Nintendo Labo Vehicle Kit full review
When Nintendo unveiled its first two Labo kits - the Variety and Robot sets - it was clear even then that this was only the beginning. Now we have our next look at the company’s papery plans in the third Labo release: the Vehicle Kit.
We’ve spent two weeks driving, diving, and flying (not to mention folding - so much folding) with the Vehicle Kit and have found ourselves with conflicted feelings. This is undeniably the most game-y Labo set yet, with a sprawling open world to explore, but clunky cardboard controls get in the way of the fun time and time again.
Note: this review is unscored thanks to the terms of Nintendo’s embargo, which stipulated that reviews of the Vehicle Kit be unscored. So we’re afraid you’ll actually have to read all the words to find out what we think.
The Vehicle Kit contains all the kit you need to build controls for three vehicles: a car, a submarine, and a plane. Along with that you need to build a pedal that serves as the accelerator for all three, along with a few smaller accessory parts. All of that will set you back £59.99/$69.99 when the Vehicle Kit launches on 14 September - the same price as the original Variety Kit and slightly cheaper than the Robot Kit.
If you’ve owned either of the previous Labo kits you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the basic app. Once again there are three modes - Make, Play, and Discover - respectively devoted to building the cardboard ‘Toy-Cons’, playing games with them, and learning about how they work while building custom experiences in the Toy-Con Garage.
The making is much the same as before, with clear, interactive step-by-step instructions as you fold sheet upon sheet of cardboard, slotting tabs into holes, and using elastic bands, IR stickers, and bits of foam for the finishing touches.
The builds vary in length even amongst the four main pieces here. The plane joystick might take an experienced Labo-ist just half an hour to assemble, but anyone would struggle to build the car’s steering wheel in less than three hours.
Still, this is (for me at least) Labo at its best, pairing the basic Lego-inspired joy of constructing something with a constant sense of fascination about how it’s all going to come together. It helps that the writing is sharper than ever, with a warm wit to the instructions that will make you want to take the time to slow down and digest it all properly.
Of the previous pair of Labo sets, the Variety Kit offered a multitude of experiences tied together only by their cardboard construction, while the Robot Kit was built around a single more elaborate game. The Vehicle Kit tries to strike a middle ground, with three core types of gameplay that are united by a single game: Adventure Mode.
The only problem is this: it’s a bit rubbish.
Once you build each of your three vehicles you can drop into this open world environment, which you’re free to roam in either the car, submarine, or plane, swapping between them with a quick slot of your right Joy-Con into the appropriate cardboard controller.
The world is split into a variety of areas - think icy part, desert part, beach part - each of which includes a handful of different mini-games and challenges. You might need to use the plane to shoot down all the balloons in the desert, discover sunken treasure in the sub, or escort cows to their paddock in the meadow.
In true, tired open world fashion each area is unmapped when you first discover it, and to map it out you’ll have to visit the local tower - sorry, refuelling station - to reveal the (small, mostly irrelevant) map.
It’s worth dwelling on the refuelling stations, because they’re emblematic of Adventure Mode’s baffling design choices. You’ll need to visit them regularly because you will eventually run out of fuel - at which point the game just stops. But refuelling is nothing more than fiddly busywork - there’s no game here, just a tedious process of lining your car up on the *exact* spot where your fuel hose can reach the petrol pump, and then waiting for ten seconds.
You’ll spend more time trying to line up with the pumps than you will using them, and in fact it’s so irritatingly tough to pull off that the Discover section of the app even has a whole FAQ devoted to how to pull it off - including a step-by-step walkthrough for the three-point-turn. The process is awkward, irritating, and - worst of all - dull, and is seemingly there for no reason other than to give you something, anything, to do.
And while refuelling may be the worst offender, unfortunately the same can be said for most of the activities you’ll get up to in Adventure, which mostly boil down to ‘travel here, then travel there, then get stuck on a fiddly bit’.
The car does at least control well, and taps into that basic joy of using a full steering wheel and pedal set-up, together with controls for reverse, jumping, and two levers for a variety of extra gadgets. The plane is even better, nothing more than a joystick and a trigger proving enough to deliver fantastic flying, and easily the most fun we’ve had has just been swooping through the skies.
The submarine is another matter entirely. Someone, somewhere, decided that the best control scheme involved separate dials for each of two turbines which spin 360-degrees, forcing you into an awkward game of trial-and-error to try and go anywhere at all. Once again, even Nintendo itself knows it go this wrong - there’s an almost apologetic section in Discovery that’s simply titled ‘Tricky Submarine Controls’.
If I was feeling charitable I might suggest that maybe, just maybe, the submarine merely has a steep learning curve to get the hang of it. But it is so aggressively un-fun along the way that I don’t know why anyone would bother sticking with it long enough to find out. It’s controller-hurlingly frustrating, which is especially dangerous when your controller is made out of nothing more than cardboard and a few rubber bands.
There are a few other play modes beyond Adventure, but they’re pretty car-centric. There are two types of racing mode using the car, a rally mode that does at least use all three vehicle types, and a simple battle game that basically boils down to ‘Arms, but all the boxers are cars’. Some of these are multiplayer at least, but unless you have multiple Vehicle Kits it won’t be much fun for the players stuck miming with Joy-Cons.
Finally, there’s a small customisation mode in which you build a ‘spray can’ which you can the use to give custom paint jobs to your vehicles, letting you break them down by part to customise them.
In a way, this is a reminder of the joy of Labo at its best. As you build the spray can you’ll come across one odd piece - a small cardboard ball that you’re instructed to simply drop into the body of the can. It makes no sense, until all of a sudden it clicks: this is there just so that every time you shake the can, you’ll get that satisfying rattle.
It’s a beautiful little touch, the type you suspect almost any other company would never think to include. But those moments are few and far between in the Vehicle Kit, which mostly smacks of missed opportunity and the fear that maybe Labo was only ever good for forgettable mini-games after all.