When LEGO announced its partnership with Nintendo to at last bring Super Mario to the brick universe in an official capacity, it’s safe to say that what we were expecting was something along more typical lines from LEGO. Princess Peach’s castle perhaps? Maybe World 1-1 from the NES original? Nothing so obvious came to be of course, because Nintendo.
LEGO Super Mario himself is a rather chunky monkey, with blocky features and girth that sees him treading the line between LEGO and DUPLO. In the base pack you get the man himself as well as a fairly decent array of different obstacles, platforms, and gizmos to build that he can traverse. It seems a bit sparse even by LEGO standards, but there’s a reason Mario’s a stocky boy because there’s lots more going on under his skin than your usual brick-based affair.
When you first get LEGO Mario out of his cardboard prison he’ll be looking what can only be described as dead-eyed. The dead, lifeless visage of his can thankfully be rectified by slapping two AAA batteries up inside him and pressing the power button. All of a sudden he looks far more like he does on the box and the classic musings of Charles Martinet emanate forth from a speaker grill.
Yep, Mario made a detour through Electrodrome on his way here, and is packed with not only a display that is used to show his eyes, mouth, and Tellytubby-esque chest screen, but as is required by law for any electronic product produced after 2018, Bluetooth. LEGO Mario will sync up to your phone and allow you to do a few things, but more on that later.
Our blocky plumber also has another trick up his sleeve – a sort-of primitive camera on his underside as well as some rather bright LEDs. As soon as you pick him up from whatever surface he was on, you’ll immediately get to experience this in action. Through what is likely black magic, Mario is able to interpret his movements and make appropriate sounds depending on what you’re forcing him to do.
Make him jump, and he’ll make a jumping sound. Jump three times in quick succession and he’ll even perform the classic array of triple jump ‘yah!’s and ‘wahoo!’s. Plod him slowly along the ground as though he’s walking, and he’ll make cartoonish walking sounds, lay him on his back and he’ll fall asleep, it’s really quite surprising just how accurate this all is, and provides a level of feedback that you’d usually only find in some sort of video game. We recommend removing his trousers whilst he’s awake, as well.
Despite his appearance being neither fully LEGO due to his size and stature, nor fully Nintendo because of his blockiness and clippy hands, there’s a strange charm about him when he comes to life; something about accidentally knocking him over and hearing him go ‘ooof!’ left us with an unshakeable grin on our faces.
But aside from the theatrics, what does he actually do? As we said before, the kit comes with a variety of platforms and such to construct, all of which are designed for Mario to interact with in some way. It can be as simple as a large blue surface changing his chest-screen to display a water pattern to indicate that he’s in water, or something a lot more specific, thanks to some clever little tiles that reside on top of certain objects and characters. These have what essentially amounts to a barcode on them, which Mario can scan with his lower sensor and react accordingly. Place him on a Goomba and he’ll squash it, pop him on a Super Mushroom and he’ll grow in size (or at least pretend to, because in our world, he’s bound by the laws of matter).
The idea is to arrange all the bits and bobs and enemies and objects in a series to create a course for Mario to traverse. Stick him on a warp pipe and the level will begin, starting a countdown on Mario’s chest and requiring him to get to the goal flag which you’ve presumably placed at the end, collecting coins and defeating foes as you go. This is where the fact that we’re blatantly not the target demographic really hit us the hardest, as we just felt the idea of running Mario through this pretend course was a bit, well, pointless. However, we have witnessed the effect these kits have on people younger than us, and it's pretty remarkable. We've seen younglings build a course then spend hours trying to get their best score before pulling it all apart and creating an entirely new course. The expansion kits play into this as well, allowing you to customise your level as you see fit. It was at this point we realised the potential of this range when it comes to captivating a younger audience; it's like a physical version of Super Mario Maker.
Even if you don't have the extra kits, you can still expand your courses with whatever LEGO you have to hand; Mario's sensor on his bottom is smart enough to pick out the colour of the surface he's resting on, so red blocks become deadly fire pits while green ones are lush grass. To our adult eyes, it might seem a bit simplistic, but children will find it easier to impose their own imaginations over the top of everything.
It's worth noting that actually building the set is a slightly different process than you might be expecting. This kit takes a somewhat different approach to usual, in that you have a paper quick start guide included in the box, but after Mario’s been pieced together you have to connect him to your smart device after downloading the free LEGO Super Mario app. All the instructions for all the other elements of the kit are found here, and whilst we still feel that leaving out an old-fashioned paper guide is a bit of a short-sighted decision, the execution with these new digital manuals is remarkable.
They feel very much like the guides found in Nintendo Labo, with each step being rendered in proper 3D, allowing you to zoom in and rotate the object in front of you to get a better look at what you’re required to do. Nothing in this kit especially requires this level of flexibility, but the concept is so useful we can easily see it being an absolutely invaluable option for some of LEGO’s more complex builds.
The app also allows you to take a photo of any levels you’ve created and share them with the world. This sadly is a feature that is phenomenally limited, as you’re only sharing a photo without any details of the build. We understand that when it comes to anything to do with children you have to be ludicrously careful, but it does make us wonder why this is even included if you can’t really do anything with it.
From an adult perspective, LEGO Super Mario is a bit of a mixed bag. LEGO Mario himself is an absolute darling who we fell in love with far more quickly than we ever would have imagined, but the courses and concepts that surround him don’t emanate the same kind of charm or interest. However, we've seen first-hand that children love the idea of taking Mario through their own custom-created levels, and while the base kit is somewhat limited and lacks of rules and restrictions that made playing Mario’s games so enjoyable, we can see that the expansion kits will add to the experience and much of the fun is simply down to interacting with the course you've made, rather than expecting a Dark Souls-style challenge in plastic form.
It will be interesting to see how this particular range evolves over the next year or so, and while we're not sure grown-ups are going to fall head-over-heels with Mario in LEGO form, kids will absolutely lap it up.