While talking with Jonathan Bennink, the lead designer on LEGO Super Mario, I was unsurprised to hear Super Mario Bros’ World 1-1 was a huge inspiration during the four-year development of the toy range. The warp pipe, question block, Goombas - even little fluffy clouds - are all wonderfully created out of bricks. However, after a few hours of play time, it actually more closely resembles Super Mario Maker. While the starter set provides the essentials - the starting point and the finish flag - everything in between is entirely up to you, and LEGO Super Mario is best enjoyed when you forget the instructions and let your imagination run wild.
That wasn’t my immediate reaction though. I always knew LEGO Super Mario wouldn’t be a ‘traditional’ LEGO set, designed to be either built following instructions and displayed, or just a random set of bricks from which you can build whatever you want. Instead it sits somewhere in between, its core components - the aforementioned warp pipe and finish flag, the power-up blocks and expansion sets like the Piranha Plant Power Slide, Boomer Bill Barrage and Toad’s Treasure Hunt - being the building blocks you piece together however you like.It’s a simple idea: you build the level, in any way you see fit to any size you want, then move Mario through it. Imagine how a kid plays with action figures, walking them along, and you get the idea, but here Mario interacts with the blocks and obstacles, and collects coins as he goes.
However, LEGO Super Mario doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining many of its little intricacies, instead relying on you to discover them through experience. Interestingly, the sets don’t come with paper instructions. Instead everything is done through the LEGO Super Mario app - the step-by-step guide shows you how to build each object, which is then followed by a short video showing how it works, meaning the basic gameplay mechanics are covered as you build. Some parts are obvious - the warp pipe is the start of each level, triggering a 60 second timer, and the flag is the finish, which tots up the number of coins collected during that time - but there’s less clarity about what some of the other elements do. If Mario ‘steps’ on a red brick, it burns him - I get that. Step on too many red bricks and it’s game over. Again, that’s obvious. But it took me a while to realise that while Mario’s screeching ‘Ow ow ow!’ he cannot collect coins, and when you only have a minute to grab as many as possible, choosing the right, safest path through a level makes a big difference.
At the centre of everything is Mario, who is about two-thirds the size of a Brickhead and has little LED screens for eyes and on his belly. Although he’s odd-looking - my five-year-old described him as evil and said “Bowser has turned him bad” - he’s kinda cute once he starts talking and reacting to movement. Importantly, his voice is spot on and his exclamations, from the way he greets Toad to whooping when jumping, are gleefully authentic.
The sensor underneath Mario detects the colour of the bricks he’s touching - green for grass, blue for water, red for lava and yellow for sand - making him react accordingly. There are also unique patterned tiles that have different effects. Goombas, Koopas and Bowser Jr all have them on their back, and knocking them over and scanning the tile is the equivalent of stomping on them. Toad and Toadette have conversation tiles, which make Mario say ‘Hi’ when he passes, plus there are question block tiles that reward power-ups like the Super Mushroom and the Super Star, which makes him invincible for a few seconds.
There are also unique tiles on obstacles that, in conjunction with Mario’s built-in accelerometer, detect when he’s spinning on a platform or riding in the cart on the Piranha Plant Power Slide. The more spins, the more coins.
And collecting coins is the ultimate aim in LEGO Super Mario. At its simplest, you earn coins by moving Mario through the level, stomping enemies, collecting power-ups and completing obstacles. But there are ways to earn more if you’re willing to experiment. Spinning on a platform rewards coins, but stop and spin in the opposite direction and you’ll get bonus coins; balance on the power slide without hitting the piranha plants triggers a multiplier; the longer you move without hitting the plants at either end, the bigger the multiplier. These are all things you have to discover for yourself and I’m sure there are many other tricks I’ve yet to find.
LEGO Mario is about two thirds the size of a normal Brickhead.
Scores feed back into the app (Mario connects to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth), which you can then share with your friends. Sharing pictures of your creations is also encouraged, to enable others to build the same course and compete against one another. Indeed, that’s where LEGO Super Mario is most fun, playing together to see who can score the most points.
Sharing the experience also made for some unexpected level designs too. Mine were pretty restrained, moving from one themed area to the next, almost in homage to the Mario games I’ve played in the past. But my kids, who don’t have the history with the video games, threw the rule book out of the window and created towers by stacking obstacles on top of one another. Just because Mario runs from left to right in the games it doesn’t mean he has to in real life.
When LEGO Super Mario was first announced I was a little skeptical. I found the Mario figure a little off-putting and, as a fan of LEGO, I would’ve loved to have seen display models of the Princess Peach’s castle from Mario 64, or the airship from Odyssey (I still would). I was also dubious about how it would stand alone as a game when there’s so much emphasis on the player to follow a level rather than cheat or game the system. In that respect it has a lot in common with board games - yes, you can cheat by skipping the lava or jumping straight to the finish flag with seconds to go, but where’s the fun in that? Any initial skepticism I had was short-lived and after playing and creating for a few days, there’s so much to like about LEGO Super Mario. I love the idea of exploring new levels, to find new ways to get coins, and look forward to seeing the ways the community breaks the mould when it releases in August. But mostly I love the way it captures the playfulness of LEGO and experimentation of Nintendo, fusing it into something that’s both familiar and fresh.
Alex is the head of IGN's UK Studio and has an unhealthy obsession with LEGO. Follow him on Twitter.