Interview with LEGO’s Jonathan Bennink on the creation of LEGO Super Mario

LEGO and Nintendo recently unveiled the LEGO Super Mario sets. This collaboration was first teased in March and now, fans have been able to see the product in action and get their pre-orders in. More than a standard LEGO set and different to a video game, LEGO Super Mario is a special combination of LEGO and Mario which changes “the way people interact with Super Mario in the physical world and engage in LEGO experiences.”

Jonathan Bennink is the Lead Designer at the LEGO Group and introduced the world to LEGO Super Mario in the special video below. We had the chance to speak to Bennink about the project, the collaboration with Nintendo and what this set represents for LEGO going forward.

Speaking to Bennink about the development of the project gave us a fascinating insight into its creation as well as an understanding of the design ethos of LEGO and its desire to create new and interesting ways to play.

LEGO Super Mario

We learned from Bennink that LEGO Super Mario started development about four years ago and from the beginning, the goal was to create something which could only have come from both LEGO and Nintendo.

We know both brands have a lot of fans and they have been waiting for this collaboration, so we wanted to make it worth the wait!

Also, when people would see the product, we wanted them to instantly know that the LEGO Group and Nintendo is behind it

LEGO has, for a long time, been collaborating with other IP to create special sets, video games and products. Bennink points to LEGO Hidden Side and LEGO Dimensions as recent examples of LEGO expanding the way it interacts with other products. However, until now, LEGO and Nintendo had not collaborated.

“Working with the Mario IP has been a dream come true for us at the LEGO Group as you can imagine,” Bennink told us. “Nintendo is also exceptionally good at creating never before seen ways to play, so partnering with them on developing the play concept as well as the technology involved has been very valuable.”

When it comes to Mario, he’s pretty well known for breaking bricks and jumping on blocks. Based on this alone, he seems like a good fit for LEGO but for Bennink, the harmony between the two goes deeper.

“Mario is quite a natural fit to translate into LEGO sets since Mario lives in a very colourful and family-friendly universe. Also, it doesn’t matter if you are young, old, a boy or a girl, anybody enjoys building with LEGO bricks as well as playing Mario games.”

Development of LEGO Super Mario took quite some time, according to Bennink and it was only after two years of concept work, the team could start developing the technology. It took an additional two years to develop the set, the modular system and the technology which powers it.

“The modular system allows kids to easily re-arrange and rebuild levels,” Bennink explained, “without taking apart everything they’ve already built.” We know there are three sets planned, at this stage, for LEGO Super Mario, Adventures with Mario, Pirhana Plant Power Slide and Bowser’s Castle Boss Battle, however, Bennink said it was the first which took the longest.

The Adventures with Mario Starter Course took the longest to develop. It laid the foundation for the rest of the line, as it’s the only place to get LEGO Mario and the start and finish: the basic building elements for each level

Creating the unique look of the set was the next challenge. “Since LEGO bricks are usually rectangular and Mario coming to the brick world, we felt it was a natural fit to make him rectangular as well,” Bennink said. Once the design of Mario was finalised, characters like Bowser Jr. and Goomba could be created with a square shape built with bricks.

Bennink says the design “fits nicely with the highly creative aspect of the product line as well!”

Nintendo is notoriously protective of its IP, none more so than Mario, however, Bennink said the project was incredibly collaborative. He described a working partnership with group phone calls every week and visits between the two companies throughout the years.

During these calls and workshops we come up with the ideas for sets together. Sometimes we are inspired by what Mario does in a certain video game sequence, other times we think of a cool function that you can build with bricks, and then think how LEGO Mario could collect coins on these

Through these workshops and brainstorming sessions, the team discovered LEGO Super Mario works best when he’s standing and appears to be moving on his own. Both the Starter Course rotating platform and Pirhana Slider are good examples of this according to Bennink.

Having Nintendo involved meant the Japanese company’s expertise could be leveraged in order to make the set the best it could be. LEGO Super Mario features an LCD screen for his eyes, mouth and on his belly. During development, Bennink said LEGO deferred to Nintendo.

“During development, we tried many different display technologies. In the end, we selected the most appropriate technology type (LCD/TFT) and made a custom screen especially for LEGO Mario, as we needed it to fit exactly with the position of his eyes, mouth and belly screen which is the same size as a 1×2 LEGO plate.”

As LEGO Super Mario has the LCD screen and makes sounds based on special action bricks, colour and movement, I asked Bennink how the figure worked. Specifically, I wondered if LEGO Super Mario used NFC, however, Bennink said due to high power consumption and slow reading at low power, the set uses a much faster and energy-efficient optical sensor.

“The sensor is developed especially for this line and reads both a selection of the LEGO colour palette as well as uniquely decorated LEGO tiles, called ‘action bricks’,” Bennink explained. “These bricks feature a colour barcode, giving LEGO Mario a unique reaction to each brick.”

A very ‘Nintendo’ feature included in LEGO Super Mario is the six-axis accelerometer and gyroscope. This allows the figure to “detect the slightest movement and collect coins while running, jumping and overcoming the challenging platforms,” Bennink said.

Since the figure doesn’t include NFC, there’s no way for it to double as an amiibo, though I wanted to know if there was ever a time when the figure was considered as a potential amiibo. Bennink told me;

It did come up during one of our brainstorms, but in the end we decided to keep these experiences very separated.

We think it will confuse consumers as LEGO Mario is product that stands by itself.

LEGO, like Mario, is a product which has been enjoyed for decades and by people of all ages. As LEGO collaborates with additional brands and creates new ways to play with LEGO, it continues to remain popular and influence our popular culture. I asked Bennink why he thinks LEGO is so popular and why it remains so successful.

“I believe all of us have an inner desire to create and use our imagination,” he answered. “LEGO bricks are a great, accessible and high-quality medium to build new things and take them apart again to try something new.

“There is something very gratifying after a long build session to look down and feel proud of the things you’ve created.”

If you’ve ever worked on a LEGO set, you’ll know the feeling he’s describing. It’s similar to the feeling you get when you finally finish a particularly difficult section of a videogame. It’s a sense of pride and accomplishment which comes from the most innocent and creative parts of ourselves.

While I had the chance to ask Bennink questions, I couldn’t let him go without asking about future plans and if there are other videogame inspired sets on the horizon. Since LEGO has created a Super Mario set, would Sonic be next?

As a consummate professional, Bennink let nothing slip, though he did offer a tease by saying. “All I can say at this point is to stay tuned!”

LEGO Super Mario launches in Australia on August 1, 2020 and all three sets are available for pre-order now.

Thanks to Jonathan Bennink for his time.

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Leo Stevenson
I've been playing games for the past 27 years and have been writing for almost as long. Combining two passions in the way I'm able is a true privilege. PowerUp! is a labour of love and one I am so excited to share.

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