It’s important to understand as you read this review of the new LEGO 71374 Nintendo Entertainment System that I never owned an NES myself as a kid back in the 80’s. But I wanted one. After all, it felt like nearly every one of my friends in the neighborhood in Japan where I lived had a Famicom, or later the true NES launched in 1985. As I went over to my friends’ houses and played Super Mario and the very first Legend of Zelda, I so very desperately wanted one! But I never did, partly because I was told that I had enough toys in the form of all the LEGO underfoot in my bedroom. Now, I can buy my own (US $229.99 | CAN $299.99 | UK £209.99) and build it for myself from LEGO, which seems even better. Does this marriage of my favorite little plastic bricks with the big plastic brick of my dreams live up to 35 years of pent-up expectations? Let’s find out…
The box & packaging
The set’s 2,646 parts come packaged in a slick box that emphasizes the Nintendo Entertainment System name rather than LEGO’s own branding, in line with LEGO’s new adult product strategy and branding announced earlier this year. The back of the box showcases the set’s working functions, which we’ll cover in much more detail later in this review.
To prevent parts from being damaged by shifting around in the huge box during shipping, LEGO has for several years been placing some of the parts bags into one or more inner boxes for stability. However, there has not always been much logic in what parts are in which inner boxes and which bags are loose in the main box. This was a huge issue for the massive UCS Falcon and 70620 Ninjago City, which forced builders to empty everything out and sort the bags before doing anything else. Unsurprisingly for such a logical theme, LEGO Technic sets like 42056 Porsche 911 GT3 RS have not had this longstanding issue. But with the NES, LEGO has finally solved this problem!
The set’s 26 total bags are numbered 1-21, and the white inner box includes bags 1-7, a loose 16×16 plate, and flex-tube, with the instruction booklet and sticker sheet in its own sleeve. By opening the right side of the outer box, you can access the inner box immediately and start building right away. If LEGO’s goal with their new adult-focused product branding is to attract new adult builders — people who have the attention span to build 2,600 or 7,000-part sets and the budget to shell out $230 or $700 to buy them — creating a premium build experience that starts with the packaging (like “prestige” Technic sets have been doing for several years) is incredibly important.
The instructions are divided into two booklets — one for the NES console (or “main unit” in old-school Nintendo parlance) and one for the 1980’s CRT television set.
The multilingual booklets both contain introductory pages that provide a history of the NES and the games released alongside the console in 1985. In a change from most large sets and all LEGO Ideas sets, the booklets don’t dwell too long on the internal design process or the LEGO design team, although there are some great action shots of the three designers — Daire McCabe, Pablo Gonzalez, and Leon Pijnenburg — playing with their creation.
The sticker sheet, printed parts, and new parts
Nearly all of the decorated elements in the set are printed, with the exception of two large stickers that go on 6×6 tiles, one for the Super Mario Bros. game cartridge and another for the spec panel on the back of the TV.
All of the external designs on the NES console and the TV’s controls are printed. While every printed design is unique to this set, the printing itself includes a number of unusual elements, including a 1×4 black plate with numbers printed upside down and a 2x4x2/3 curved slope with the printing on the side of the flat 2/3-high area.
The mosaic TV screen depicting the 8-bit Super Mario Bros. video game is also full of small, mostly 1×1 printed elements. For each 1×1 printed element in this photo, the set also includes an extra.
One of the strangest new pieces, though, is a leaping Mario figure with a single anti-stud connection on the back. Red and “light flesh” are printed on a new dark tan piece in the shape of a jagged 8-bit Mario. It works perfectly for the character, but it’s one of the oddest LEGO pieces I’ve ever seen.
Not since the LEGO Ideas 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V rocket has what appears to be a straightforward exterior hidden such an incredibly complex interior. The build does begin simply enough with a bunch of plates connected by bricks with Technic pins and/or pin holes.
But things get interesting pretty quickly, with nearly the full cartridge mechanism completed before the sides of the console even come together.
To achieve realistic details like A/V ports, power input, controller ports, and so on, the LEGO NES case goes far beyond mere studs-out construction on run-of-the-mill brackets to incorporate true studs-not-on-top techniques, like the inversion of these window pieces, which are attached to the top of the printed 1×4 plate. The studs of the plate fit into the 1×4 panel piece, and the inside of the window pieces rest on a half-stud-offset lip built from a 2×4 jumper plate. And that’s just the A/V ports.
The full-bore craziness continues throughout the build. The ventilation panel is built from a stack of 2×2 plates with two studs, placed on its side, surrounded by a black section that extends down to the lower half of the console. It’s clear the design team didn’t allow themselves any compromises in the proportions of the console or the placement of printed details. The labels for the controller ports are printed on the back of the 2×4 curved slope we mentioned earlier. This could certainly have been accomplished by stacking two 2×4 plates on each other and then placing a sticker across the parts, so it’s remarkable that LEGO didn’t take such a shortcut with a sticker.
The black section through the right side of the console is not just a stack of black bricks. Instead, there are tiles facing out from an internal structure that sort of breaks my brain.
Even the cartridge slot’s lid is built from complex techniques, solely to create the tiny lip for opening the lid when it’s closed. Like several other details, the external appearance hides bar and clip connections rather than boring old brackets.
When it’s complete, the NES console has a number of panels that pop off or open, including the right panel, which conceals a bit of the “technical” interior with all those green and orange bits that do cool stuff inside electronics. (This is where I reveal shamefacedly that I worked at Nintendo for several years back in the GameCube era and wrote the GameCube’s software development kit for third-party licensees like EA and Lucasfilm, but I’m no hardware geek — I can’t tell a demultiplexer from a hex bus buffer.) EDIT: Helpful commenters have pointed out that this is a microscale version of Level 1-2 in Super Mario Bros. No wonder I couldn’t find this pop-off panel on technical diagrams of the NES!
Only 9 of the 21 total groups of bags actually provide the parts for the NES itself, with the remainder dedicated to the retro TV. Again, the interior mechanism takes center stage early in the build process as exterior details like the cable input take shape.
A crank on one side of the TV turns interior gears in one direction — a Technic pin prevents the gear from reversing direction.
A vertical Technic frame holds a pair of axles in place for the track mechanism we’ll build next.
The side-scrolling mosaic screen is built on sixty large Technic tracks, to which the surface of the mosaic is attached with Technic pins. The top of some link sections have projects on brackets in several colors, the purpose of which will become clear later.
The mosaic design itself is quite lovely, built from mostly 1×1 to 2×2 plates and tiles, with key details on printed tiles.
The Super Mario Bros. scene wraps around the Technic frame and the axles, the colored tiles facing upward.
I was worried while building the set how large the gaps were where the mosaic wraps around, but these will be covered shortly by the front frame of the TV.
Similarly, I was worried about the mosaic mechanism catching, but subtle buffers and bumpers ensure it remains in place without a hitch — the instruction booklet states that the design team put the mosaic through a 20-hour scrolling test.
Even without the top support in place, the mosaic turns on its track beautifully. We’ll come back to the scrolling mechanism with a hands-on video later in this review.
Not content with a complex interior, the front panel of the television incorporates moving parts and interesting techniques. The channel knob clicks back and forth, but has a stop and start — you can’t simply turn it around and around. Meanwhile, the speaker panel is entirely inverted.
The panel then attaches to studs on the front of the TV’s body.
Finally, a bunch of large brown tiles and plates cover the top of the TV.
But in case you didn’t have a console or hutch to put your enormous TV inside back in the 70’s and 80’s, some TVs came with fancy feet. Naturally, the LEGO design team provided just such a stand for your miniature LEGO version.
The TV does look and work just fine without its stand, but the underside of the TV has a number of openings to allow for gear and other interior mechanisms to sit low enough within the body.
The finished models
The NES console with its controller and accompanying retro TV make for a fantastic-looking pair. The NES itself is a 1:1, life-size recreation in every respect — at a glance across the room, you’d truly never know that it’s built from LEGO. The miniature TV is perfect in its own way, but much more obviously LEGO, with studs aplenty in the side-scrolling mosaic.
Still photos really don’t do this set justice, so let’s take a look at a short video that shows off the set’s many functions.
To summarize, the cartridge slot accepts a brick-built cartridge and clicks up and down, staying in each position through some miracle of Technic magic that I still don’t completely understand even after building the set. Meanwhile, the TV shows an archetypal Super Mario level that the strange little Mario figure moves up and down by following the contours of the pieces built up plate from the underlying mosaic. Finally, placing the electronic Mario figure (sold separately — look for our review soon) in the slot on top of the TV makes Mario play sound effects based on the colored panels on the top of the mosaic track, aligned to actions on the mosaic below. Just … incredible.
CAUTION! Controversy ahead!
Now, let’s take a moment and address some of the controversy that has swirled around the announcement of the LEGO NES set a few weeks ago. A number of LEGO fans have noticed a conceptual similarity between this LEGO set and an NES console with a retro TV and side-scrolling Super Mario built by Brandon Jones and displayed at Bricks Cascade in March 2019. Brandon has pointed out in discussions on the SEALUG email list that a LEGO designer from Billund sat near his table at the LEGO convention and has gone so far as to call this new LEGO set a copy in various comments across social media (including here on TBB).
Brandon is a Seattle area resident I consider a friend. I’ve spoken to him a number of times at BrickCon and local SEALUG meetings. He’s undeniably a very talented LEGO builder and a truly nice guy. At the same time, I know many professional LEGO designers — I even spent a week in Japan last summer with the specific designer Brandon believes may have carried the idea for the official LEGO NES back to Billund.
This kind of controversy is not new. Both 75827 Ghostbusters Firehouse Headquarters (2016) and 75936 Jurassic Park T. rex Rampage (2019) were surrounded by similar accusations from LEGO fans of design theft.
Here at The Brothers Brick, our loyalty is to our fellow hobbyists and not to an international multi-billion-dollar corporation. Strong skepticism of corporate decisions (such as marketing decisions to release products co-branded with a military weapons supplier, and then to “cancel” that product after it had already been shipped worldwide) is healthy and self-evidently justified. However, as responsible publishers on the web in whom you have placed your trust, we also have a duty to the truth.
These accusations over the years reflect neither an understanding of the LEGO product design lifecycle nor the specific people who make design decisions at LEGO. Although many LEGO designers do begin their careers in fields like industrial design, every LEGO designer I know personally began their career first as a hobbyist builder like Brandon, me, and many of you reading this review — even LEGO Masters judge Jamie Berard. As unethical and upsetting as directly stealing ideas between hobbyist builders is, it is far more inconceivable that official LEGO set designers will risk having a product idea rejected by appearing too similar to a fan-built design. For the LEGO designers I know — including the designer who visited Portland last year — LEGO is as much an art form as it is a job. Many designs like Mark Stafford’s T. rex Rampage and Nick Vas’s Ninjago City began as passion projects they tinker with in their spare time for years before someone notices it on their desk and they have an opportunity to put it through the lengthy product lifecycle. Importantly, as talented a designer as Nick Vas is, he does not appear to have had any involvement with the design team who actually produced the LEGO NES.
With the rare exception of products rushed to market in response to top-secret licensed materials like The Mandalorian (in which a November 2019 release on Disney+ results in LEGO Star Wars sets in August/September 2020), LEGO’s product development process begins about two years before a set hits store shelves. LEGO has touted that the Super Mario license was five years in the making, and there is no reason to doubt that a large, complex set would have taken anything less than the usual two years to design, test, and manufacture, including two brand new molds for the 8-bit Mario and 2×6 tiles. The usual timeline places outside the realm of logistical possibility that an idea observed in March 2019 could make it all the way through digital design iteration, physical design iteration, heat testing, shake testing, drop testing, functional stress testing, manufacturing engineering, packaging design, and marketing launch in the span of barely a year.
Finally, there is the design itself. Brandon’s excellent NES and TV combo look nothing like either the NES console or retro TV in the official set — Brandon’s NES is much smaller (and shaped differently) and TV much larger to start, and the motorized interior mechanism of the TV is clearly different, with a much wider body to accommodate a different track turning mechanism and a very different way in which the Mario character interacts with a fundamentally different mosaic design. Nor is the side-scrolling retro TV idea unique to Brandon’s design — TBB’s own Rod Gillies built a brilliant Superman scene back in 2012 with the Man of Steel flying in front of a background.
There’s a pattern across the convergence of fan-built ideas and official LEGO sets some members of the LEGO fan community accuse of design theft. The common theme is that in nearly every case LEGO releases a design based on a licensed IP (intellectual property, like a movie or TV show) that someone who’s a fan of both LEGO and that IP may have already built somewhere. In LEGO’s case, they’ve paid an IP owner to license the actual original design, whether that’s a video game console from 1985 or a bounty hunter’s spaceship from 2019. Hobbyist builders like us don’t need to ask Nintendo or Lucasfilm for permission, nor do we have to spend years honing the design and testing it — we can sit down for a weekend and crank out something amazing based on a Google image search or other reference material.
As much as we can debate the facts and hunt for objective truth in a matter like this, on a personal level, as someone who knows both of the specific individuals on either side of this controversy, I’m truly saddened by what I believe is an honest, good-faith misunderstanding on Brandon’s part of the likelihood that Nick stole his idea. The real, gut-wrenching frustration that hobbyist builders like Brandon feel when LEGO produces something similar to their fan-built design is heartbreaking. At the same time, I’m saddened by the public accusations against someone I know could not possibly have stolen another builder’s design. As much as I mistrust huge corporations like LEGO the company, I do trust that the individuals on the LEGO design team operate honestly and ethically. Saying otherwise accuses specific individuals of unethical behavior, rather than merely painting a far-off corporation in broad strokes. Before we continue making accusations like this — whether it’s about the new LEGO NES or some other LEGO set in the future — let’s break the problem down with an understanding of both the processes and people involved.
Let’s get back to the review itself…
The original NES is a boring gray and black box with some red branding. Building that same box in LEGO while retaining the minutest of details and every bit of (non-electronic) functionality is transformative, elevating the 1980’s Japanese industrial design into something truly remarkable.
The addition of the life-size controller (connected via a pneumatic tube and T connectors) further elevates the LEGO NES, with a combination of complex building techniques and printed details you can hold in your hand.
Despite knowing what to expect from the news release and designer video, I was still a little disappointed at first that I was finished with the NES itself barely 8 bags into the 21-bag build, but the TV quickly won me over. Not only does the TV have incredible functional features, the back of the TV is where all the interesting exterior design is.
The inputs, ports, and even antenna on the old-school TV are all lovingly recreated on the back, with the large 6×6 sticker panel evoking the spec panels on the back of electronics of the era.
Even standing still, the brightly colored Super Mario mosaic and warm brown color of the TV provide a great visual contrast with the simple lines and cool gray of the NES itself. The TV is hardly “filler” to bulk out the part count for the LEGO NES console.
Conclusions & recommendation
On many dimensions, I’ve argued that the UCS Falcon may be the greatest LEGO sets of all time, and I’ve said often that my favorite LEGO set is the Saturn V. Similarly, Ninjago City deserves its own superlatives, as one of the most-detailed and intricate LEGO sets I’ve enjoyed building. Setting aside the iconic, nostalgic subject matter, from a pure build experience perspective, from a complexity and technique perspective, from a functionality perspective, the LEGO 71374 Nintendo Entertainment System may be one of the best LEGO sets of all time.
I do not hand out “best ever” recommendations often, or lightly. But I believe unequivocally that this set deserves such praise. By the time I was done building it, I really didn’t care that I finally had my own NES after a 35-year wait — I was in love with the build, the functional features, and the silly side-scrolling TV, not a mere recreation of a gray box from 1985.
Simply put, this set is a revelation. It has the potential to open the eyes of LEGO builders new and old to what LEGO bricks can do, whether that’s to create crazy little details from inside a plain box or make an 8-bit plumber jump around a colorful mosaic.
Even if you’ve never picked up an NES controller and you think video games are the biggest waste of time (time you could be spending on building LEGO instead, I guess), or if you’re a die-hard Xbox or PlayStation fan who’d never touch a Nintendo console, if you simply enjoy LEGO, you’re going to love this set.
71374 Nintendo Entertainment System includes 2,646 parts and is available now from the LEGO Shop (US $229.99 | CAN $299.99 | UK £209.99) and may be available from third-party sellers on Amazon.com, eBay, and elsewhere.
The LEGO Group sent The Brothers Brick an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.