Lego Mario is more than just building bricks – it's a new way to play

We spoke to Lego Mario's designer to find out how its new style of mixed digital and physical play works

Lego Mario
(Image credit: Lego)

News that Lego and Mario are coming together at last broke this week with a teaser from Lego, but now a collaboration that's been four years in the making has finally been revealed, and it turns out to be much more than simply making cool Mario Lego sets (though it is also that).

You can see in the video from Lego below that the idea is to build levels from recognisable parts of the Mario world, and gain as many coins as you can within 60 seconds by traversing them. But it still left us with a lot of questions, so we spoke to Lego's Digital Design Lead on the project, Jonathan Bennink, to get all the details – check out the video, and then we'll dig into it.

The really important part is Lego Mario himself, who has a screen built behind his features, so that he can change expressions, and a panel on his chest can show useful information, including when he's picked up coins, and how many. There's also a speaker, to make all the familiar noises from the game. And there are some more capabilities that we don't know about yet – we asked about the Bluetooth button on Mario's back, and Bennink said they weren't ready to confirm what that was for, though he did say that it wouldn't be for connecting to a Nintendo Switch.

Sensors on the bottom of the Mario figure can recognise different colours of terrain, and also special activity blocks, which are part of the different sets you'll be able to buy, and are all connected with specific things – so there's an activity block on the Lego Goomba's head, for example, and when you place Mario on him to stomp him, that gives Mario a bunch of coins.

You'll be able to buy a range of sets with different activities in, that can then be combined into levels – we don't know exactly how the sets will be broken down and divided, or which sets will be available when, but we've done some detective work in the gallery further down to see what might be available. And before you ask, they refused to tell us when Luigi is coming, too.

(Image credit: Mario Lego)

The idea here is that kids are effectively "role-playing a video game", according to Bennink. They get to build the levels, using the specific Super Mario sets and activity blocks, but also using all the Lego they already have to expand and get creative.

The concept was developed closely with Nintendo, and the lead from the video game maker's side was Takashi Tezuka, who has worked on Super Mario games since the very first one, and has recently been a producer on the Mario Maker games, so his contribution makes a huge amount of sense here.

As you'll have seen in the video, the system hasn't been too strictly gamified here – the only real hard rule is that you have 60 seconds to finish the level. The timer starts when you place Mario on the starting block, and ends when you reach the finish flag block.

In the middle, kids can just kind of explore the level set up however they want – but taking the care to traverse it, hopping Mario from platform to platform, will mean more coins when the sensor detects that he's touching the right colours of Lego.

Oh, and stepping on the red lava will, of course, knock Mario back – though you won't lose any coins. There's no way to build something overly harsh, or to lose out on your progress while playing. "You can be right, or a little bit more right," says Bennink.

The special activity block events can include talking to friendly creatures such as Yoshi, bashing enemies like a Piranha Plant or Kid Bowser, or even getting random rewards from the question-mark block.

Certain combinations can increase your coin score, and this is where there's really a game as such – someone creates a level, and you see if you can eke as many coins out of the setup in the time as possible.

Oh, and there are secret features built into the sets and the system overall – but Lego will never announce these, instead waiting for kids to find them on their own.

Though the loose way of playing the levels mean it will appeal more to kids who are willing to throw themselves into the spirit of it, Lego still hopes it will be a family affair, since Mario games appeal to everyone. Bennink imagines kids building a big level for their parents to try and find all the combinations in when they get home from work, or adults building a cool level for siblings to compete with each other to get the most coins in.

And they hope that the simplicity of building in Lego with video game goals in mind could help foster budding video game designers.

"In 15 years, if there is an applicant who says that Lego Super Mario inspired them to become a level designer, that would be fantastic," says Bennink.

The Lego Super Mario sets will be available later in 2020, though we don't know exactly when, or which sets will release at which times. You can damn sure that we'll let you when it's-a go time.

Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's former AV and Smart Home Editor (UK), master of all things audiovisual, overseeing our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also covered smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable. Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair. Matt now works for our sister title TechRadar.