Approximately 40,000 years ago, back in March when time still had meaning, Lego and Nintendo made nerds weep with joy when the companies announced their first collaboration: a high-tech Super Mario that lets you build real-life video game levels for out of Lego bricks. A real-life Mario Maker, if you will. Since then, the companies have announced expansion sets and costume upgrades, which only underscores the breadth of this Lego-Nintendo undertaking. Now, having built and played the starter course and three expansion sets, I can finally say there is a Super Mario level that I can actually beat.
The most impressive thing about Lego’s Super Mario is how thoughtfully the tech elements are integrated. The Mario figure itself is much, much bigger than your average mini fig and features LED eyes (which are terrifying when turned off) and a mini screen in his chest. Underneath is a color sensor that can detect the color of the brick Mario’s standing on. For instance, green bricks are grass, blue bricks are water, and red bricks are lava. The sensor can also read sticker barcodes for, say, a Lego goomba, level elements like sliding bridges, or classic Mario fixtures like coin blocks and warp pipes. There’s also an accelerometer and gyroscope to detect movement. Lastly, there’s a speaker, so when you turn Mario on you can hear all the familiar catchphrases, music, and sound effects. The end result is pretty seamless. For instance, if you’re sliding Mario around on the Piranha plant slide and he knocks into one, he’ll say, “Ow,” and his eyes shut in pain. If you take off Mario’s pants—to change him into a catsuit, no less—he’ll also say, “Mamma Mia!”
There’s also a companion app for either your phone or tablet. On top of digital, step-by-step, 3D-building instructions, you can also take photos of any custom levels you create and automatically record scores for levels via Bluetooth. The app features little video tutorials for how to play, though I’d say it’s pretty intuitive to knock over Bowser Jr. and jump on his back several times to rack up coins. Overall, the app isn’t overly fancy, though I was testing a beta version, so we’ll have to wait and see what the final version looks like.
Lego does a solid job at translating classic Mario elements. Sure, Toad and Toadette are a bit more...square than they are in the games, but you expect that going in. The goombas and Shy Guy were my favorite, and likely the ones I’ll keep around to display when I eventually dismantle the sets to get my dining table back. A few of my sets were missing a piece or two—one of my Piranha plants has an obvious gap in its mouth and the slide itself was missing a pretty huge piece which I had to work around by cobbling together some spare bricks. I was working off prototype samples however, so it’s hard to ding Lego when it’s likely a simple production error.
The levels themselves aren’t challenging to build. This is, after all, a set that’s meant to be playable by both adults trying to relive their childhood and actual children. The Legos do, however, take up a fair amount of space. Lego sent me sample versions of the Adventures with Mario Starter Course, the Piranha Plant Power Slide expansion, the Boomer Bill Barrage expansion, and the Toad’s Treasure Hunt expansion. Individually, each set is pretty contained, but also not that exciting to play on its own. The fun starts when you start mixing and matching to build your own original sprawling levels, especially when you add something like the Cat Mario suit, which lets you climb up walls and open up multi-level building options. (I could do without the Mario meowing noises, however.)
This brings up my main dilemma: The levels are way more fun to build and design than they are to actually play. The Mario figure is big, blocky, and kind of heavy. I found that on spinning or sliding elements that require balance, he tended to fall over. A lot. I admit this could be because I built my levels too narrowly, or because I personally have no skills. I also had a bit of a hard time playing levels without “cheating” because honestly, there is nothing stopping me from just...zooming my hand over to a time block for extra time to rack up more coins. Or, you know, making absurdly long jumps over lava because...well, I can. This probably would be less of an issue for actual children with fully functioning imaginations playing with the set, instead of me, a joyless, garbage adult.
It’s also a case where buying just the starter course is limiting. Don’t get me wrong: You can make plenty of variations. But you definitely need to buy more expansion sets if you want more than one goomba, Baby Bowser, and, like, a single warp pipe.
That said, as someone who is absolutely trash at every single Super Mario video game, including non-platformers like Mario Kart and Mario Party, this is probably the most fun I’ve had playing anything Mario-related in a while. I wish this was around when I was a kid, instead of having to get bullied by all my friends for sucking so hard. Though, to be fair, I still kinda suck. During a friendly press competition hosted by Lego, I shamed Gizmodo by finishing second to last. (But, crucially, not last.)
The $60 Lego Super Mario starter set is available to preorder now, with an expected release date of Aug. 1.