NIN­TENDO GOES IRL

Fast Company - - Contents - By Harry Mccracken

The gam­ing gi­ant’s hot new prod­uct? Per­fo­rated card­board.

Even the savvi­est ob­server of the Ja­panese video-game gi­ant Nin­tendo couldn’t have pre­dicted that the in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it an­nounced last Jan­uary would in­volve not a VR head­set or a new Mario game, but per­fo­rated card­board, col­or­ful string, elas­tic bands, and plas­tic grom­mets.

These res­o­lutely low-tech items are the stuff of Labo (short for lab­o­ra­tory), a mind­bend­ingly imag­i­na­tive se­ries of add-ons for the break­out Switch hand­held con­sole, which Nin­tendo in­tro­duced in March of 2017. As much maker projects as they are games, Labo’s DIY kits let you fold card­board parts into smart toys that you can en­gage us­ing the Switch. The $70 Va­ri­ety Kit pro­vides the mak­ings of a piano and a fish­ing rod, along with a house, a mo­tor­bike, and two ra­dio-con­trolled cars. Labo’s sec­ond of­fer­ing, the $80 Robot Kit, con­tains parts for a vi­sor and back­pack that, once built, turn

the wearer into a Trans­form­ers-style au­tom­a­ton. (Crouch down and your char­ac­ter can zip over ter­rain like a tank; stand up and raise your arms and it takes flight.)

Much of the tech­nol­ogy that brings Labo’s struc­tures to life is found in the Switch’s con­trollers, which de­tach from the con­sole’s main touch screen. When placed in­side a card­board car, for ex­am­ple, the con­trollers’ co­or­di­nated vi­bra­tions propel it for­ward. Pop one con­troller into the han­dle of the fish­ing rod and its mo­tion sen­sor de­tects whether you’re low­er­ing your bait or reel­ing in a feisty mackerel, with all of the ac­tion de­picted on the Switch screen in real time. In­side Labo’s piano, a con­troller uses its em­bed­ded in­frared cam­era to iden­tify which keys you’re press­ing.

As gad­getry such as Face­book’s Ocu­lus Rift is mak­ing en­ter­tain­ment more vir­tual, Labo’s joy­ful phys­i­cal­ity rep­re­sents a back-to-ba­sics move for Nin­tendo, which was founded in 1889 as a man­u­fac­turer of play­ing cards and ex­panded to make other play­things in the 1960s. It’s hard to imag­ine the other con­sole king­pins (Sony’s Plays­ta­tion 4 and Mi­crosoft’s Xbox One) of­fer­ing any­thing sim­i­lar to Labo—and that’s the point. Since its ear­li­est days in the video-game busi­ness, “Nin­tendo has cho­sen to do it their own way,” says Blake J. Har­ris, au­thor of Con­sole Wars: Sega, Nin­tendo, and the Bat­tle That De­fined a Gen­er­a­tion.

Stay­ing unique is “chal­leng­ing, and it’s high risk as well, but it’s some­thing that we em­brace,” says Nin­tendo of Amer­ica pres­i­dent Reg­gie Fils-aimé. It also re­quires a will­ing­ness to ig­nore the ad­vice of out­siders. Af­ter 2012’s Wii U con­sole fiz­zled—it reached a to­tal of 13.5 mil­lion units sold, ver­sus 102 mil­lion for the orig­i­nal Wii—pun­dits de­clared that it was time for the com­pany to re­trench to safer ter­ri­tory, such as mak­ing smart­phone games. With ti­tles such as 2016’s Su­per Mario Run, Nin­tendo did start bring­ing its iconic char­ac­ters to iphone and An­droid gamers. Rather than aban­don­ing its own hard­ware, how­ever, it in­tro­duced the Switch. The ver­sa­tile hand­held sur­passed the Wii U’s life­time unit sales in 10 months, and it be­came the fastest-sell­ing con­sole in U.S. his­tory.

Rolling out Labo just over a year af­ter the launch of the Switch is a way for Nin­tendo to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing. An­i­mated on-screen in­struc­tions guide users through the build­ing process, mak­ing it feel more like play than Ikea-es­que drudgery. Once assem­bled, the projects, though en­dear­ingly wob­bly, work well. And each has un­ex­pected depth: The piano, for in­stance, can also act as a vir­tual aquar­ium—and you can cre­ate your own fish by cut­ting them out of card­board, then scan­ning them us­ing the cam­era-equipped con­troller.

There’s even a sim­ple pro­gram­ming fea­ture, which al­lows users to de­vise new func­tion­al­i­ties, such as em­ploy­ing the Robot Kit back­pack to steer a car from the Va­ri­ety Kit. They can even fab­ri­cate a the­o­ret­i­cally in­fi­nite ar­ray of wholly orig­i­nal giz­mos out of their own card­board.

Its for­ays into card­board not­with­stand­ing, Nin­tendo’s great­est as­sets are still its sig­na­ture video-game fran­chises, such as The Leg­end of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Su­per Mario Odyssey, both of which have been best sell­ers. But Fils-aimé rel­ishes Labo’s po­ten­tial to broaden the com­pany’s au­di­ence as new kits are de­vel­oped. “No doubt, Labo will ap­peal to con­sumers that to­day don’t see them­selves play­ing video games,” he says. “And we love that as­pect of the prod­uct.”

1. A Switch touch screen re­flects the notes you play on the Labo piano. 2. Con­trollerequipped han­dles steer a dig­i­tal mo­tor­bike. 3. The pole lets you catch fish that swim around the Switch screen.

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