Lego Nintendo NES set interview – beautifully retro and surprisingly interactive
GameCentral talks to the designer of the new Lego Nintendo set about the replica NES console and other future collaborations.
Nintendo and Lego always seemed like a perfect match, as soon as they announced they were teaming up together. And the line of customisable Super Mario sets, that were their first announced project, is just as imaginative and unpredictable as you’d hope from such a team-up.
But Lego has always hinted that that’s not the only thing that will come from their partnership and while we’ll have to wait and see if other franchises are also immortalised in Lego, for now there’s this… a brick-built Nintendo Entertainment System.
The set comes complete with a console, controller, cartridge, and an old school TV playing Super Mario Bros. But rather than just being a static set the whole TV screen moves, as if animated, and even makes the right sound effects if you attach the Super Mario minifigure to the top of the TV.
The set is a big one, with 2,646 pieces and a price tag of £209.99, which is about what you’d expect for a licensed set with this many bricks.
Lego’s never cheap but this set is one of the best we’ve ever seen and the effect of Mario moving, as the level scrolls past, is super clever, especially as all you’re doing to make it move is turn a crank at the side.
It looks fantastic and we got the chance to speak to designer Maarten Simons about how he made it and what it’s like to work with Nintendo.
As ever nowadays, the interview had to be conducted via Zoom but Simons showed us how the TV mechanism worked. It uses an elongated cylinder with the level on the outside, which fits into the top of the TV and is then turned around by the crank, which in turn moves the Mario ‘sprite’ up and down as it moves over the terrain.
The cylinder also has coloured bricks at the top, so that when the Super Mario minifigure is on top of the TV it can detect what they relate to (a goomba, a coin, etc.) and then make the appropriate sound effect.
While the Super Mario play sets were a direct collaboration with Nintendo they took more of an advisory role with the NES, after Lego pitched the idea to them. But even then, they were apparently very insistent over the details, especially the Mario sprite piece.
‘That took us a lot of time to get correct. They were very particular, and rightfully so,’ said Simons. ‘We tried to get it pixel perfect, just as with some of the other decorations in there. But that’s something where we really needed their advice and we had quite a few loops round on it, more than we expected.
‘That is where their eye for detail was very obvious, they even looked at the printing and element shapes down to the millimetre, which we do not always do with a partner.’
Although the controller is almost exactly the same size as the original the console itself is a little smaller, although apparently not even Nintendo noticed the difference unless the two were placed next to each other. And despite what it looks like there is only a very small number of unique bricks made for the set, with the controller cable being a black pneumatic tube used in other Lego models and the aerial also being used before in Technics sets.
The great thing about how the moving image works though is that, because it’s all Lego, it’s completely customisable. So anyone can change the layout of the course or change it to represent any other side-scrolling game.
‘It actually is a moving mosaic’, says Simons. ‘I’m not sure if we can claim that we’re the first one to ever do something like this, but it’s something we came up with when we had the idea of the NES, when we knew we needed to make a moving screen.
‘When we were building this, we knew the thousands of super-skilled Lego fans we have around the world would be able to make their own versions. We just made one section of one game, but in principle with a bit of creativity, and a lot of time and passion, you could make your own and even have a whole game.’
Even without talking to Simons it’s obvious the two companies have a lot in common: they’ve both been around for decades, both are beloved by both young fans and old, and both are well known for their attention to detail and creativity – and their obsessive secrecy.
‘I’ve been in quite a few licensing projects over the years at Lego and every partner is different. But I think what we realised when we were working with Nintendo is that they could almost be Lego colleagues. It was that feeling after we got this project going, that their philosophy is also ‘only the best is good enough’. [Lego’s company motto – GC]
‘If they had something that they said needed to be improved they wouldn’t let it go until we worked on it. Even though in the beginning, we might not have been paying it the same amount of attention. And that’s what they brought to the team, their very, very deep level of experience.
‘The play experience they have is a different kind of play experience than we have built up over the years but merging that was… I’m not saying it was always easy, it was definitely an exercise from both sides, but I think it worked very well.’
The question for many fans is what other collaborations might be coming in the future. So far, all the Lego sets have been based purely on Super Mario, with no other games represented and no traditional Lego minifigures…but that’s not necessarily going to be the case forever.
‘I do not know exactly what is in the contract between the two companies’, admits Simons. ‘But I do know we very specifically wanted to work on Super Mario first and to get that right, get that out, and not clutter things up with even any of the side games in the Mario universe. But obviously there are a lot of opportunities. There’s a ton of other good ideas we have that we could also work on.’
What those other ideas might be Simons wouldn’t say, but he did admit that the idea of a Famicom – the Japanese version of the NES with a completely different outer design – was floated, although there was apparently no serious thought to releasing it as a set. Other consoles though might be a possibility.
‘When we were looking at all the console there’s, of course, a lot of very iconic Nintendo consoles out there, from the Game Boy to the SNES to the newer formats.’
Although when we implore him not to make the grotesquely ugly American SNES, which looked very different to the Japanese and European versions, Simons laughs in agreement, ‘Let’s see, there might be better choices out there.’
The Lego NES is out on 1 August – the same day as the Super Mario line launches – and is available directly from Lego stores and the official website.
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