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Lego Super Mario, reviewed: A real-life Super Mario Maker

Lego meets Mario: Here's what you need to know about the new playsets.

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Yes, you can also do this to Mario.

Scott Stein/CNET

We opened up the box, poured out some colorful bricks. Then we put Mario together, popped in some batteries, snapped on his suspenders and watched him say hello. 

Lego's big play set series for this summer is the result of a four-year collaborative project with Nintendo: a series of Super Mario-themed play sets, first teased a few months ago. Lego Super Mario is also more than that. It's a modular interactive game, almost a lighter version of Nintendo's Super Mario Maker game on the Switch. It's an open-ended type of course-constructor. And it features a scanner-enabled, interactive electronic Mario figure that's a new idea to Lego kits, but feels familiar somehow, like a Lego-compatible type of Nintendo Amiibo.

Nintendo has dabbled in connected toys before. And I've reviewed Lego robotics sets with connected elements, like Lego Boost, as well as Nintendo Labo, a set of foldable Switch-connected cardboard construction kits. Lego Super Mario isn't exactly like either of these. It's simpler, more geared to 7-year-olds and up. My kid, who's entering second grade in the fall, found it perfect to construct. We spent weeks in June putting it together.

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Lego Super Mario is a clever and beautifully designed set of Mario-themed Lego sets, with elements to a larger game embedded inside. How advanced that game becomes is still a little unclear, but it makes Lego Super Mario more than just a brick set.

The Lego Super Mario sets arrive on Aug. 1, but I've been looking at a series of preproduction sets to see how they work, sent by Lego. The sets require a phone or tablet app (Android or iOS) to show interactive instructions, and to connect and pair with the Super Mario figure over Bluetooth. You can play with the set without the app, but you need the app for instructions and for setup. My Mario figure needed a firmware update before I began.

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The Lego figures are pretty fantastic.

Scott Stein/CNET

Connected Mario

Lego Mario is an adorable little thing, and sometimes a little creepy. He has glowing-screen patches on his eyes and chest, which show expressions and display scores and power-up info. He makes noises. A motion sensor inside can tell when Mario's shaking or falling over or jumping, and he'll make sound effects and earn coins that show up on his chest. It's a little super-powered Lego action figure. Shaking it to earn coins almost feels like shaking a fitness tracker to earn steps.

A scanner on the bottom of Lego Mario recognizes special coded bricks on enemies and power-ups that trigger effects. Tapping on a pipe at the beginning and a flag at the end brackets the course challenges, which are timed. You move and tap Mario along your course as fast as you can to get coins. There are other coded bricks that earn points or start mini game challenges. Mario's built-in LCD display can keep track of the score and show what the power-ups do. Mario also has different outfits that give extra powers, sold separately for $10 (£9) each (I got to try the cat suit, which gives coins when Mario is turned on his side to move up walls). 

Some parts of the Mario sets are kinetic: Tip Mario on a mine cart track see-saw too far, and he'll bump the Piranha Plant chompers and lose points. Or he may get knocked over when spinning on a coin-bonus part one area. But mostly, the gameplay feels casual. Did you get a high score? OK, try again. I could also see some kids just tapping blocks and "cheating" to get higher scores. Whatever. It's free-form. Nobody's judging.

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An app has all the instructions, so you'll need a phone or tablet nearby.

Scott Stein/CNET

Making Mario

The $60 (£50) starter set includes the pieces you'll need for all expansions. There's a Super Mario figure that's electronic (it runs off two AAA batteries) and connects with a phone or tablet, plus pieces to make a short course, along with a little Bowser Jr. figure and the start pipe and end flag, which are needed for other course designs, too.

The Lego Super Mario app for Android or iOS has all the digital instructions. Using it feels like the app experience on Lego's Boost robotics set, or Nintendo's folding Labo cardboard construction games for the Switch. We also put together a few expansion sets: one with Bullet Bills ($30/£25), one with a Piranha Plant see-saw slide ($30/£25), and a bigger Toad Treasure set with little adorable Toad and Toadette figures ($70/£75). There are 10 total expansion sets, the most expensive being a Bowser's Castle set for $100 (£90) that I haven't tried (but want to buy). There are also little mini-character mystery packs for $5 (£3.50) each that have a scannable part on them that Mario can tap (I opened a mini Bullet Bill one).

No set was very complicated, and assembly took maybe half an hour to an hour per set. My 7-year-old did just about all the work.

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Note the coded bricks, which Mario can bop to interact with.

Scott Stein/CNET

What happens after you make all the sets?

The sets look great, and are cute when set up on a table. But once they're made, the idea is to remix them and unsnap the pieces to build new constructions and new courses. Between tapping Mario in the pipe, which starts the level, and tapping the flag brick to end the level, you try to collect coins as fast as possible. By wiggling, bopping, hitting other bricks, balancing on some pieces, and... well, it's a little open-ended. My kids and I tried a "championship challenge" over Zoom with Lego Super Mario's design head, Jonathan Bennink, and it basically involved trying to grab as many coins in a set time as we could, using a special course we had remixed ourselves from the pieces of several courses. The score result felt pretty random, the result of shaking Mario fast enough and bopping a bunch of pieces before the timer ran out.

There's a persistent game part of Lego Super Mario, sort of: Pairing Mario with the app syncs scores so you can keep track of how many coins you've gotten on different courses, which you could share with friends on the Lego app. 

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Make sure you have a lot of table or floor space.

Scott Stein/CNET

There are lots of Super Mario sets: You could keep getting more of them, and mixing parts, and seeing what constructions pop up. Added sets get scanned into the app, and appear on a 3D map that shows what play kits you've accumulated. But there isn't a lot of gameplay that gets unlocked. 

Unlike more structured and screen-based creative Nintendo games like Super Mario Maker, which is a Switch game about creating crazy platform challenges, Lego Super Mario feels a lot more relaxed and laid-back -- and not as complicated. It's more about playing with the pieces. It's also more laid-back than Nintendo Labo, which has elaborate constructions and unlockable games, or Lego Boost, a robotics kit that involves programming. Sometimes Lego Super Mario seems more like the pieces to a kind of board game, where you lay out parts of the course to make a challenge, but a board game without a clear set of rules.

I'd have loved a bit more structure, or in-app guides for making other game ideas. There will be weekly challenges in the Lego app when it launches, and there will be ways to share build ideas with others. So far, it feels more Lego than Mario, and more toy than game.

My kids loved it, and even my 11-year-old thought it was the set his game-design-obsessed brain was dreaming of. Will they keep using it? That depends on how many game design ideas Lego evolves with the set. Maybe the scannable coded bricks could be reprogrammed, or you could design new rules for levels. Or have a race with two Mario figures (how about Peach?) at once. I'm starting to think of possibilities. I wonder if Lego will enable them.

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Our mega-course, which uses pieces from about four different sets.

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My oldest son, who's 11, has some notes for Lego: Instructions should be included in the box instead of relying on an app. Or, better yet, Lego Mario should help somehow, and be a guide without leaning on a phone or tablet screen. Also, he says, rules are what make games fun. More rules, or clear rules, would make for more interesting game ideas and provide more challenges. Constraints can inspire design. Lego is all about open play, but when things get too open, it can sometimes feel a little too drifty. Still, for younger kids, the open feel of Lego Super Mario can feel very welcoming, and the set could allow prototyping of game ideas if you're open-minded.

After our original playtime with Lego Super Mario weeks ago, my kids lost interest. I think Lego should expand the gameplay ideas to keep kids coming back, and offer more tangible goals. The open-ended design might not be compelling enough as it is to encourage long-term play.

If nothing else, Lego Super Mario looks like a solid summer's entertainment for a summer where we're not able to do a lot, or travel very far. And I have to admit, I've started getting addicted to turning Mario on and just having him bop on some bricks.