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Lego Super Mario Designer Tells Us: 'Nintendo Wouldn't Let Us Upset Mario'

Lego Super Mario Designer Tells Us: 'Nintendo Wouldn't Let Us Upset Mario'

Available from August 1st 2020 (so, now, basically), Lego's new Super Mario range fairly fantastically adapts Nintendo's famous mascot into plastic brick form. We've been playing with the new Super Mario 'Adventures With Mario Starter Course', which includes Mario himself as well as Bowser Junior and a goomba, as well as the starting Warp Pipe and ending Goal Pole, and we're pretty impressed.

We've had a handful of the Starter Course's expansion packs to add to the basic kit, too, including a beautifully realised Bowser's Castle starring the big man himself, and another smaller set featuring a Whomp. And it's not just about building and the bouncing Mario atop baddies' noggins - there's electronic interactivity, with Mario having a chest display (don't leave him too long on a red brick!), and the plumber's scores get registered on an accompanying app, which is also used to share your custom courses. The verdict: yes please, more of this, thank you very much.

Jonathan Bennink is a design manager at the Lego Group, and more pertinently is the lead designer on the toy company's Super Mario range - which also includes a forthcoming recreation of Nintendo's iconic NES console, in brick form. We grabbed a few minutes with Jonathan for a chat about how Lego and Nintendo finally joined forces, and what the collaboration means to him as a childhood fan of both.

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GAMINGbible: You say, in a preview video, that it took four years for these sets to become a reality. Is that a particularly long process for Lego? And if so, what made it such a long process?

Jonathan Bennink: This is quite unusual, to be honest! And it's because of our brief from management: make something that only Lego and Nintendo can do together. We were tasked to create a product where both companies' DNA were equally represented. This means adding technology and gameplay to the product, from the Nintendo side, and creativity and imagination from Lego. So finding the right recipe took over a year and a half. After that, we needed to work on making the technology robust enough to handle the different play scenarios and environments. And finally, we worked for the last year and a half on creating the final designs of Lego Super Mario: his animations, sounds, and of course the 16 SKUs (sets) we are coming out with.

Lego Super Mario's Starter Course / Credit: Lego, Nintendo
Lego Super Mario's Starter Course / Credit: Lego, Nintendo

GB: What do you think makes Mario - and Nintendo, by extension - such an appealing brand or product for all ages? And what about that appeal lends itself to what Lego is all about: creativity, discovery, and (of course) play?

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JB: The Mario universe is exceptionally friendly, happy and brightly coloured. I will never forget what Tezuka-san (Takashi Tezuka), the co-creator of Mario [with Shigeru Miyamoto] back in the 1980s, said during the Lego Mario development. The Lego team thought it would be fun to add a big emotional range to Lego Mario, so besides making him happy you could also make him sad or scared. But Tezuka-san was against this, saying that Mario should look happy most of the time, because if Mario is happy, kids are happy. This way of developing products with empathy and care makes Mario universally appealing, and this also how The Lego Group approaches product development. We deeply care for the end user, and know that kids learn very well when they are having fun, finding out what Lego Mario does on the different bricks and how he reacts to their creations. Same as Nintendo, we always try to bring a smile to kids' faces with the products we make.

GB: How vital was it that these Mario-themed sets had interactivity beyond the bricks alone? But that they could also be enjoyed without batteries, without the app? As that must be quite a hard balance to strike.

JB: Like I said before, the digital interactivity allows the famous Nintendo DNA to be infused into the product. The balance was figuring out how much we should help or guide the kids - like you can do in video games - by providing pre-designed levels, and when we should only let them only do their own thing. There are also no game mechanics in the app, so no progression like you would find in a video game, because this triggered kids to only build pre-described levels to 'unlock' the next thing. We want players to build levels out of their own imagination, and we don't want to tell them what to build. In the end, we found a nice balance between a fixed tutorial for the first two bags of the starter course, to ensure everybody knows how to play a basic level, and how to collect coins; while the rest of the bags you can build in any order, depending on what you feel like. After this, the app is solely there to provide inspiration and to act as a social sharing platform to show the world your cool creations.

Lego Super Mario's Piranha Plant Power Slide / Credit: Lego, Nintendo
Lego Super Mario's Piranha Plant Power Slide / Credit: Lego, Nintendo
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GB: There's quite a varied selection of sets available at launch, to add to the starter course. I'm guessing the hope is that these sell well and you can produce more - but do you already have plans for more, Mario game-specific sets, that will whet Mario fan appetites? Could there potentially be crossover with other Mario franchises, like Mario Kart?

JB: Right now, we are fully focused on the Lego Super Mario sets we have just announced, and we don't want to spoil anything we may do in the future just yet!

GB: What's your personal favourite set, from the first wave? We've been pretty amazed by the Bowser's Castle one.

JB: Glad to hear that! That set really does look amazing! My personal favourite, by far, is the Piranha Plant Power Slide set. This set demonstrates perfectly what we mean by bringing Mario game mechanics to the real world. Lego Mario looks very natural on his platform - Mario games are platformers, after all - and it seems as if he is moving by himself. You collect coins while sliding back and forth; but if you hit the Piranha Plants, you get a small time penalty and the coin multiplier is reset. Anybody can play this set, but there is a real mastery to it! The set uses the motion sensor, the brick sensor to detect the kart, and Lego Mario looks from left to right since he is a bit anxious about those plants. The set also convinced a lot of colleagues during the design process as to what we were on about!

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Lego Super Mario / Credit: Lego, Nintendo
Lego Super Mario / Credit: Lego, Nintendo

GB: The blind-bag approach to some of the little enemies has definitely ruffled a few feathers. Is that something that you have to concede to, as it's an established Lego business model, as seen through several series of mini-figures? Do you sympathise with those who would want to buy a complete set, directly from Lego?

JB: To be honest with you, when we heard we could use the blind-bags for this line, we simply saw this as a fantastic opportunity to bring more characters to life than before. The Mario universe is so rich and has so many characters that we wouldn't be able to bring all of them to the fans without this SKU. And fans can still get the reactions from Lego Mario to the characters in other sets, as the blind bags characters share the action brick with other SKUs.

GB: Personally, what does bringing Mario to Lego mean to you? Does it feel like two huge childhood favourites coming together? Is the feeling you get seeing these made real more emotional than it is, I suppose, 'business'-minded, in terms of the success factor?

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JB: I spent the first half of my childhood playing with Lego bricks, and the second part with Nintendo consoles - so yeah, working on this project is beyond a dream job! It doesn't even feel like a job to me and the team, but just something we would do anyway - although, please don't tell our bosses. The great thing in working with Nintendo is that they are also very passion-driven, so both teams simply want the very best out of this product. Obviously we hope the product line is a success, because the teams believe we have discovered a fun and engaging way to stimulate creativity and imagination in kids' development. We are all also just very excited to see what crazy things fans will build with Lego Super Mario.

GB: Finally, there are Lego video games, of course. Is it so wild to imagine that a Lego/Mario crossover video game could happen, as a result of this union? Is that something you'd love to see?

JB: We made a very conscious choice to not connect Lego Mario to the Nintendo Switch, as it might confuse consumers as to what Lego Super Mario is all about. But of course, Lego and Nintendo have worked together in the past on console games, so whatever the future holds, we are looking forward to a fruitful partnership with Nintendo.

Lego's Super Mario sets are available now and can be found online here. Thanks to Lego for sending us a few sets to play with.

Featured Image Credit: Lego, Nintendo

Topics: Toys, Super Mario, Lego, Mario, Nintendo, gamingbible, Interview

Mike Diver

Head of Content at GAMINGbible. Former gigs include VICE Gaming, BBC Music, BBC Gaming Show. Author of 'Indie Games: The Complete Introduction to Indie Gaming' (2016), 'How to Be a Professional Gamer' (2016), 'Retro Gaming: A Byte-Sized History of Video Games' (2019). Contact: [email protected]