Let's-a-Lego! How toymaker helped Super Mario leap from video game into brick form

The toy version of the podgy plumber has been in creation since 2016

Lego Mario has a display to show emotions and game information on his belly. Courtesy Lego
Lego Mario has a display to show emotions and game information on his belly. Courtesy Lego

Super Mario has come a long way from his sprite-animated beginnings.

Travelling through pipes and stomping turtles, Nintendo’s pudgy plumber has been at the fore as gaming technology has evolved over the past three decades. He has appeared in more than 200 video games since his creation, and has secured his name as the bestselling video game franchise of all time.

Now, as Mario turns 35 this year, he leaps out of the screen and into the physical world, allowing players to build flag-hosting, coin-collecting challenges for the beloved Nintendo character, Lego brick by Lego brick.

Players can design a number of obstacles and challenges out of Lego bricks to take Mario through as he collects coins on route to the final flag. Lego Group 
Players can design a number of obstacles and challenges out of Lego bricks for Mario as he collects coins en route to the final flag. Lego Group

One look at the upcoming Lego Super Mario and you can see he isn’t like your traditional figurines. For one thing, Mario is huge compared to the thumb-sized yellow figures we're used to seeing from the Danish toymaker. He also has a nose and his eyes aren’t dotted on. There’s also a screen on his belly and a speaker on his back. That’s because the Mario in the new Lego set is as much an interactive gaming system as he is a hook-handed Lego figure.

“Mario has a display to show emotions and game information on his belly screen,” Lego design manager Jonathan Bennink, who was part of the team behind the upcoming Lego Super Mario, says. “Additionally, he makes all the sounds [music and speech] from his built-in speaker.”

All this technology comes at a certain size, and technology such as batteries and displays are usually rectangular shaped. This dictated the design, Bennink explains. It was also important to keep Lego’s distinctive aesthetic in mind.

“Although we also played around with more rounded designs. But Lego DNA is most iconic when it is square and rectangular. So the most natural fit was to make Mario rectangular,” Bennink says.

But blending Nintendo’s seamless, interactive digital world with Lego’s creative building environment was not a straightforward undertaking.

“We started the partnership [with Nintendo] in 2016,” Bennink tells The National. “The first version of Lego Mario was created half a year later, and we all fell in love with how cute Mario was in Lego form. We didn’t necessary know what to do with an interactive character, though, because a lot of tech toys are rather gimmicky, and we wanted to create something that uses the player's imagination to keep the game going.”

The team then came up with the idea of building levels for the interactive Lego Mario out of bricks, with players able to design a number of obstacles and challenges for Mario as he collects coins en route to the final flag.

“Lego Mario can also read a selection of the Lego colours and the special action bricks, each of which give him a unique reaction,” Bennink says, adding that the main objective was to inspire children to make endless interactive creations.

Bennink was tight-lipped as to when we will be seeing the new Lego Super Mario sets, only divulging that they will be released in the “near future".

This isn’t Bennink’s first attempt at blending the video game world with Lego’s colourful building blocks. Since joining the Lego Group in 2014, the Dutch designer has worked to incorporate the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Marty McFly of Back to the Future to the world of Lego Dimensions.

The action-adventure game allows players to build real-life Lego pieces and play their digital counterparts within the game, progressing through linear levels, using their characters' abilities to solve puzzles, defeat enemies and attempt to reach the level's end. However, as exciting as working on Lego Dimensions was, Bennink says Lego Super Mario approached the Lego brick and video game world in a completely novel way.

Jonathan Bennink has been bringing video game characters to the Lego world since he joined the Danish group in 2014. Lego Group
Jonathan Bennink has been bringing video game characters to the Lego world since he joined the Danish group in 2014. Lego Group

Lego Dimensions was bringing toys to life, whereas Lego Super Mario is bringing life to toys,” he says. “Rather than the brick going into the digital, here we are bringing the digital interactivity to the brick in the form of Lego Mario.

"We are very proud that in Lego Super Mario, everything you do happens inside the bricks. This feels very intuitive and fun, and it is very easy to share the play with the people around you.”

Published: April 2, 2020 08:06 AM

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