Meeting Jonathan Bennink… Design Lead on LEGO® Super Mario

A few weeks ago, I took part in a Media Event with several other Recognised LEGO Fan Media: Brickset, Blocks Magazine, Brick Fanatics, Zusammengebaut, Hispabrick Magazine, HothBricks, twitch streamer Between the Bricks. Other similar events took place around the same time, with other LEGO Fan Media, as well as mainstream media.

We met Jonathan Bennink – the LEGO Digital design LEAD on the Super Mario series, and he took us through a couple of the sets that were unveiled the next week. He followed up by showing us some additional aspects of the new theme, gave us some gameplay hints and set us some challenges… At the end of the presentation, we were able to ask some questions. Some were answered on the day. Some were followed up subsequently… Read on for More.

What’s it all about?

LEGO Super Mario is all about building levels out of your imagination, and using your creativity to make anything you want. And then playing the levels with your new buddy, LEGO Mario. Now, in those levels, you have a set amount of time – 60 seconds – unless you find some more time by using a time block, or getting a power up from the Question mark block; but in that time you are to collect coins, and the amount of coins you get depends on what you build, and how you play.

So as you can see, LEGO SuperMario takes the core DNA of LEGO, of building things out of your imagination, and making it more interactive by infusing those famous Mario game mechanics.

From the start, LEGO and the Nintendo team really wanted Mario to have a home. A place where he can get some naps in, in between all the running and jumping that he does. So, we have created Mario’s House. And in Mario’s house we have his best buddy Yoshi, who he can talk to, and get some coins from. There’s a little hammock here, beneath the tree, and you can slowly gently rock him to sleep. And of course, he can go into his little house as well.

In the video game, There is a very iconic sight in each Mario course, it’s the Fortress at the end. And we made a lego version of this here. There are 3 different paths towards the fortress. Theres a Piranha plant, a bob-bomb (thats a lot of fun – you can get a lot of coins from it, until Mario blows up. Yeah., you have to time it to not hit it when the bomb blows). There is a feature whereby you can take the finish tile from the starter kit, and put it here. When you land on it, the flag gets raised: just like in the game.

My second favourite power up pack (you guys already have my favourite one – Cat Mario) – this is the Propellor Costume. With this costume, Mario takes to the sky, and you can fly around the room. By twisting and turning and changing speed, you can collect coins. We hope this will stimulate fans to build levels throughout their house, and not just in one place: he can fly from one part of the level to another.

On the topic of the Companion App:

The Companion App is there to update Mario, but outside that, it has 3 main functions:

  • To teach the experience: all the building instructions are there. There are videos showing you how to play with Mario – how to run and jump, and how to use the costumes, for instance, defeat the enemies, and the challenges.
  • Then we have the inspiration section – currently filled with blueprints – layout ideas, but when we go live of 1st august, it will be filled with creations from around the world, and we really hope that our community will build up some awesome levels. Those will show up: the most liked ones, as well as some of the others, in that inspiration section. Then there will also be a weekly challenge section, where you can submit your ideas to.
  • Then finally, there will be a photo album section, where you can take a picture of your level, and if you are connected to Mario, your coin score too. Then, knowing that it is safe and secure, you can break up your level agin. And you can share your picture and coin score with a friend (through LEGO Life)

So, LEGO SuperMario is a complete new way of playing and interacting with LEGO Bricks, and it is also the first time that Mario comes to the real world, in LEGO form at least, an interactive form.

What makes this product so great to build and rebuild?

It’s what you have just seen: we shipped you guys the same products, but you all have very different levels, and very different stories and ideas behind it. LEGO is a toy that has been passed from generation to generation, and so have the Mario games, and the Mario world. So, everyone has an idea of what a level could be, or what is a cool way to use LEGO Bricks. It is fascinating to see that everybody has their own interpretation. I usually take a recent event that I build a level from, or like the weather, so, right now I am using a lot of blue bricks to go with the bad weather we are having here in Denmark.  That’s what this product is about: its putting your own story and your own creativity into it.

Any tips on playing your levels?

There is the Question Mark Block: Now, you want to try that a couple of times – there are all sorts of bonuses in there: there is 15 seconds more of time; 5 coin rewards, 10 coin rewards, star power. If you get star power, go and defeat those bigger enemies – because you get DOUBLE COINS from it. Every time you take an item out, it gets replaced by a single coin, so after a while, it doesn’t make sense to keep banging it.

Don’t just use the platforms to move around: if you get on the platform and change direction, and stay on the platform, you get a lot more coins: use them as a little merry go round, and not just a way to get somewhere.

And then, finally, you want to be using most of your level time. Once you have 15 seconds to go, Mario enters Hurry up state: the music goes quicker, and if you then finish 13 or 14 seconds later, you get a huge finish bonus, but if you go overtime, you don’t get anything. Of course you get the coins you have collected, but you don’t get the finish bonus. 

The Piranha Power Slide Challenge

Piranha power slide is all about dexterity, and Mario gets coins by carefully sliding between the piranha plants. Now, if you hit a piranha plant, not only do you you get a half second time penalty, but you also get taken out of the multiplier. If you don’t hit the plants, you can get 2 coins at a time, and then 3 coins at a time, so then you are really raking them up. [Ed: Check out my seperate post on the Piranha Power Slide Challenge here]

Following on from a little bit of play time, we moved on to the Question and Answer Session

Q&A

Andres from Zusammengebaut: We are seeing so many 18+ sets, and the kids will love this, but as an adult, I would love to see miniatures and a giant castle. Is the licence restricted to this game, or could there be other sets as well, in the future?

…When we set out to make a product for this partnership, we wanted to also ensure that there was a lot of Nintendo DNA, and Nintendo is all about Innovation, and unique entertainment, and seamless digital interactivity…when we started work on this, we wanted to make sure there was not just LEGO DNA, but also the Nintendo DNA was there. That means Innovation and Digital interactivity. This is why went for LEGO Super Mario, as you see it today. We think there is a lot of iconic characters in there, and a lot of iconic locations, that not just the kids will enjoy it, and hopefully also the adult fans of LEGO and Mario. Some sets are skewed towards playing, such as the Pirhana power slide, Thwomp dungeon… which is all about those Mario game mechanics and bringing them to life. But other sets are still more display models, and they still work with Mario:  the Bowser Castle, and the Mario house, and the Guarded Fortress here, for example. We tried to make a good balance of tsets that are good for playing, and others which are more traditional show pieces. Now, it’s your job to ask those questions,  and its my job to say that I cannot tell you anything about things that we may or may not do in the future! [editor: Of course, just this week, we got our first glimpse of the 71374 Nintendo Entertainment System: our first 18+Nintendo themed set. ]

Graham from Brick Fanatics: You spoke about different ways to defeat the bad guys – what are they, other than just bouncing up and down on them? Star power which opens up double coins; fire costume lets you throw fire balls – they will take hit points off the enemies; Boo and the other ghosts need Star Power to be defeated. We are going to launch a hidden feature, before our final release. There will also be combos for defeating the bad guys. Some we will mention in the documentation, others will need to be discovered, and shared by you guys…

Rambling Brick: My older kids were pleasantly surprised, when they had the opportunity to see the gameplay in action. How did the collaboration come about? 

The management of the companies met each other, and they discussed some values – the brands have a lot in common: our target customers are similar: we are catering for families a lot – and they decided to get together a LEGO team and a Nintendo team with one brief: Make a product that only LEGO and Nintendo could do together, and that has the DNA of both companies infused in it, and they left us to it. I am happy to hear that even older kids are enjoying it: we think that this product line is all about families playing together. Old and young: it doesn’t matter what age you are, we then give you the toolss to go out and compete. For instance, on the Piranha slider, we haven’t made a big online competition, because you can totally cheat, by holding onto the Mario Brick. We think that’s fine – you are just cheating your self, but if you are in a room with people, there can be someone saying ‘ you can’t do it like that, use just one hand, or your elbows. Some one has to give you the tools to go out and have a good time, and make this competition old school – analog local play, as we call it.

*Can you elaborate more on the origin of the theme?

The management of both companies met in Kyoto during a workshop to discuss a potential collaboration 5 years ago!! At this workshop it became apparent just how many values we have in common: a desire to deliver unique, innovative products for families around the world of the best quality and upholding the highest safety standards. This gave both parties further appetite to look into a possible collaboration and thus two teams where formed, one at Nintendo Kyoto and one at LEGO Billund. The design teams came up with a selection of 8 ideas, one of which was a small brick with a display, painted red and looking like Mario. This got the most votes, as it was something nobody had seen before. Both teams then made early prototypes that had a display and speaker, shipped them to each other and from here on all of us fell in love with the red plumber in brick form!

*Did Nintendo design the electronics? 

LEGO Super Mario is a LEGO produced product, so LEGO took the lead in the hardware and software design. Having said that, we have had a lot of input and help from our friends in Kyoto! Nintendo has helped us pick out a good display, we have worked on creating the sensor technology with a long term Nintendo partner. And although the LEGO Group has implemented the software, we have developed the entire play concept together so we also get weekly input, ideas and tips to implement the actual gameplay.

*Where did the idea for the game design come from? 

After that initial falling in love with the interactive figure, like usually happens with love, the tougher part came: making it last, haha. With an interactive figure, there was a lot of Nintendo DNA, but not so much LEGO building yet or longevity. It felt a little gimmicky. When we realized this, during an online brainstorm together we came up with the idea of building levels for Mario, out of LEGO bricks. This then turned into being able to collect coins from the bricks, so we added a color sensor to also gain coins from LEGO bricks fans already have in their brick bin.

We added the level timer for the feeling of urgency and created many enemies for Mario to defeat and platforms and challenges that Mario needs to overcome. Some of the sets you see are inspired directly from the game, like Bowser’s Castle Boss Battle. Others, like the Piranha Plant Power Slider, are based on what is cool LEGO brick play and natural LEGO Mario play, but then themed into the Mario world. Being able to build anything you want using your imagination and LEGO Mario reacting to what you have built, naturally creates a lot of longevity.

Dan, Between the Bricks As a MOC Builder, in a any new set, I look for new parts, and across the range, there are a lot of new parts. Do you have a figure of how many elements you have created for this product line?

I’m glad you appreciate the amount of new elements in there. The design is all a derivative of the Mario Figure. He had a certain amount of technology that we had to fit in. That technology gave us the size to start with, and trickled down into the other characters. We experimented with moulded characters, like we do in other lines. It was actually Nintendo who also said ‘Lets try to have the characters be Brick built, because the line is all about creativity, and building yourself. They really liked these square characters (Jonathan picked up a Koopa Figure), but they needed a number of new elements to make them iconic. As for the number of new elements… can I get back to you –[Here is the list of NEW MOULDS in LEGO Super Mario, many of these appear in a variety of colours]

  1. Element for Toad’s + Mushroom’s Head
  2. Shell (used for small + medium enemies)
  3. 3×3 round element (used for shy guy face + in Bowser’s Castle)
  4. 4×4 x 2/3 base plate (used in all sets)
  5. Pipe (used in the LEGO Super Mario Starter Course + 71362)
  6. Arm (used for medium sized enemies)
  7. 2×2 Feet (used for small sized enemies + friends)
  8. 3×2 Wide feet (used for medium size characters)
  9. Face plate (used for Bowser Junior’s face + the sign in LEGO Mario’s House)
  10. Base plate 6×6 x 2/3 (LEGO Super Mario system for all sets)
  11. Base plate 8×8 x2/3 (LEGO Super Mario system for all sets)
  12. 2x2x5 element (used inside characters)
  13. 4×4 x2/3 base plate
  14. Regular LEGO Mario hat (used for LEGO Mario that comes with the Starter Course + )
  15. Spinner LEGO Mario Hat (used for Power-Up pack)
  16. Racoon LEGO Mario Hat (used for Power-Up pack)
  17. Construction Hat (used for Power-Up pack)
  18. Wing (used for flying characters from the collectable bags + in Toad’s Treasure Hunt set)
  19. Shell Plate 8×8 (used for Bowser)
  20. Shell with Spikes (used for Spiny)
  21. 2×6 tile (used in Bowser’s Castle)
  22. 4×4 x2/3 base plate with pre-applied tag (used in various sets)
  23. 2×2 tile with pre-applied tag (used in various sets)
  24. 2×2 round tile with pre-applied tag (used in various sets)
  25. 4×4 x2/3 base plate without studs with pre-applied tag (used in various sets)
  26. LEGO Mario pants regular
  27. LEGO Mario Power-Up pants X 4 (the four different Power-Up pants look the same on the outside apart from decoration, but they each have different moulding on the inside to activate the different reactions)
  28. LEGO Mario figure/body

William from Hothbricks: My child feels could only play by himself, there is no Luigi or secondary character for his friends play with; and he was also concerned about the stickers with the barcodes on the elements.: If I damage one, how could I get it replaced? -He was concerned that he would miss out on functionality if a sticker was damaged.

There is no multiplayer mode with LEGO Mario, but we do see that there is a lot of social play going on, automatically almost, when we do focus group test, or now that we have the product in select homes. It is quite natural to build levels together and play or enjoy it together. Traditional role play lives in your head, and you can’t really share it, but Mario makes the sounds, makes the expressions so you can gather round, and enjoy it together, and we think that there are going =to be a lot of kids building levels for their mum or dad to try when they get home, and kids or fans just inventing challenges themselves. We do imagineere that there will be a lot of social play, but it is asynchronous  – taking turns.

To the second part, about the quality. You know that at lego we are very concerned about the quality, and we have these robots that jump up and down on the figures, thousands and thousands of times, and they bump and they scrape – they do all sorts of simulations to make sure that however people are playing in the real world, that our quality stands up to it, these Stickers were the most durable solution. We also experimented with printing directly onto the bricks, but that scrapes off over time.

These stickers are preapplied. We can put protective coating over the stickers, and if you damage one, we would love to know about it: we have great customer service, and we would like to help you out, there.

Jetro from Hispabrick Magazine: The screen on Mario gives you some feed back on what you do in the game, but I wear glasses, and I’m not good at focussing on stuff during game play, or losing focus and concentrating on the activity on the screen, . Have you thought about reflecting the content of the screen inside the app, to give guidance so others can follow along during game play.

Thats an excellent idea.  First of all, when kids are playing, once used to Mario’s reactions, they play a lot by sound – so whatever reaction you get, or whatever power up he gets, has a unique sound, and picture on the screen. What we have found is if we get rid of the screen the experience doesn’t work at all, but during level play, kids don’t need to pay too much attention to the display, because they become familiar with the sounds, so I would encourage you to first try and look at the screen when you are first playing through, as as you get used to combining the visuals with the sound, you can most likely play without the visuals.

There’s not a lot of ‘onscreen information’ to be seen on the app during gameplay.

As for reflecting it on the app, we have also experimented with that. What becomes a bit of a  danger is if it becomes a very active part of level play. You would just look at Mario’s reactions on the App, and you would just start using him to scan the different bricks. We have tried it, and Mario just became a tool to get coins. This is not what this experience is about.  It was the project lead on the Nintendo side who actually said ‘Lets make sure that you, as a player, keep focussed on Mario as friend and as a live being rather than trying to maximise the reactions on the app. The App now goes completely black  – it is not part of the core play loop. We would like to keep it that way, but if we find that a lot of users like you are having troubles, we can update the product, but for now, this is what we found to be the optimum solution.

LEGO has been working with electronics a lot in the last few years, and  a most of it, recently, is Powered Up. I suspect there is some kind of a link to powered up in Mario as well, but I don’t know what it is yet. Do you plan to expose the sensor inside Mario, at some point, so that we can use it to integrate with other robotics solutions to trigger certain actions?

I can confirm that it uses the Powered Up Protocols. At this point in time, we don’t plan to [open it up ]. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do that in the future. I think that’s a great suggestion, and I will take this in and discuss internally what the pros and cons are, of doing that. We have to get Nintendo’s permission to do that. The reason that there are no engines/motors in the whole level play is that we wanted to make sure that everyone could afford the sets.

Thanks for your time Jonathan

Subsequently, I have been delivered the remaining sets in there LEGO Super Mario Theme. I’ll try to get most of them built and reviewed over the next few weeks, while we build up towards the LEGO Super Mario global release on August 1st 2020.

I’d like to thank the AFOL Engagement team for giving me this opportunity to take part in this workshop, and for providing the sets for my exploration and review.

Do you have any questions about the LEGO Super Mario theme – as it stands at present? What would you hope to see from LEGO and Nintendo in the near future? Leave your comments below, and until next time,

Play Well

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