I interviewed the lead designer of Lego Super Mario for Nintendo Life last week, and following that, Lego’s PR folks kindly sent me a sample of the Lego Super Mario range to try out for myself. Although I’d done plenty of research before the interview, I still wasn’t sure exactly how these sets are meant to work by the time I spoke to Jonathan Bennink, and even his patient explanations didn’t really enlighten me all that much. It’s only now that I’ve built the sets and played with them that I get what Nintendo and Lego have been aiming at.
I’ve built plenty of Lego sets in my time – I’m looking at the giant T. rex from the mammoth Jurassic Park set as I write this – but I was taken aback when I opened up the Mario Starter Course. For a start, there are no instructions, since everything is done through the Lego Super Mario app. Lego has been experimenting with digital instructions for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen a set without paper instructions at all. And then there was the fact that I had to hunt around for two AAA batteries to power Mario – again, a signal that this is very much not your usual Lego set.
My five-year-old son was on hand to do the assembling, and he was super keen to crack on with building by the point I was searching for AAAs. He’d already had to wait patiently while the hefty Mario app was downloading, and once I’d found the batts, he then had to wait again while Mario himself performed an update.
But when we finally got going, he took to the digital instructions super quickly. In fact, after a short while he said he preferred them to boring old paper instructions. I can already hear the sound of Lego purists spitting out their tea, but he makes a great point – one thing that digital instructions have in their favour is that it’s impossible to miss a step, which is very easy to do when following them on paper. Plus it’s helpful to be able to rotate the image to see exactly where each piece goes.
Not that you’re likely to make a mistake when putting these sets together. In fact, they’re almost too simple to build. My son actually complained that the building was a little bit boring, since you’re generally making very small modules from just a few parts. That means there’s none of that usual satisfaction with Lego of seeing a complicated build emerge from nothing, adding detail as you go.
Having said that, it’s very cool to see Nintendo characters like Yoshi and Bowser Jr. emerge from a handful of bricks. Yoshi in particular looks utterly charming, and the Shy Guy is just *chef’s kiss*. Best of all, they’re all made almost entirely out of standard Lego bricks, although some are printed (there are no stickers whatsoever in any of the sets). The only new, specialist bricks are the characters’ feet and, in Bowser’s case, a shell. And elsewhere it’s almost all standard bricks as well, except for the green pipe and the new, rounded bases that sit underneath each feature.
Although my son wasn’t that impressed with the building, he absolutely loved playing with Mario. You should also bear in mind that he hadn’t even heard of Mario before we started making this. He’s super into Lego, but he has barely played any video games, bar a couple of Lego ones. Yet he was instantly charmed by this electronic Mario and his whoops and cheers as you swish him through the air. He was particularly charmed by the way the M man falls asleep when you lay him down.
He’s got a point, too – there’s something irresistible about this tiny, blocky Mario. And I love the way he has all sorts of built in reactions to different situations, like yelping ‘Mamma mia!’ when you take his trousers off. He seems fairly indestructible as well, which is a good thing considering the punishment he takes when you actually play the game.
Before I got these sets, all I really understood was that Mario reacts to special barcodes on different parts of the play set, like the ones on the Goomba’s head. Jonathan also mentioned that levels are played against a timer and are linked to the app. But it was only when I started playing with my son that the lightbulb went on for me: this is a competitive multiplayer game, with an added dash of creativity.
Let me explain how it works. Mario is linked to the smartphone app by Bluetooth, and placing Mario on the green pipe starts the level. Then you have 60 seconds to collect as many coins as possible by using various play features. Scanning/stomping a Goomba earns a coin or two, spinning Mario around on the rotating block earns coins, and floating him around on the cloud also earns coins, to name just a few of the things you can do. But you have to scan/stomp on the flag tile at the end of the course before the time runs out, otherwise you lose all the coins you’ve gathered. Then the app tells you your score and lists the things you did in the level.
Suddenly it all makes sense! The aim is to compete with your child/sibling/parent/friend/whoever to get as many coins as you can in a set level. And suddenly you realise there are certain strategies you can employ to maximise your high score. The rotating block, for example, earns loads more coins than stomping Goombas, but it’s also more high risk, because if Mario falls off the slippy surface he gets stunned for a few moments and can’t pick up more coins until he recovers.
And once you’ve played one course to death, you can completely rearrange it into something else, maybe taking out certain play features and adding in others, like the Fire Mario suit. This costume lets Mario shoot fireballs if you tip him forward, earning coins at the same time. And you can defeat Bowser Jr. much more quickly by shooting him with fireballs instead of jumping on him. You can also take a photo of your course using the app, which saves your high score. That means you can easily reassemble an old course and have another go at beating the course record.
OK, I think I get it now. And yet I’m still not wholly convinced. My son and I had lots of fun playing courses together, and it made me smile to see how excited he got as the final seconds ticked down and he made a frantic lunge for the finishing pole. But when I’ve been on my own, I haven’t felt much of an inclination to play around with Mario myself. Although I’m obviously much older than the target age range, it strikes me that these sets are really meant for playing together rather than on your own.
And as Lego sets, they seem a little bit limited. They’re a bit too skeletal and basic to work as display items, and they’re too big when assembled to be left out when they’re not being played with. I’ve a feeling that we’ll probably end up playing with them for a few hours, then it will all go back into the box to be forgotten about.
Then again, someone with enough creative nous could probably use the pieces here to create a really lovely Lego recreation of a Super Mario Bros. level in a more ‘realistic’ style if they wanted to. And I don’t think I can bear to ever put Lego Yoshi away. If/when we tire of all the app-based fun, he will be heading to a pride-of-place position on my work desk. In fact, I’d love to have all the Lego Mario characters – the Thwomps, Monty Moles and even Bowser himself – displayed on my desk. I just don’t want them quite enough to spend hundreds of pounds to acquire the sets they come with.
Because, let’s face it, Lego Super Mario is expensive. The starter course alone is £50. That’s the same price as Super Mario Odyssey, and I’ve a feeling that, in the long run, that one game will offer far more long-term enjoyment than these Lego sets. Don’t get me wrong, I like Lego Super Mario, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was to play with my son. But I also have a feeling that the novelty will wear off very quickly indeed.
Disclosure statement: the Lego Super Mario sets were provided by Mischief PR/Lego. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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