We have spent a lot of time lately focussing on the LEGO Super Mario sets. They have been quite a bit of fun to play with. And quite unlike any lego product I have played with in recent time. But the builds are mostly fairly simplistic, and don’t challenge the patience at all. Which is fine: because it really is an example of otherwise building toys to play with. Sure, the Lego Mario characters are not minifiugres, the sets didn’t come with adequate printed instructions and after a while, the joyful tones of the Mario figure start to drive the rest of the family to distraction.
Of course, I find the mixture of LEGO with Nintendo to be a little incongruous. The rise of video games in the early-mid 1980’s was associated (purely coincidentally) with the end of my childhood fascination with LEGO. Most of the friends that I had who owned a video game system at home were likely to own the Australian equivalent of the Atari 2600, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS). While this was the console my friends had access to, the NES seems to have produced some of the more enduring characters, over the years.
I first met Mario in 1981, as the Nintendo Game and Watch platform was becoming a craze. Some people I know owned several of these hand held games (which also had an onscreen clock, hence the name).
I owned Chef – a single screen game which necessitated keeping pancakes in the air. The cries at dinner time of ‘I’m in the middle of a game’ must have driven my parents and other relatives crazy. But Mario: at this time, debuted at the Arcades, and was now appearing in the first bifold handheld game: Donkey Kong.
I only ever had the chance to play the game when visiting friends. But not before they had achieved a maximum score! It kept me entranced: running up the girders, jumping over barrels, getting to the top and then jumping for the hook that was holding Donkey Kong up. I only managed to complete the game a couple of times, but it’s a memory I continue for cherish.
As I said before, I entered my dark ages probably around 1983-84. This probably had nothing to do with the rise of video games, but coincided with me discovering computer programming and a love of Victorian era operetta.
But this is not that story. I was delighted to receive the opportunity to build this set, courtesy of the AFOL Engagement team at the LEGO group. It is a fairly big set: 2546 pieces. It is a big box! It has a picture of the completed model: NES, remote and TV on the front, while on the back, it demonstrates the gamepak being placed into the console. I do find myself thinking it odd that the LEGO Group have now produced a set, based on one of the video game systemds, that might have provided the Danish building bricks with competition for a child’s ever diminishing recreation hours, as years went by.
On opening the box, the volume is half occupied by another plain box – containing a number of the bags, as well as the two instruction manuals. There are 3 loose elements in the box: a dark stone grey 16×16 plate, a medium stone grey flex tube, and a long, black piece of pneumatics tubing.
Bags are numbered 1-21, but there are a total of 26 bags of elements: two more than there are levels in the original version of Super Mario Bros.
With the able knolling assistance of Mrs Rambling Brick, I sat down, and started to put the set together. The first book (and bags numbered 1-8) build the NES console, controller and Gamepak. It opens with a discussion of what the designers set out to achieve, and a little about the console, as well as the scale of the model.
We started with the 16×16 plate, and started to build up, around I, turning the plate, and building out as we went. The second bag added the base of the cartridge slot, and gave us the starting elements of the ‘push down to eject’ mechanism. As a kid, I had pulled apart the occasional tape recorder, trying to understand the eject mechanism. I never managed to put them back together. I still don’t think I could replicate it, but I am glad it is possible to replicate in LEGO bricks.
Building Up the base
The next two bags blue up the bottom layer of the NES console itself. as we build up across the layers, we add some features, to what might have simplistically been referred to as a bland grey box. But we see the start of some interesting features. As well as the eject mechanism, we see the introduction of several ports: the Audio/Video jack on the side of the console, to allow it to be connected to any obsolete television. To the front, we build ports for the controller to plug into: a couple of clips, surrounded by square windows. The rear of the build sees us installing the power jack, amongst other connectors. These imitation RCA sockets, and sockets for a nonexistant power pack look very close to the original versions, but are perhaps just a little smaller than the real thing.
From here, I moved onto bag 5, which looked a little strange…
Easter Egg I: Waiting For Warp Zones
Bag 5 feels a little less substantial in its contents compared with previous bags. It primarily builds up the vented part of the plastic case to the right of the card slot. to the right of this, we start laying down some teal tiles, plates and bricks, as well as install some green round bricks. I was uncertain what to make of this, until I was presented with this image, from the end of World 1-2 in Super Mario Bros…. Its the path to the warp zone.
I love this homage to a part of the game that many would have been proud to achieve, back in the day.
From here, bag 6 aims to complete the upper layer of the console, with the exception of the lid: we start with a cover for the warp world, and move across to the other end of the console, where we build up the side of the case.
Next, we set to work on the lid, as well as the GamePak. The lid features a hinged front, ensuring we have access to the slot to insert our game pak. Along the top of the console, we encounter a few of the new 2×6 tiles, this tile in medium stone grey.
The Game pak goes together quickly, and features two of the three stickers included in the set: and they occupy the role of stickers from the real world: labelling the game cartridge. The comparision is not perfect, but its a pretty good imitation.
Getting Things Under Control…
Finally, its time to put together the controller and take the console out for a spin.
There are a number of printed tiles here: something no amount of SNOT building and fancy font work could achieve in a brick built fashion at this scale. A few more 2×6 tiles help to line the sides tof the controller
Finally, its time to put together the controller and take the console out for a spin. Printed tiles, red buttons and a cross shaped controller button make this feel about right.
The 2×2 round tiles might be slightly larger than the buttons in real life, and the use of the stud with handles as the start and select switches might be a little smaller than you expect, but it feels pretty good in your hands. Of course, controllers back in the 80’s predated wireless technologies.
(Kids: if you are reading this, the plastic tube between the controller and the console represents a series of wires, covered in plastic insulation that communicated which of the buttons on the controller were being pressed, to the main console. The original controllers had slightly longer cables than this, because, as our parents always old us, if you sit too close to the TV, you will get square eyes. This has not been borne out to be entirely, medically, correct. The absence of these wires, today is referred to as ‘wireless’. Now, get off my lawn!)
There is a degree of satisfaction to be had opening up the lid at the front of the console, inserting the cartridge, and clicking it into place. Then clicking it again to allow it to be ejected. I may have repeated this significantly more times than was necessary.
I took the finished console to my nearest television set, and switched it on…(Okay, truth be told, my kids own a Nintendo Switch, and have access to a library of NES titles) But it felt so right!
This console, and this TV seem a little…incongruent. Lets try to set up a television in a matching style.
For the younger readers, in the day before OLED, LCD or even plasma flat panels, or rear projection, we used a technology called a cathode ray tube: electrons were fired from an electron gun, guided by a magnetic field, and struck a phosphorescent panel. In colour televisions, there were three colours of phosphorescent channels for the electrons to strike: red green and blue. The channels were masked to prevent crossover of different colours across paths. Resolution of such screens was restricted to around 480-580 lines by 720 columns., as opposed to 1080 in high definition displays, or 2160 in modern 4K displays. the ratio was typically limited to 4:3 (until the early 1990’s when wider aspect screens started to arrive on the market – a trick of the light allowed the ‘wide screen’ to be achieved by producing wider pixels on the television (ok- they were made wider) – giving a visible aspect ratio of 16:9.
On these machines, channels were changed using a dial (occasionally pre programmed buttons – linked to a set tuning), which directly adjusted the frequencies of signal received. Other controls related to colour and contrast were directly linked to potentiometers, typically rotary, but some models used sliding versions.
Antennas in televisions of this era might be plugged into the wall, but many televisions of this era also had a built in antenna, and directing that antenna for optimal reception was somewhat of a black art. The correct length, angle and bearing were often secret knowledge possessed only by the most senior electronic technicians, and hours of careful work could be ruined by a seven year old, curious about the world, in seconds.
It was uncommon until the mid 1980’s to even consider the value of audio and video line in (or audio out) – when video recorders would become available. Until then, an RF (radio frequency) converter with televisions lacking the appropriate connections. HDM was still the better park of 2 decades from receiving widespread acceptance.
Televisions were typically monaural output – stereo appeared in the mid 1980’s – and surround sound was still a thing that was exclusively a cinematic experience – after a fashion.
But I digress. this was really just to let you know what to expect from a retro TV, and why it looks a bit different compared to the one in the earlier picture. Now read on…
Building the Television
As you start to build the television, it becomes obvious, very quickly, that there are elements that will be seen on the inside, and elements that will be seen on the outside! The visible parts of television cabinets tended to be somewhat subdued and sedate: imitation wood grain laminate, or bloack. It becomes safe to presume that any brighter elements in this part of the build will be disguised, deep in the build.
We start with a black plinth, that will evolve into the cabinet as we build upwards. A medium stone grey barrel, with a ‘flick fire’ missile down the middle becomes the antenna input. I was surprised to see just how effectively this parts usage was in resembling the real world equivalent.
Frome here, we start to build up the walls of the cabinet – in black and reddish brown, as well as the mechanism for moving the screen image.
The set also includes 3 of the new (wish) 2×4 bricks with technic axle holes – introduced last year as part of Spike Prime. We add in a collection of gears which serve to turn a vertical post on the right hand end of the cabinet.
There is also a ratchet mechanism added in – with a technic peg connector resting on a 24 toothed gear – lying in wait until the user attempts to wind the handle backwards. this prevents the handle from being rotated anticlockwise. This mechanism strikes me as an odd decision, as it does mean that the tan peg is placed under stress when the handle is wound in reverse. In Creator models of years gone past, mechanisms have existed where reverse power would simply result in the gears disengaging. I wonder if this might have been a better technique to use here. Although, it might not have been practical in the space available – or risked damage to the mosaic itself, and I can see that a lost tile from that could really clog up the works!
The red and yellow studs again resemble the RCA jacks for the audio and video in quite nicely
Our next bag is full of black and reddish brown elements: we are predominantly building up the cabinet.
I particularly appreciate the way the the 4×4 triangular wedge plate if used to provide stability to the corners of the cabinet, particularly when there are a of panels in use on one side of the corner. The use of offset plates and 2×1 plates with a rail, alternating with 4×1 plates gives the effect of venting along the back of the TV cabinet, providing the necessary passive cooling. This step is capped off with the installation of the antenna, acrefully crafter from a long piece of grey flex tube, capped off with an apollo stud (the one with the hole in) and a round tile. If we were aiming for stark realism, these would need to be laquered silver. But I think we can accept this is a LEGO representation of a bygone era.
Still, our final investment has been significantly greater than such a television would have cost, either then, or now!As such, I think it is reasonable for this to look a bit more like LEGO elements, than a perfect model of a television.
Finally we add on the back to the television. : covered in vents, there is also a sticker covering the 6×6 black tile here. This sticker, there information about the television’s performance specs /model number etc might be recorded, is intact, I suspect, covered in Easter eggs.
Easter Eggs II: Happy Birthday?
On the label, there are a collection of letters, followed by numbers. The front of the instruction book for the NES shows us the designers for this set: Daire McCabe, Pablo Gonzalez and Leon Pijnenburg. On this sticker we see DM71374 PGG1307 and LP1311. Could these be coding birthdays? (13th July 77; – do DM and PGG have the same birthday?). The other date that seems important is Manufactured in Japan 15.7.1963 – represents the date of release of the Famicon Computer System – the Japanese Predecessor of the NES. (The original product announcement for this set was 14th July, Making it into the morning papers on in th 37th Anniversary of the original release of that product. There are a number of other initials on the label – 20 in total. Can you identify any of these initials? Do they work for LEGO oir Nintendo, or Both? Does it incorporate the design team for the entire LEGO Super Mario Range?
Otherwise, the actual specifications on the sticker read a little odd: 9V DC? Maybe, if you are going to attach a Powered Up Motor to it. 9Hz would certainly be too fast for the rotation. However, the screen ratio of 16:14 studs, and a diagonal measurement of 6 1/2 inches is consistent with the model.
The Scrolling Screen: a Moving Mosaic
Over the next few bags, we put tothether the scrolling screen: part of the key play element with the retro TV: we take no fewer than 60 large chain links, joined into two rows of 30.
We then plug this new 1×4 plate, with 2 pegs, into the rack. This provides a more secure element than 2 technic pins with stud, connected to a 1×4 plate. These are then joined to the other row using a stack of plates.
In between the single stud columns, we place a row of 2×16 columns. At the top of some of these columns are coloured tiles on right angle brackets. The final mosaic resolution is 45 x 16 studs.
Over the next 3 bags of parts, we set about putting the mosaic: there are lots of dark orange tiles representing the ground, as well as medium blue for the sky. in between, there are some plates, which tiles are mounted on, giving a sense of depth to the mosaic.
There are multiple printed tiles in the mosaic,: Goombas, Red Koopa shells, star power, super mushroom and coins, as well as ‘?’ boxes, and the warp pipe. Of these, the warp pipe is the only one which does not have a corresponding sound produced by Mario, when the set is copleted.
Completing the mosaic/game play is made easier by clear documentation in the instructions, just taking things a few columns at a time. It certainly made it easier than dealing with a larger picture to put together – and the experiecne was more enjoyable than I had expected it to be.
We install our rolling mosaic into the TV cabinet, and secure it in its Fram. then we start work on the faceplate for the television itself. We have some more printed elements: some obvious labels for a colour television from the 80’s, as well as the starting point for some dials and knobs.
While the faceplate is coming together, we install a ratchet mechanism which serves to give the channel selector a ‘click’ feel – this is the first time I have seen a flexible element used in this way.
The speaker grille, essentially a collection of 1×1 plates mounted on a 10×4 plate are inverted thanks to the tile with plate at right angles element, introduced in the Minecraft big-figs last year.
We also install Mario: Mario is an odd element:I would suggest that as far as fitting into the system, he is stranger than anything dreamt up by any minecraft designer…
He has an extended antistud underneath. This is connected to a transparent rod, with a dish attached beneath that. The dish rides flush with the scenery, allowing Mario to jump over obstacles as they approach. The actual pivot connection is onto a 1.8mm bar, inserted into a Technic peg/stud connector – allowing a very low resistance pivot.
Finally, we build the TV stand, and add the final tiles to the top: this is inverted, with studs all facing downward. The Television has two plates on the bottom, which slip into the spaces seen on the top of the stand. Once in place, it is fairly sturdy.
When we close it all up, the television looks a little like this:
The handle on the rear right of the cabinet can only be turned one direction, and as you do, the scenery scrolls underneath Mario, on the screen.Watching Mario jump over the obstacles, as he moves across the screen is very satisfying. Unfortunately, the element supplied as a crank handle did not seem to have a good clutch on the technic bar, and frequently slipped off. I contacted customer care about this, and a replacement is on the way. Time will tell how well it will fork as a replacement. I have used the crank handle from the Roller coaster in its place, and there has been no slippage.
As you could see above, there is a plate on top of the television: this can be removed, and reveals a scan code for Lego Mario. After scanning, we hear the Mario theme music start playing. Mario adds the appropriate sounds, according to the tiles at the top end of the scrolling mosaic.
I placed Mario on top of the TV’s barcode tile, in the middle of a timed game, and found he would not register the code during game play: a shame really: it could be a bit of ‘Meta’ fun, adding in the scores from the on screen game to the game in progress.
It would not be too much of a challenge to modify the level, perhaps changing to the mushroom kingdom or an underground dungeon – although the sounds would not be consistent with the ‘dungeon music’ played in the subterranean levels of the game.
Overall I really enjoyed the build process for this set: it took me around 8 hours all up, and being able to seperate the processes of the NES and television was also useful. I find the combination of the constructible level/mosaic/artwork, combined with the kinetic sculpture to be reminiscent of the Forma concept which was floated a couple of years ago: At the time, LEGO made a crowdfunding project available in the UK and USA for a fish themed kinetic model, with different skins available – including one which could be coloured in by the builder.
This in turn is fitting in with a current narrative to be found in the 18+ sets – ‘triggering nostalgic memories’, or ‘looking for an immerive creative project to leave you feeling revitalised’
I certainly find myself reaching for the console, just to click the cartridge in and out a few times, and hold the controller. In the mean time, I can’t walk past the TV without turning the crank handle on it a couple of times.
But you need to look at why you might look to get out of it.
As a LEGO set, in brings about the nostalgia of a simpler time (who would have thought we would go back to consider childhood/teenage years in the 80’s as a simpler time); it provides a substantial building experience and presents us with two interactive sculptures of culteral icons from the time. For a set providing this level of building experience, $349.99 AUD feels appropriate. This does not change the fact that in a year where we are seeing a massive global economic downturn, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still a significant expense. And when viewed in the context of the other sets aimed at the adlt demographic this year, it is becoming increasingly important to target your purchases.
If retro gaming is your thing, you can access many NES games through a subscription on the Nintendo switch (which, if you were playing Animal Crossing – New Horizons, with friends you already have.) OR if you want the real thing, a replicated console with an abundance of games can be bought for under $100. If you are after the effect of playing Super Mario using an original console on a CRT TV, you can probably achieve this for under $400AUD. Less if you look properly – rather than take a casual Sunday morning eBay glance like I did.
If you are looking for a way to occupy a few evenings, with a creative project, and Nintendo was part of your life growing up, this is a good way to do it.
Of course, the set does feel somewhat ironic: as I entered my dark ages as a teenager (around the mid 80’s), we started to see the rise of video games as an entertainment medium. To a certain extent, it was felt that these new fangled gadgets were robbing children of the creativity that they had previously nurtured through play with LEGO. To see the object at the centre of such accusations from my youth now recreated as a licensed LEGO set feels somewhat strange.
For me, however, I give it 4 out of 5 Arbitrary Praise Units. On the whole I found the build satisfying, and the play features of the sculptures (because, ultimately, that’s really what they are – scupltures, not play sets) are engaging to use. It was an interesting combination of a technical build, extended mosaic, and nostalgia hit. Adding the Lego Mario Brick to the final build is fun, but doesn’t really add anything that you have not already seen multiple times in the promotional material for the set.
This set, aimed at adult builders, is allegedly available through LEGO branded retail stores. If it is in stock. It has 2646 elements, and costs AUS $349.99 – NZD $399.99 – US $229.99 – CA $299.99 –DE €229.99 –UK £209.99 – FR €229.99 – DK 1799DKK.
While this set is currently a LEGO Exclusive, the company has spoken about a wider release being likely in 2021. In which case, it might turn up at a reduced price at some point. I’d love to know your thoughts – just the right amount of nostalgia, or just a little too expensive? – why not leave them below, and until next time,
This set was provided by the AFOL Engagement team of the LEGO Group for review purposes. All opinions are my own.