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Nintendo Switch blends high-tech software with low-tech reality

Cardboard models offer families new ways to play

"Nintendo Labo" players control a virtual robot using a cardboard backpack and strings attached to their hands and feet.

OSAKA -- Nintendo is switching things up with the latest releases for its Switch game console, connecting the virtual world with some decidedly old-school technology.

"Nintendo Labo," to be released in April, is a series of do-it-yourself kits that come with software as well as cardboard models and tools. Players first need to assemble the parts into objects, such as a piano or a fishing rod. Nintendo calls these things Toy-Cons, and they can be combined with the Switch's detachable screen and controllers, depending on the particular Toy-Con.

Nintendo envisions the kits as a new way for parents to play with their children. And the company hopes they help maintain enthusiasm for the console long after its release last spring. 

The sets include cardboard fishing rods and pianos.

The two controllers have infrared sensors and motors that cause vibration. When they are attached to, say, the fishing rod Toy-Con, players can feel when they have hooked a fish and see it being pulled out of the water on the monitor as they wind the reel. 

Special masking tape and stickers are available for users to customize their Toy-Cons.

Soon after Nintendo announced the concept at 7 a.m. on Jan. 18, social media was abuzz with comments. "How creative!" one wrote. Another said, "It reminds me of playing with cardboard boxes when I was in elementary school."

"Nintendo Labo" will go on sale on April 20. The Variety Kit, which includes a fishing rod, a piano and three other cardboard models, is expected to sell for 6,980 yen ($62.96) before tax. An RC car Toy-Con allows players to remotely control the cardboard vehicle on the Switch's touch screen.

The other set is the Robot Kit, with an expected price tag of 7,980 yen without tax. The player carries a cardboard box on their back and controls a virtual robot on the screen by moving four strings, which come out of the box and attach to their hands and feet. The software recognizes the body movements.

Nintendo is expected to add more titles to the series.

The Switch console has become a global megahit thanks partly to popular titles that hark back to an earlier gaming era, such as "The Legend of Zelda." By the end of the current fiscal year in March, cumulative sales are expected to reach 14 million units.

The key is to win over "light" users, such as family members and elementary or junior high schoolchildren, once the initial craze has run its course. Nintendo hopes that "Nintendo Labo," with its new way of enjoying video games, will help sustain sales.

"'Nintendo Labo' is probably designed to win support from mothers, as it combines handicraft work with video gaming," said Hideki Yasuda of the Ace Research Institute.

In the past, Nintendo succeeded in maintaining the popularity of its Wii console, which eventually sold more than 100 million units, by introducing the "Wii Fit" fitness software. This included a special board, called a balance board, that resembled a scale. The product appealed to women, in particular.

Game consoles tend to quickly lose momentum after the initial excitement dies down, causing major fluctuations in earnings. The popularity of the Switch console, which was difficult to find at retail stores until late last year, has been showing signs of abating since the beginning of 2018. The "Nintendo Labo" announcement came just as enthusiasm was starting to wane.

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