllers as well as the main console itself, are then added to the cardboard bits, creating a working device that offers new gameplay experiences. A piano, through the use of the infrared camera on the Joy-Con controller, can play notes, while a small robotic RC car can move using only the controller’s rumble. With each step, builders can learn more about how the kits operate by viewing the software, and they can even augment them into custom creations.
For children, it’s the perfect combination of creation and education. The goal of Nintendo Labo is certainly to give its users neat new toys they can play and experiment with, but it’s also meant as a teaching tool. The “magic” of the Nintendo Switch’s unique features is intentionally removed in order to show kids how they’re possible. This way they’ll be able to fix their sets should anything happen to the cardboard, as the logic behind why it works is more important than making sure every piece is exactly as it was shown in the instructional software.
Adults, on the other hand, might think the cutesy cardboard Labo toys don’t have a place in their grown-up and sophisticated homes. But is that true? The Nintendo Switch system itself is relatively unassuming, looking like any other media device in your entertainment center, but the games available on it offer the same whimsy and creative spark you can expect from Labo. Super Mario Odyssey, which takes players to a Luncheon Kingdom filled with food-based hazards, oozes the same charm seen in Labo. The only difference is that when your friends come over to visit, you’re able to turn off the game and pretend you don’t still love fun — but why must we as adults pretend these toys aren’t still exciting? Yes, the sense of joy and wonder when you’ve finished creating them might not be as enormous as it would’ve been for your seven-year-old self, but you can’t deny that making a functional piano or fishing rod out of cardboard and string is pretty cool.
Having kids is, of course, the perfect cover for bringing toy construction sets into your house — and it’s also the perfect opportunity for parents to show an interest in their kids’ hobbies. There’s a certain level of timelessness with toy construction sets, which have existed in one form of another for more than a century — Lincoln Logs were LEGO before there was LEGO — and they don’t require the level of preparation or experience you’d need to engage with your kids’ Fortnite obsession.
But whether you have kids or not, there’s something that makes toy construction surprisingly perfect for adults: a sense of accomplishment. As we enter jobs or complete higher-level schoolwork that involves ongoing projects with no end date in sight, toy construction sets give us the chance to execute something from start to completion and have the proof on our shelves. During my last year of college, I took to building Halo Mega Bloks (now Mega Construx) sets as a distraction from my coursework. It brought back the memories of building the games’ Warthog and Pelican vehicles when I was younger, but it also became a new avenue for stress relief that I didn’t need as a kid. I was getting something completely new out of the plastic bricks.
South Park cocreator Trey Parker uses LEGO sets as a way to ease his stress during the weeklong production period that precedes each episode’s airing on Comedy Central. They weren’t another creative outlet for Parker, but rather the exact opposite — he built them specifically because the instructions left no room for improvisation. “I think that having that instruction book that said, ‘This one on top of that one, then this one on that one’ — it was just so therapeutic for me because the rest of my life was, ‘Think of something. Think of something. Think of something,’” Parker said in an interview for the film A Lego Brickumentary.
Perhaps it’s the reason the open-ended creation game Minecraft has been so popular with younger players but hasn’t held the attention of their parents for nearly as long. Ironically, it’s adults who want to be told what to do, while the kids are left to use their imagination.
Making a toy construction set is even more rewarding when you’re able to see an object or vehicle from one of your favorite franchises eventually come to life. Across the different brands of toy construction sets, including K’NEX, Mega Construx, LEGO and even the lesser-known Kre-O, there is a set for nearly every kind of fan. From Harry Potter to Star Wars and even Plants vs. Zombies, if it has a fan base, there’s a very good chance you can make it out of plastic pieces. Sure, you might feel a little silly displaying a giant Millennium Falcon on your shelf, but is it really any flashier than a framed Last Jedi poster on your wall?
If Nintendo Labo ends up being a smash hit — and chances are high, given the success of the Switch — there will be an inevitable backlash of older video game fans who dismiss the kits as only for young children and those with too much time on their hands. But if they were willing to sit down to build one themselves, they’d find that the simple act of creation offers a sense of purpose and progression we rarely get in the adult world. And if your kids want to take over for you halfway through building a kit, you can always go pick up another set and work on it right next to them.