Nintendo and Lego team-up for a new line of Super Mario sets that blur the line between construction toys and video game.
With the news that the PlayStation 5 will be getting an all digital version from day one, the video game world has taken a step closer to a future where physical products, including the console itself, are no longer necessary. Some people like a bit clutter under their TV and on their shelves while others will be glad to see the back of it, but there’s definitely something to be said for the tactile pleasure of playing and seeing real objects. Which is the main reason why Lego has been a family (and pretty much everyone else) favourite for over 50 years.
As soon as the team-up between Nintendo and Lego was announced it seemed like the most obvious partnership ever. Both are veterans of their respective industries, with a reputation for high quality, intricately designed products and intense secrecy. You wouldn’t believe the NDAs we had to sign to get hold of early samples of some of the Lego Super Mario sets but we’re glad we did because we haven’t had so much fun ‘reviewing’ anything in ages.
The collaboration with Nintendo is a creative one rather than simply a licensing deal, and according to our interview with one of the designers the two companies have been working on the Super Mario line for four years, journeying between Denmark and Japan in the days before the coronavirus and now checking in via video links twice every week. That may seem a lot of time and effort just to make some Lego sets, but the Super Mario line is not your usual box of bricks.
Whether Lego will make sets based on other Nintendo properties, or more traditional Mario sets with ordinary minifigures, is unclear, although they did hint it was a possibility when we spoke to them. For now though, their focus is on the Super Mario line, which consists of over a dozen different sets, all of which use an oversized Mario minifigure with Bluetooth compatibility, motion sensors, LCD displays, and a speaker.
Mario is 6cm tall, without his hat, and is voiced by Charles Martinet himself. He’s still got Lego feet, so he can stick to other bricks, but his most important ability is that there’s a sensor beneath him that can tell what kind of bricks he’s standing on, in terms of colour (blue is water, red is lava, etc.) and special ‘action bricks’ that have unique functions.
We were sent four main sets to play with, but while you’re given instructions on how to build them (via an impressively high-tech app, instead of a paper manual) so it looks like what’s on the box, what you’re really encouraged to do is design your own course using modular parts. The starter course comes with Mario and a start pipe and end flag, and once you jump on the former you have 60 seconds to collect as many coins as possible and bank them at the flag before the time runs out.
That sounds a bit weird to just read about it – we didn’t really get it when the designer was explaining it to us over Zoom – but while you can just cheat and pretend you made every jump, essentially flying the Mario minifigure through the air, it’s much more fun to move him around like he’s actually in a game.
Some of the obstacles, such as a spinning platform in the starter course, take a modicum of skill to get past, since there are no studs on the platform and Mario can slip off if you move it too fast. But that’s nothing compared to the Boomer Bill expansion set, where it’s quite tricky to fit Mario safely between the two spinning enemies. The Piranha Plant Power Slide is even harder, since you have to keep Mario moving to collect coins but also have to avoid hitting the Piranha Plants at either end (and remember, there’s a 60 second time limit and the minifigure knows if you hit something).
The Piranha Plant set has an time extend block, which is vital for a good score, and the question mark block that comes with the starter course spits out a randomised reward (revealed by the LCD screen on Mario’s chest). Then there’s the Toad’s Treasure Hunt set, the biggest one we were sent, which has a sort of story element where you’re trying to collect three treasure boxes that have to be opened with levers and which take some time to collect.
Attacking an enemy doesn’t take any skill, you just jump on a Goomba’s head or a lever to throw Bowser, Jr. to the floor, then jump on his back too, but there is a surprising amount of strategy to how you use your 60 seconds to get the maximum amount of coins, and we found ourselves starting to do some complex forward planning before starting a run. The end result is you end up playing with the Lego as a fairly structured game that the whole family can join in on.
Putting the four sets together we created a giant dinning table-sized course that was embarrassingly easy to fail at, as we took too long on the Power Slide or managed to get Mario hit in the face by the spinning cheep cheeps on the bridge. It’s genuinely good fun though and while it means these sets are much better as toys than display pieces you have to admire the fact that Lego and Nintendo have tried to make something both interactive and fully customisable.
And regardless of anything else, the brick-built models of other Mushroom Kingdom characters, from Toad and Toadette to a Shy Guy and a Koopa Troopa are great and amusingly reminiscent of low poly models from the N64 era.
We were also sent one character pack, which is a blind bag that contains one of 10 minor enemies, from a spiny to a bob-omb. These are also great (we got a blooper, complete with a little underwater stand) and we can easily see ourselves wanting to collect ‘em all.
The only thing we weren’t sold on were the power-up packs. There are four of these, with the one we were sent giving Mario a cat power-up costume. The idea is you can earn coins simply by running up walls but for us that became a bit too abstract, but maybe that was just the red line that our adult(-ish) imagination couldn’t pass. Either way, the power-up packs seem much too expensive compared to the other sets, which otherwise offer surprisingly good value considering how notoriously expensive Lego usually is.
The only other problem we had is that moving a whole course is very difficult unless it’s built on something moveable, as each little modular segment is connected only by a spindly connector that easily comes off. Although, since it’s Lego, it’s easily put back on again.
Overall though the sets are a delight, with a wonderful attention to detail that plays to the best of both companies, from seeing Mario start to fall asleep, loudly snoring, when you lay him down horizontally, to the fact that the cloud pieces are actually recoloured bushes – just like the original NES game.
These are sets meant to be played with, rather than just admired, which may not be what some older fans are looking for but if you’ve been playing Super Mario Maker 2 and like the idea of doing the same thing but with physical building blocks then this partnership between Nintendo and Lego has turned out to be something of a dream team.
Adventures with Mario Starter Course (71360) – £49.99
Piranha Plant Power Slide Expansion Set (71365) – £24.99
Boomer Bill Barrage Expansion Set (71366) – £24.99
Toad’s Treasure Hunt Expansion Set (71368) – £74.99
Cat Mario Power-Up Pack (71372) – £8.99
Character Pack (71361) – £3.49
The Super Mario Line is not released until 1 August but you can already pre-order the starter course and power-up kits at the Lego store.
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