Nintendo has been working on translating its games off screens and into real-world settings for years: in Amiibo toys, with folding cardboard Labo kits, in upcoming theme parks. Lego and Nintendo's new Super Mario line of toys looks exactly like what I might have expected: a gaming-meets-bricks fusion.
While Lego has made its own tech-enabled projects over the years -- robotics kits, video game-connected projects like Lego Dimensions and AR-enabled, phone-connected kits -- it looks like Lego Super Mario is something different than all of those.
I watched the video for Lego Super Mario for the first time and thought: This looks like an '80s board game idea that was never made. The pieces swoop around. Mario jumps on top of blocks, tapping pieces. Parts can get knocked off. It's kinetic. It doesn't show off phones or game consoles. It looks... charming.
So what is Lego Super Mario? From what I can tell, it's a cute blocky Mario playset where Mario is far larger than a standard minifigure, has a built-in screen and makes noises. Mario can be bopped along the set, sensing bricks that you tap and turn into little actions like coins and power-ups. You race Mario to the end of the course to get a bonus. And also, I guess, your friends can try to toss things to knock you off the course.
According to Lego's design lead for Lego Super Mario, Jonathan Bennink (a design manager for Lego's Creative Play Lab), on the collaboration with Nintendo, "We had to develop kind of this new way of playing together from scratch, because it's not a video game and it's also not a classical Lego toy."
Lego Super Mario is a project that's been in the works for four years and has been co-developed with Nintendo's Takashi Tezuka, an executive officer and game producer. Tezuka produced Super Mario Maker and Super Mario Maker 2 -- Mario construction kit games for the Wii U and Nintendo Switch which seem like the spiritual cousin of Lego Super Mario. According to Lego's Bennink, Lego Super Mario will be very focused on freely creating Mario levels in bricks that can be modded, tweaked, mixed with everyday Lego bricks and socially shared. Just like, in a sense, Mario Maker.
"There's definitely synergies between those two products," Bennink tells me in a conversation over FaceTime. "At the core it's this intrinsic way of playing where you make your own challenge, which is the same as you do in Super Mario Maker. If I want to make a level, completely with fire and no power ups and it's going to be super difficult, you can also do that with with Lego Super Mario. And then challenge some of your friends to play the level."
While I spoke with Lego Group's Bennink for a while, I didn't get to hear directly from Nintendo and Lego's remaining tight-lipped on a number of details. "I have always liked Lego products and how they help children use their imagination to play," Nintendo's Tezuka said in a press release. "The new product we created together with the Lego Group seeks to combine two different styles of play -- one where you freely build the world of Mario and the other where you play with Mario in the very world that you have created."
Here's what else I discovered.
Lego Super Mario has been under development with Nintendo for four years.
"We've been working on this for quite a long time," says Lego's Bennink. "Fairly early on we knew we wanted to have an interactive character for Mario, because when we saw the first prototype we were very much in love with him coming to the real world as a Lego brick. But then we had to figure out what to do with an interactive character and fairly soon we came up with the idea of the level building.
"It's kind of a perfect match for the Lego DNA which is all about creativity and the Nintendo DNA, which is of course the seamless interactivity that they bring. One of [Nintendo's] slogans is that the true value of entertainment lies in its uniqueness and Nintendo wants to innovate. And we thought, you know, they were the perfect partner to do something new and fresh with."
A Super Mario figure can sense special coded blocks and can color-sense other Lego bricks.
The larger-than-minifigure Mario shown in the video has unique sensors inside, plus it has speakers and a screen. "It's a color sensor, so it senses a selection of the Lego color palette," Bennink says, "you can also use your existing brick bins to build levels from it and it reads these action bricks -- that has a little barcode, a color barcode, and the sensor picks that up. Mario has a unique reaction to those bricks: It knows when to start the level and when to finish the level, what's inside a question mark block -- and it gets something out of the block. Different enemies also have the little bricks, so Mario knows if it's a good or bad guy."
The Super Mario sets involve games where players tap bricks to make things happen, racing to earn coins.
It looks like the Lego sets will work like a game, where the Mario figure can be tapped along the coded blocks in different patterns, getting power-ups and earning coin bonuses (or being punished). "With the bricks you build levels and anything you build between the start and finish is basically a level. You play that with Mario from start to finish and you get coins in in a certain amount of time," explains Bennink. "There are different Lego challenges that you could also see in the video that are skill-based, so you have to kind of put the Piranha [plant] exactly into the tube and then the reward pops up and there's a rotator platform. So if you move on that you get coins, but if you fall off you get a little time penalty. So, it's bringing the famous game mechanics from the Mario World to the physical world of Lego play, where kids can build their own world and their own levels and enjoy them."
There will be multiple characters, not just Mario.
The video shows Mario, Bowser and Yoshi, so I asked Lego's Bennick if Toad, Peach and others would be playable characters. "There'll be some other characters, yes, but right now we want to keep some of the... we don't want to spoil everything. You can see Yoshi in the video."
It will be a line of products, not just one set.
Apparently there may be more than one Lego Super Mario set, not surprisingly. "It's a product line, yes, but what sets we'll bring out will be announced in the near future."
It won't work with the Nintendo Switch, but could work with a phone.
The interactive play stuff in Lego Super Mario will be standalone from the Switch, Bennink says, which makes it different than the game-connected concept of Lego Dimensions. But what about phone connectivity, or even AR? "Again, those details will launch in the future, sorry," Bennink says. "But it's separate from the Switch at least, so it's not like an Amiibo or something. There's no points that you can earn in the Lego [set] that goes to a game. It's a separate experience."
It's arriving later this year.
No prices or specific release dates are available, but whatever Lego Super Mario becomes, it'll be here by the end of the year. I can't wait to play it.