Lego Super Mario Review – Blurring The Line Between Toy And Video Games

When the word started spreading that there will be a Lego Super Mario to be announced in a Nintendo Direct, for some reason I thought Lego game makers TT Games are working on a new platformer game.

The Nintendo Direct – a show used to announce the latest video games- later revealed that it’s actually a Lego set themed around the Italian plumber. No, not a video game.

Or so it seems. Apparently it’s not exactly a normal Lego theme either. The Danish toymaker has been toying with the idea of enhancing playability by incorporating smart devices recently. There was a line dedicated to enhancing play via augmented reality, for example.

Lego Super Mario seems to be another attempt at that. It’s bringing the use of smart devices (and other hardware features) into the traditional construction set.

For four years, Nintendo and Lego has been working on to produce the Lego Super Mario line of sets, released today worldwide. And the result is something that blurs the line between playing with a toy and playing video games.

Note: This won’t be a standard Gamer Matters review where we use our usual format of reviewing games, gaming laptops or other gadgets. So no scores here. Read on and we’ll let you know what you’re getting with this Lego set and if it’s worth your money.

It’s-A-Me!

Unlike most Lego sets, you really, really need to buy this one particular set first to get the most out of it. The Lego Super Mario Starter Course (priced at RM259.90) is important because it contains the star of the show: Mario.

Honestly, Mario looks absolutely cursed. He’s not in minifig form, or built using CCBS (used in action figure sets like the Lego Star Wars and the rebooted Bionicle line) or even built using regular Lego bricks.

Instead, it’s just a solid piece containing his head, torso and swivelling arms. Inside him is a lot of tech. His eyes, mouth and belly are LCD-powered, and there’s a colour sensor at the bottom and a sensors that can detect movement. There’s also Bluetooth connectivity to connect to smart devices. And from the app, you can also update Lego Mario, so there’s a possibility for more sets to be added in the future.

That said, Mario is still Lego scale. He has Lego studs for his ears and heads, so it’s possible to jerry-rig some Technic parts to make your own hat. It’s possible to give him a custom headphone, for example. His feet, alongside many other characters in this set, fits four studs wide. He can also change his pants (more on that later). 

While he may not look the part, he is still pretty much Lego-compatible.

Speaking to the media at a virtual event for Singapore and Malaysia, Lego Design Lead Jonathan Bennink said they did try to fit in Mario in normal minifig proportions. “We did want it to be a minifigure-focused line,” he said.

“But we had a memo from management to make a product that can only come from the collaboration of Nintendo and Lego.”

Nintendo, having years of experience making hardware, helped Lego in finding and sourcing parts which makes up the inside of Lego. And with all that tech inside him explains the weird, boxy, unorthodox proportion he has.

“Maybe someday we can shrink it down, but for now, we have our current buildable Lego Super Mario,” he added.

Not-minifig Lego Mario is also powered by two AAA batteries. The instruction booklet shows that you’ll need to get your own batteries and a screwdriver for this.

Interestingly, that’s the only instruction you get from the included booklet. You’ll need to install the Lego Super Mario app to start building.

Super Mario Maker In Real Life

The build experience is interesting. The only instructions you have on the booklet is how to build Mario, and everything else is in there are either legal documents or promotion for extra sets.

The full instructions are in the Lego Super Mario app available on iOS and Android. In here, you’ll find all the building instructions, as well as videos on how to “play” a course. More on that in a bit.

What’s interesting about building this Starter Course is how modular it is. Each platform is in its own island. And using long 2-wide pieces you can connect them together, any way you like. Building the modules for the course is pretty simple, balanced out with how intricate building each character can be. Good things they are not minifig scale this time.

The move to using an app for instructions is nice, in the way that you get to see each of them animated, and have full 3D camera control. So you can look at each instruction set in any angle you like, just to make sure you get them all correct.

Having it on the app also allows Lego to show you videos on how each module works. Say, after building the rotating platform module, the next set of instructions is for you to look at a tutorial video on how it works. And if you have Lego Mario on, you can immediately try it out alongside the video.

Bennink explained that having the instructions be on the app was a deliberate design. It’s not to force users to use the app every time- it’s not compulsory to “play” the course. But rather, it’s to nudge users into seeing videos of how to play it. And with smart devices being ubiquitous, it just makes sense to have the instructions and videos housed under the app together, no need to juggle between booklet and app.

For the Starter Course, there is no guide on how to connect the modules together. Though there is one suggested layout displayed on the app (seen above). Lego really wants you to build those modules together, and then mix and match it to your preferences. Super Mario Maker, but in real life.

You can also share your course online with other Lego.com users, upload a picture of it and inspire others who have the same sets to have a go and maybe set a higher score when they play it. Lego also provides inspirations on what you can build by posting various pictures in the app. This feels directly lifted from Super Mario Maker, and it’s a great addition.

Let’s-A-Go!

The other cool novelty about the Lego Super Mario set is that you can play with the course you build, like it’s a video game. I personally feel imaginative enough to pretend-play the course by making my own rules, sound effects and Charles Martinet impressions but thanks to the tech inside Mario, I don’t have to.

Mario himself is full of quips, and is very interactive. Do a quick swipe to knock another character down and he’ll go “hyah!”. Jump high enough and that Super Mario Bros. jump sound plays. Do a sick flip while you’re airborne and he’ll go “whoopie!”. Have him fall off the table and he’ll scream, with dizzy eyes displaying.

And he’ll also yell “Mamma mia!” when you pull off his pants.

Alongside that, there’s a colour detector under Mario’s feet. Mario can detect colour (he takes damage if he steps on a red piece) and scan certain blocks that triggers other game features. On the pipe block, for example, is a colour code that triggers the start of the course, and a 60-second countdown. From here, you’ll have to collect as many coins as you can and reach the finish block (which has a flagpole) before time runs out. All the while, music from World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. plays.

It’s a bit wild that you can actually play this set sort of like a video game. It keeps track of so many things you can do to collect coins. Like jump on a goomba, or walk enough steps.

And the 60-second timer is so short, but understandable why. You really want to squeeze in as many things Mario can do in a minute. And if it means wrecking some stuff along the way, so be it. These are called Lego bricks for a reason.

The colour code triggers many of the events that can happen during your 60-second run. Some characters like the Goomba has their codes on top, so Mario should just jump on them (like in the game) to get coins. Other characters like Bowser Jr. have their codes on their backs, so you’ll need to whack them down and then jump on their backs to get coins. Some modules, and the platforms these characters can stand are not tied to studs, so don’t worry about making a mess. If you have eager kids (or very aggressive adults) playing it all rowdy-like, it’s fine. You can totally break the game.

Speaking of the game mechanics, the game aspect is designed to be forgiving. “One thing that we added to make sure this play experience is seamless is that Mario doesn’t die like he does in the game,” Bennevik said.

“Usually in the games, if you fall down a pit or into lava, you will lose a life. Instead, if Mario stands on a lava tile, he will feel burned and will be forced into a state where he cannot pick up coins for a few seconds.

“We did this to ensure children that there is no wrong way to play with this set; it’s either you are right or more right.”

As Bennink mentioned, it’s forgiving but you can also exploit or cheese the game mechanics. Bennink is well-aware of it being present, like how maintaining the see-saw motion in the Piranha Plant Power Slide set just right and you can get more coins. That’s his favourite set from the line.

We discovered some cheese tactics too. You don’t really have to turn the rotating platform module a full circle to get coins.

Lego teaching a new generation of speedrunners and QA game testers, it seems.

How Many Expansions? Mamma Mia!

It won’t be a Lego line if it’s just one set. This current line launching on August 1 worldwide has 15 other sets. 16 total including the Starter Course. You can find a list of them here.

In short, you have the main Starter Course, 10 different expansion sets of various size (and price), four-power up packs and one blind box containing one of ten different characters.

I feel like the Starter Course itself provides enough value, and you can totally have fun with creating courses without any extra expansions. But some are pretty desirable, as not only they add new play mechanics for Mario, they also add new colour block pieces to add more variety to your courses.

The Piranha Plant Power Slide seems the most fun addition of the mid-price expansions. The see-saw mechanic and the inclusion of an extra-time block add great value on top of the Starter Course.

The one I received for review, the Boomer Bill Barrage expansion (priced at RM149.90), feels a bit underwhelming. Mostly because it uses the same balancing mechanic available in the Starter Course, but harder thanks to the floating Boomer Bills. No not Bullet Bills, Boomer Bills.

But the set has a cute 1-Up mushroom and a figure of Shy Guy, so if you’re a fan of those, building them is fun, and they look great in Lego form. Plus, the building aspect here is more involved. So it has that going on.

In addition, there are four different power-up packs, which is essentially a new pair of pants and a hat for Mario. It does trigger different effects, like Mario will react to a climbing motion when he wears the cat suit from Super Mario 3D World.

It’s a bit expensive if you think of it as cosmetic DLC- though there are few brick pieces included that you can use to add more stuff to the course.

The power-up packs are why Mario has removable pants. And he doesn’t like it when you pull it down.

On another note, if you have the big dollars, there’s also the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Lego set for. This includes a buildable NES replica (with a controller), and a TV that displays a Super Mario Bros. level. And if you have not-minifig Lego Mario, you can plug him in and have the NES makes the right sounds you expect from the TV. That’s a brilliant idea that I don’t think many of us can experience.

Size comparison of Lego Super Mario figures versus standard Lego minfig versus Lego CCBS figure

Is It Worth Buying?

The Lego Super Mario line is quite the novelty. It’s not meant to be built once and have it be a decoration (though it can be so). You’ll get more value out of it by indulging as a sort-of video game. Taking it apart, remix the modules and platforms to form something new. But rather than leaving it to your imagination, smart tech is being used to pull in video game features and sounds.

The entry price is steep, even for a normal Lego set. But what you get is the novelty of making your own fun and have the sets acknowledge it is something cool.

It has that magic that makes the Super Mario Maker brilliant. It’s a great set to for you or your kid let their imaginations loose and care not for precious building pieces. Not to the same scale of the video game, but it does what I expected of a real-life Mario Maker.

I don’t think it’s worth buying just to try out this novelty alone. However, I would recommend Lego Super Mario to Nintendo fans who happen to love Lego, or Lego fans who are looking for something new from the brand. After fun of playing it wears off, you’ll still have a quirky line of figures and unique brick pieces for your collection.

Lego sets provided by Lego Malaysia

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