LEGO and Nintendo have revealed their four-year partnership in the making, showing off LEGO Super Mario to the world. The product line, arriving later this year, features an interactive LEGO Mario figure who collects coins in levels created with physical LEGO bricks. But how did the partnership come to be, how does Mario work, and what Easter eggs are hidden throughout the buildable levels?
The Brothers Brick sat down with Jonathan Bennink, the Design Manager at the LEGO Creative Play Lab and Digital Design Lead for LEGO Super Mario. who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming product line. We asked him the questions you wanted to know the answers to, so read on to find out all about LEGO Super Mario.
Can you tell a little about yourself and how you got involved with LEGO Super Mario?
I’ve been at LEGO for about six years. I worked on LEGO Dimensions for the first two then got the creative lead position for the Nintendo partnership. To work as a LEGO designer is super cool, but then to work with Nintendo is a dream come true–a dream I didn’t even know I had! I’m excited to see how the world is reacting to LEGO Super Mario and be able to tell my friends and family what I’ve been working on for four years.
What has been the reaction to LEGO Super Mario from your perspective so far?
We are super excited to see people’s reactions. I think most has been quite positive. Of course, it is something that is new and pushing the boundaries a bit and perhaps not what people expected (we do read the comments), but we are glad people are very eager to find more about what it is.
How did the LEGO and Nintendo partnership come about?
I’ve been working on this project for four years, but about a half a year before that, leaders from both LEGO and Nintendo met up to talk about what we could do together and where our core competencies lie. We decided early on that we wanted to leverage what both parties are good at. For LEGO, that’s of course the brick, being creative and using your imagination. For Nintendo, it is seamless interactivity and innovation. We wanted to make sure that when LEGO and Nintendo come together, those two big brands with lots of fans, that we do it justice.
About half a year into the project we made this first prototype of an interactive Mario figure. I hope one day we get to share this with the world because I think it would be quite interesting for people to know where it came from and how it evolved. But it was basically just a tiny little brick, maybe four modules high with a screen and speakers that we put a cap on and paint red. Once we put the cap on, we were all like, “Yeah, that’s Mario!” and we instantly fell in love with him as an interactive LEGO character
But we didn’t know exactly what to do with him and how to make the most of the functionality. For that, we worked with Nintendo and play-tested with kids for quite a few iterations until we solidified the idea of building levels. Essentially, you can’t go wrong building levels but certain combinations and tricks will make the level better and get more coins from it. Building levels was probably the biggest revelation of the project because that is really where the core LEGO play comes in. Everything is happening in the bricks, and it’s about coming up with ideas for levels and building anything that you want with the technology and interactivity that Nintendo is known for infused in it from the beginning
The launch video showcases a variety of themed levels with their corresponding brick-built bad guys. Will there be other level packs released for different Mario games and themes?
The video shows a selection of the sets in our product plan that we will bring out in the near future, like Bowser, Jr., the rotating platform, and the start and finishing area. I can’t say anything beyond that at this time.
Will there be any LEGO Super Mario sets at minifigure scale?
Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question since we don’t comment on future products or anything that we might or might not release.
Mario’s universe is almost as big as the LEGO universe. Can we expect future level packs from other Mario games like Odyssey or Mario Kart, or from any of Nintendo’s other properties like Zelda or Donkey Kong?
Again, I can’t go into any specifics here, but I can say that we haven’t worked for four years to release just one wave of products. We hope to have a long and fruitful relationship with Nintendo and their IPs, and we are really looking forward to working with them on a longer-term. They have a lot of very exciting IPs that we might do or might not do.
How does the interactive technology within Mario work? Is it based on near field communication like LEGO Dimensions was?
Mario actually uses an optical sensor. Nintendo is strong on the digital side, so we collaborated on the technology as well as the play concept. So again, we leveraged each other’s competencies here. Mario has a display as you can see from the video where we can animate the eyes, his mouth and his little belly screen where we put game information. This includes how many coins you get, how much time you have left, and the interactions that you have with the set. He has a speaker so he can talk to you and play music at the same time.
He also has a color sensor on the bottom between his feet so we can read a selection of the LEGO color palette. You can add your own bricks in the levels that you make and get coins from that, but the main action rates come from scanning barcodes. If you look at the video closely and you pause it at the right time, you can see them in the Piranha Plant, on the rotating platform, and on Bowser Jr.’s shield. Those are pre-applied stickers that come on 2×2 tiles. Mario reads those barcodes and then has a unique reaction to it.
In the video we noticed that Mario has a power button and a Bluetooth button. How do you recharge him, will he pair with an app or device like a phone or Nintendo Switch, and will he be able to receive updated content?
I unfortunately can’t talk about the battery or updates, though we’ll be releasing that information in the future. I also can’t tell you what it connects to, but I can tell you that it doesn’t connect to the Switch. It doesn’t connect to the Nintendo hardware platforms. This is because we wanted to keep the experiences very separate. LEGO Mario is not a video game. Kids are basically role-playing a video game with the sets by building levels, but it doesn’t go into a Nintendo game, for instance. So there’s a very clear separation between those, but I can’t comment on anything that it can connect to just yet.
How did you arrive at the specific look of LEGO Mario?
A lot of design thinking went into creating Mario, and we worked very closely with the Nintendo IP team. Mario is their biggest and most beloved franchise, so they were very specific about what colors we were able to use for example. We tried him with a LEGO yellow skin, but it just didn’t look good on the figure. And so we went for this hybrid mix between LEGO and Mario colors to get as close as possible to the IP character. The video also shows that Mario’s head comes off, and I think we will have some more exciting news to share on that in the future.
In the LEGO community we have nano-figures, micro-figs, minifigures, and big-figs among others. Mario doesn’t quite fit in any of these categories. What terminology are you using for the size and scaling of the LEGO Super Mario sets?
That’s a very good question. To be honest, we haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe you guys or the fan community can come up with something good that we can use.
What set the scale for LEGO Super Mario and the levels?
I’m the digital design lead, so I’ve been in charge of the play concept and technology. We wanted to make sure that we don’t set the figure at such a high price that nobody can afford it, so the size ultimately followed from what technology we needed to fit inside it. Technology is usually mostly square with square screens and square batteries or whatever is in there, but if you take a look at his original design, Mario is also fairly square. We really liked the look of it because it kind of reflects the retro gaming of the old days that Nintendo is so famous for.
Once we settled on Mario’s look, we had to make sure the rest of the universe also fit that style. We did play around with some completely sculpted characters—we tried a single injection-molded piece for a Goomba for instance, that’s very round, or Bowser Jr. who is also very round. In the video, you can clearly see we ended up with everything being brick-built. That aspect really fit the DNA of the LEGO Super Mario line.
You mentioned wanting to keep the sets affordable. Can you comment on the set numbers and prices of the LEGO Super Mario product line?
Sadly, I can’t comment on the actual prices or set numbers right now. But we did try to find the right balance between technology and playability.
Are there any new elements created for LEGO Super Mario?
There are a lot of new elements being released with this line like the shield from Bowser Jr., the feet on the Goomba, the warp pipe, and the shell of the Koopa Troopa. Those are all new elements, but the characters are brick-built to fit the square look of Mario. There are also new 8×8, 6×6 and 4×4 square plates with rounded edges that are two plates high. There are also new decorations like the Bowser flag, Bowser Jr., and Koopaling. Of course, as we release more information on sets themselves, you’ll be able to see more.
What influenced the consistent design style of each level?
In the video, you can clearly see this is a modular system. We noticed that kids were good to build the modules like the rotating platform or the little tower that pops off when Bowser Jr. stands on it, but building a whole level with regular system bricks was quite tricky for a lot of them. Even more so when they wanted to break it up again to rearrange it. LEGO is about building–but it’s also about rebuilding and feeling confident that you can break it up and then put something new back together.
So we came up with a new system that we developed specifically for this line. It has these new bases of square plates with rounded corners (those are kind of a wink to Super Mario 3D World) that can be rearranged. It also gives the line a very unique look to differentiate it from some of our other gaming IPs like Minecraft. You can connect each base with a two-wide plate in a recess beneath it and secure it with a tile on top so it is easy for everybody to rearrange the levels, and gives a consistent look to the whole line.
What other LEGO set and graphic designers have been involved in LEGO Super Mario?
At this point, I’m only allowed reveal who was the creative lead on the Nintendo side. We worked with Tezuka-San. He’s been with Nintendo for 45 years, he co-created Mario, and he’s a member of the board, so it’s quite an honor to work with him.
What will the interactive elements be like on the screens and through sound?
Mario has a TFT color display that you can see in the video that shows his reactions with his eyes and mouth which gives emotion to the character and really brings Mario alive. On the belly screen, we show any game information. So if you jump on the question mark block, you see the question marks rotate and when you jump him off, that’s when you get an item from the block. In the video, you can see a 10-coin bonus. There are other types of bonuses including very iconic things that you can get from the question mark blocks in the game. And when you stomp on an enemy, we show we show an image and an accompanying sound. You can see in a video that talking to Yoshi makes Mario happy so he has a little heart on his belly screen, and he has different phases that say “Hi!” or “Hey, it’s me again!” That’s as detailed as I can go at this point.
What is the target market and age range for LEGO Super Mario?
The target age range is 6+ (with a lot of extra emphasis on the plus!). LEGO and Mario have both been around for generations. I’m sure both of us grew up with it and have played Mario games in the past or still do. But there are kids growing up with LEGO and Mario right now, so we have really tried to create a product that caters to both LEGO fans and Mario fans. There’s quite a big overlap there. Nintendo is really good at creating experiences for both young and old, both boys and girls because everyone is playing the same game and the core idea is very simple. It’s very easy to understand.
We also tried to do that with LEGO Mario. Most of our development effort goes into the broader reactions and the excitement that everybody will get to experience by playing with it. Of course you’ll have 20% or so that figure out the small details and can get really, really good at it. Because LEGO and Nintendo are both such family-friendly and social franchises, we hope that people will really play this together. Kids can build levels for their parents, maybe parents or older siblings will build challenging levels for the kids. The entire LEGO system is about creativity and roleplaying in your head. LEGO Mario brings new interactivity to that roleplay, so people around you can enjoy what you are doing with Mario (or what you do to him—the fire and falling off a platform are both fun reactions). We hope to cater to all fabs of Mario and LEGO.
You mentioned earlier that LEGO Super Mario started development four and half years ago which puts it in the same timeframe as LEGO Dimensions. Are the two connected in any way?
I worked on LEGO Dimensions for two years, and they were definitely separate. But we learned a lot from the toys-to-life category. It slowly started burning out which is why Skylanders and Disney Infinity pulled out, but there was some magic there that we really liked. LEGO Mario is not toys-to-life but is more life-to-toys. We asked ourselves, “What if we take away the screen and the console? How do we put the essence of those inside the brick?” Then we had to make it as intuitive as possible.
Both design teams are very proud of what we’ve made here because everything works in the bricks. When kids and adults are playing, there’s no console or screen in between them and the bricks. There is core traditional LEGO play at its heart while using Nintendo game mechanics that we are all familiar with to enhance the play experience.
Can you talk about the play-testing that was conducted and some of the things you learned along the way?
We tested quite a lot on this project in focus groups in the US, Germany, Japan, the UK and Denmark. As the product evolved, it was really cool to see kids enjoying building the levels. We found that if we just gave kids loose bricks, it was hard for them to get started. But they know what a game level is, they know who Mario is. There is no right or wrong, but the levels prompt gets rid of the blank canvas syndrome that people have when they don’t know what to build at first. Some immediately built a lava level. One girl built a sand level because it was a hot summer day during a drought and she wanted to see how Mario would collect coins in the desert.
In the beginning, we just had this Mario prototype that was a little bit gimmicky like some of the other tech toys out there that are fun to play with for a few hours but wear off after. That’s where Nintendo’s expertise and the longevity of the level building concept comes in. You spend a lot of time contemplating how you are going to build a level, how Mario will react, how he is going to collect coins and what your final coin score will be.
What were your favorite LEGO sets as a kid and what are is your favorite set now?
I can’t remember the name or number, but as a kid I loved this classic space moon robot in blue and grey. It was pretty tall, but I just loved that thing. Right now, I still really love all the space things and just built the ISS which is a great little build, but my favorite is definitely the Saturn V Rocket.
What is your favorite Super Mario game, and what is your go-to Super Smash Bros character?
Mario 64 is my favorite game by far because it was the first 3D platformer out there. The Nintendo 64 was the first real 3D console and it just kind of set the bar for everything else that came after it. I was maybe 12, but I was blown away by being able to run and jump with Mario in this open environment. And you gotta collect all the stars, right!? My main fighter in Super Smash Bros is Star Fox. I love him.
Stay tuned to The Brothers Brick for more LEGO Super Mario news, and enjoy the expanded media gallery below.