Lego Super Mario is a charming attempt at real-life ‘Mario Maker’

Lego Super Mario is a charming attempt at real-life ‘Mario Maker’
Once you’ve built a course, the Lego team hopes you’ll play through it. Place Mario on the Start Pipe and a 60-second timer will appear on his abdomen. You also hear the classic Mario theme tune through the minifigure's speaker, emphasizing a new run has begun. Your goal is to get through the level and…

Once you’ve built a course, the Lego team hopes you’ll play through it. Place Mario on the Start Pipe and a 60-second timer will appear on his abdomen. You also hear the classic Mario theme tune through the minifigure’s speaker, emphasizing a new run has begun. Your goal is to get through the level and collect as many coins as possible before reaching the iconic flag pole at the end. 

It’s a familiar setup, though the ‘play’ experience is dramatically different to Nintendo’s beloved platformers. In the real world, Mario’s movement is effectively limitless. That’s because it’s on you — the human player — to pick up and move his chunky body around the level. I’m sure some will try to replicate Mario’s run and triple-jump perfectly. Others, though, will want to wave their hand around like a maniac, leaping over trees, lava pits and triple-Goomba-stacks in a single bound. Beyond the protests of a potentially miffed sibling, there’s nothing to stop you from giving Mario the strength, speed and flight of Superman.

Nintendo’s classic side scrollers, meanwhile, are more restrictive. Mario’s pace and jumping power are carefully tuned to make each level a challenge to overcome. The joy of each Mario game is learning and mastering the control scheme so the plumber moves through each level like a ballerina.

Lego’s designers did consider trying to replicate Nintendo’s ‘pixel-perfect’ platforming. It was difficult to communicate what the player could and should do in any given moment, though. A video game-inspired ruleset also suggested there was a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to play with the sets. “If you make hard boundaries for players, or hard criteria, then a lot of people are just going to fail,” Jonathan Bennink, the lead designer on Lego Super Mario said. “And it’s us telling you exactly what to do.”

That’s why it’s impossible to die in Lego Super Mario. The only way to ‘fail,’ in fact, is to run out of time. Takashi Tezuka, a veteran game designer who directed Super Mario World, was adamant the brick-based character shouldn’t have any health or lives. “He said that Lego Mario needs to be a toy that makes kids happy,” Bennink explained. “If Mario dies, he’s not happy, and kids aren’t going to be happy.”

Lego Super Mario
Every enemy has been scaled up to match Mario’s size.

Nick Summmers

Instead, the two companies adopted a ‘right and more right’ philosophy. Mario will gain a coin multiplier, for instance, if you keep his body balanced inside a minecart on the Piranha Plant Power Slide. Hitting the toothy enemies on either side will cancel the multiplier, but you won’t lose any of your previously collected coins. If you want to ignore the slide entirely and accrue coins another way on the course, that’s fine too. “It comes from a place of rewarding right behavior and not necessarily punishing the wrong one,” Bennink said.

Mario’s final score will appear on his chest once you’ve landed on the flag pole Action Brick, giving you a chance to jot it down or, more likely, wave it triumphantly in your best friend’s face.

If you’ve connected Mario to the app over Bluetooth, you’ll also see a screen that shows your total and everything that you did to accrue coins. It’s a useful tool if you want to know how someone beat your previously held record or triple-check that all of your Action Brick stomps registered correctly. If you’re hurrying through a long and complicated course, you might not have time to check whether you landed squarely on a Goomba’s head or waited long enough to accumulate coins on a floating cloud. 

Once you grow tired of Lego’s official designs, you’re free to break them down and create something new. Every set is modular — large, squarish base pieces connect with long and thin bricks — so it’s easy to move the environmental set pieces around and create something that feels fresh. If you’re feeling extra creative, it’s also possible to build a course from scratch and mix in bricks that you’ve accumulated from other Lego product lines. All that matters, really, is that you have a Start Pipe and Flag Pole. There’s nothing to stop you from placing Bowser’s Castle on a shoebox, for instance, or using a generic spaceship set to create a Galaxy-themed course.

It’s easy to move the environmental set pieces around and create something that feels fresh.

To get you started, Lego has made an inspiration-focused star section in the app. It includes a Weekly Challenge and the option to share your own creation using the camera on your smartphone or tablet. You can also view other people’s submissions and, provided they’re well photographed, attempt to replicate them with your own kits. (Or build something close to them, if the original creator has used a bunch of bricks you don’t have.)

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