GameCentral talks to the Lego designer behind Nintendo’s new multimedia project, about what it’s like to work with the co-creator of Mario.
Nintendo and Lego sound like the proverbial match made in heaven: two long-standing, family friendly companies known equally for their creativity, ongoing success, and obsessive secrecy. But when the idea of Nintendo Lego was first teased a few days ago the obvious guesses of what it would be were instantly shot down. The Lego Super Mario line is not what you’d expect, although perhaps it would be if you knew how closely involved Nintendo was in its creation…
Although the Lego and Nintendo partnership was teased earlier in the week it wasn’t really clear what was going on, other than that it was more than just scenes from the games recreated via Lego bricks. We haven’t played with any of the sets ourselves yet, but we were offered an advance look at the video below, before getting a chance to talk to design manager Jonathan Bennink.
You can kind of get the gist of what’s going on just from the video, which shows kids playing with multiple sets mashed together to make a Lego version of a Super Mario Bros. level. But rather than a static diorama the whole thing is interactive, thanks to the Bluetooth Mario minifgure which interacts with special Lego ‘action bricks’ so that you can collect coins as you go, competing with other people for a high score over 60 seconds.
The fact that it’s not traditional Lego sets or minifigures may irritate older fans but the whole concept was designed as a collaboration with Nintendo, to make something uniquely interactive. And yet despite fan speculation it doesn’t involve the Switch at all.
‘Lego Super Mario is a whole new product line’, Bennink tells us. ‘You build all the challenges and all the modules, like the Piranha Plant module and the enemies and the little tower, and you basically rearrange those in different orders. You can also use your own bricks if you want and build a bigger level.
‘Mario has a colour sensor that can read coloured Lego bricks and he also gets coins from the action bricks that you can see in the video. So there’s an action brick in the start pipe, one on the Goomba, one on the rotating platform, or there’s the question mark block that gives you random power-ups.’
Although it’s hard to tell without playing it, Bennink insists there is some element of skill in collecting the points, since you can lose coins for dropping Mario into a hazard or not hitting all the action bricks. There are also hidden features that aren’t documented by the instructions, but which can also give you coins, and which Bennink refuses to describe to us.
‘It’s not a video game, in the purest sense, because you can just go from start to finish as you please’, he admits. ‘But it’s intrinsically motivated play, where you decide yourself what kind of level you build. We do see that the competition is really around the family play, where kids are growing up with Lego and with Mario, but also their parents – us, basically! – we’ve grown up with both and we hope that kids and parents will play this together.’
As much as parents love to complain about the cost of Lego, this is clearly not a quick cash grab. Not least because Lego and Nintendo have been working on the project for over four years now.
‘We wanted to do something special with Nintendo’, says Bennink. ‘Nintendo and Lego, we share a passion to create creative play experiences. Even Nintendo’s annual report says, ‘The true value of entertainment lies in its uniqueness’. So they’re always willing to innovate and they are masters at digital/physical play. They’re also very good at making really simple experiences. It’s very complex to make something very simple.
‘So we took quite a long time to make the play concept, but we did it together. We had a team in Billund [Lego’s Danish HQ] and we had a team in Kyoto [Nintendo’s HQ] and we had a team in America.
‘The creative lead on Nintendo’s side is Takashi Tezuka and he’s worked at Nintendo for 35 years. He’s an executive officer and one of the co-creators of Mario [and The Legend Of Zelda – GC], back in the day. This has been a very special project, so we’ve been having weekly or twice-a-week Skype calls with him and his team.’
Tezuka is really only second to Shigeru Miyamoto in terms of his legacy at Nintendo, but somehow it’s no surprise to find out that Nintendo are fans of Lego, especially given their work on things like Nintendo Labo.
‘For a designer it’s like a dream come true’, says Bennink. To work at Lego’s a pretty cool job, but then to work with such a big IP, Mario, and the people who make that… it’s been quite a journey for us!’
Another similarity between Lego and Nintendo is how difficult it is to get any information out of them about future products. Although Bennink confirms that what’s seen in the video is multiple sets put together he refuses to say how many, how much they cost, or when exactly they’ll be out – beyond sometime this year.
‘In the coming months we’re roll out a lot more information, and we’ll roll out different challenges, and enemies, and the sets that go with this line’, he says. ‘But at this point in time that’s not something we can reveal.’
Whether there will be any traditional sets, minifigures, or video games Bennink wasn’t allowed to comment. He also wouldn’t say whether other Nintendo franchises would be getting the Lego treatment or whether a giant Lego version of Princess Peach’s castle was a good idea – although we tried to convince him that it absolutely was.
What he did say though, was that after such a long time in development, Lego aren’t expecting their relationship with Nintendo to be a short one.
‘Right now, we’re focused on Lego Super Mario but at the same time we’re definitely looking forward to collaborating with them on a longer term. We’ve spent four years developing this, so only having a line of products for half a year or so wouldn’t make too much sense!’
It might not be a game exactly, but beyond the novelty of having officially licensed Nintendo Lego, the partnership is also a sign that Nintendo is keeping its promise to make more use of its franchises in areas outside of games. That was one of the main policies of new president Shuntaro Furukawa when he took over in 2018, with this Lego announcement coming at the same time as work continues on a Super Mario animated movie and theme park.
It’s a move that could just as easily cheapen the Nintendo brand as strengthen it, but Nintendo Lego seems just too good an idea not to work.
‘Lego as a toy, it’s primary colours and blocks’, explains Bennink. ‘Mario is primary colours and blocks, especially Super Mario Bros. They’re a very good fit together.’
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