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The Obstacles ‘Nintendo Labo’ Faces in Capturing the Parent-Child Audience

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nintendo labo piano

One thing that can be said about Nintendo as a company is that they always do the unexpected. Whether this is to their benefit, like the success of the Switch, or to their detriment, like the failure of the Wii U, is another matter. And yet, despite this fact, despite the Nintendo fanbase being top in its class for crazy speculation and conspiracy theories, the toy-maker turned game developer has managed to arguably deliver its biggest curve-ball yet with Nintendo Labo.

The imaginative DIY project has you creating all manner of contraptions and mechanisms utilizing cardboard cutouts, such as a fully functioning thirteen key piano or a little RC car controlled by the Switch tablet. You won’t find a bit of plastic or the like for reinforcements here. This is a 98% cardboard product with a bit of string here and an infrared sticker there. You can get more details on this zany idea from Nintendo’s own press release.

nintendo labo sheetsPrior to this announcement, Nintendo was pitching a new product “specially crafted for kids and those who are kids at heart”. After seeing Nintendo Labo in action, it’s easy to tell what they meant.  It captures the same childlike sense of imagination and creativity that staples like LEGOs and Lincoln Logs bring to the table, but delivers it in an entirely novel way.

The fact that the material is cardboard, though, is a sticking point for many, one that is only compounded by the kits’ price tags of $70-$80 USD. This preconception will prove an obstacle for Nintendo to overcome, but the complications extend further than the cardboard mental barrier.

Nintendo Labo is clearly being marketed towards parents and their kids as an experience that can be enjoyed together, and for the new product to take off it will need to gain the approval of both sides of that equation. Each side presents its own unique challenges that Nintendo Labo will need to clear in order to meet success.

The Parent Phase

A big advantage Nintendo Labo has going for it is that there isn’t anything else quite like it on the market. The closest comparison that can be made in terms of material would perhaps be Google Cardboard, but even that isn’t something you would find on the shelf of your everyday toy or video game store. To the uninformed parent, the Nintendo Labo box would certainly be eye-catching, but that may not be enough to distract from tried and true creative classics like LEGOs. For this reason, exposure will be paramount to convince this audience.

Nintendo is already taking steps towards creating this exposure with their Nintendo Labo Studio events in New York City and San Francisco. However, with only two locations on opposite ends of the country and limited space, it’s unlikely to get into the hands of many. Not to mention the events are only being telegraphed through gaming outlets, which means the parents who do attend an event most likely already follow gaming news in some shape or form. This doesn’t help bring in the uninitiated user base Nintendo Labo needs, or the “people who barely touch game consoles” that Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima mentioned in a recent interview.

Fortunately, Nintendo seems to already be aware of this. Of the three news outlets that have reported hands-on impressions with the Nintendo Labo, only one of them, Nintendo Life, is dedicated to video game coverage. The other two, The Guardian and The Telegraph, are both highly respected general news outlets that pull in swaths of readers of all kinds every day.

Nintendo Labo needs more of this sort of general coverage in order to reach the broad audience it’s aiming to capture. There doesn’t need to a multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercial like its parent console had, but more articles in more local papers such as LA Times and the like will go far in conveying Nintendo Labo’s purpose, especially given how outlandish its concept is.

Marketing and coverage need to clearly communicate that Nintendo Labo is more than sheets of cardboard you can pick up at any old FedEx store. One of the many reasons for the Wii U’s historical failure is that this line of communication wasn’t there and the casual consumer saw no difference between it and the original Wii. Nintendo Labo is a teaching tool as much as it is a creative tool with (hopefully) fun games and activities attached to boot; the better Nintendo conveys this message the better chance they have of convincing a parent of putting their $70 towards a Nintendo Labo kit rather than the LEGO set sitting right next to it.

The Child Phase

So Mr. Smith has decided to buy a Nintendo Labo for Little Johnny. Great, we’re past the first step! What next? While the parents will most likely be the determining factor of whether this DIY project lifts off the ground, it’s the kids who will ultimately determine how long it stays in the air. There are a number of aspects that will factor into this, the primary of which is the cardboard dilemma.

The number one concern by many currently is the durability of these cardboard creations, and that’s a totally reasonable worry to have. After shelling out $70-$80 on a kit, a parent wouldn’t want their kid to destroy it the moment they get their hands on it. Cardboard can be made to be pretty sturdy, but not sturdy enough to withstand the full might of a ten-year-old amped up on Kool-Aid and Skittles.

nintendo labo fishing rod

However, that may be giving children too little credit, as odd as that may sound. What seems to be getting overlooked is the sense of ownership that comes with building something yourself, something even kids can feel.

The aforementioned news outlets reported that the simplest Toy-Con to put together, the RC car, took them 10-15 minutes to complete. On the other end of the spectrum is the mini-piano, which has been reported by Nintendo to take approximately two whole hours to construct. That is no small amount of time and, judging by the complexity we saw in the Nintendo Labo video, no small amount of effort, either.

If a child dedicates that much of their attention to their personal DIY arts-and-crafts project, chances are they will have a greater understanding of its functions and limitations. More importantly, it will instill a sense a pride from creating a, what seems to be, quite intricate and elegant piece of hardware with their own hands, rather than simply being given one. A child won’t be so quick to get rough with something they are proud to have created, especially if they’ve gained a deeper structural understanding of the building process itself.

nintendo labo construction

Granted, some kids are rowdier than others, and broken Toy-Cons are guaranteed to happen. Even so, the number of those cases may not run as rampant as many are predicting and for the ones that do happen, Nintendo has already announced they will provide replacement parts for cheap (although just how cheap has yet to be specified). These aren’t toddlers we’re dealing with here; young children are perfectly capable of learning and appreciating something given that something interests them, and Nintendo Labo is nothing if not attention-grabbing.

On Your Marks At The Starting Line

While price and material are the primary concerns that have come to light since Nintendo Labo’s reveal, there are a number of other factors to take into account as well, such as will kids “get it”? Will they understand these sheets of cardboard will actually become a fully interactable toy? Will a child willingly forgo playing Splatoon 2 or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to dedicate the sizeable amount of time necessary for constructing a Toy-Con? Will the final products even be worth it to the kid who put that effort into creating them?

These are questions we most likely won’t have answers for until more hands-on impressions start coming out, particularly those of the parent-child combos that attend the upcoming Studio events. If Nintendo Labo can win over both parent and child, though, then this crazy new idea has the potential to take off like a wildfire. The social networking of parent circles and virality of playground talk at schools are not to be underestimated. Combining the two together is like a warm and cold front colliding into each other. A storm will ensue, the severity of which is yet to be seen.

nintendo labo robot kit

Heralding from the rustic, old town of Los Angeles, California; Matthew now resides in Boston where he diligently researches the cure for cancer. In reality, though, he just wants to play games and watch anime, and likes talking about them way too much. A Nintendo/Sony hybrid fan with a soft-spot for RPG’s, he finds little beats sinking hours into an immersive game world. You can follow more of his work at his blog and budding YouTube channel below.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

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Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

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