If there are two things that defined my 1990s childhood (apart from Disney) they would be Nintendo and Lego. Like many millennials I have never entirely grown out of either. In a cabinet in my spare room sits a perfect Lego Simpsons house, miniature cityscapes of Berlin and London, and a blocky Mini. As for the video games, well, I’ve turned them into a career; I’ve been a games journalist and critic for more than 15 years, and own more Mario games than I’m comfortable admitting.
All of which means I am an absolute sucker for the Nintendo-themed Lego sets that came out this month. Aimed at younger Lego fans, the Super Mario sets (a starter set is £49.99, with an eye-wateringly expensive array of expansions, from £3.49 character packs to an £80 Bowser’s Castle) offer bright bricks that can be combined to make real-world Mario levels, and an electronic Mario toy who comes to life to jump around them.
These aren’t static bricky recreations like Lego’s Batman or Disney sets; they’re more like level design kits. There is more fun to be had after the build than during. Lego Mario is a great toy: he knows when he’s on water (blue), lava (red) or sand (yellow), and little QR-code like patterns tell him when he’s jumping on a Goomba or climbing the flagpole at the end of a level. These Lego sets are playable in a way that others aren’t, with reconfigurable level layouts that allow for the creation of imaginary adventures that sprawl across the living-room floor.
At 11 months my youngest is more likely to eat the bricks than admire their ingenious architecture, but a friend’s six- and eight-year-olds were captivated. (Of course they instantly became covetous of the expensive expansions; having spent a good 20 minutes browsing haunted Boo houses and Yoshi add-ons on Lego’s website after building the starter set, I could hardly blame them.) With other child-oriented Lego tie-ins – Star Wars or Disney, say – I’ve noticed that the completed builds often gather dust in kids’ rooms. The Mario series’ cute gimmicks offer more encouragement to actually play with it. Nintendo and Lego worked together on these sets, and this is the result of the meeting of two different but compatible philosophies of play: a physical toy with the some of the best properties of video games, choice and interactivity.
For adults with no children to use as an excuse to buy Lego, the astoundingly intricate model NES is the more tempting option (if also the vastly more expensive one, at £209.99). The NES was never the cultural phenomenon in the UK that it was in the US but still the sight of its boxy, incontrovertibly 80s form rendered in Lego bricks gives a little aesthetic thrill. It is such an enjoyable model, surprisingly fun to build for what is essentially a collection of grey bricks. The real attraction is the accompanying miniature TV, which – absurdly, enchantingly – features a brick recreation of Super Mario Bros on a rotating screen, like a drive belt or tank tread, operated by a little handle that makes Mario jump and stomp as the pixel-art scenery scrolls by.
This larger model sits half-built on my desk at work, because with little kids at home it is certain to get scattered across the room by a flying teddy bear or destructive baby before it reaches completion. I can hardly think of a better example of what Lego now means to different generations. There’s Lego-as-toy for kids, the bright bricks inspiring bizarre and playful creations; then Lego-as-architectural-model for adults, who spend quiet hours building blocky recreations of their childhood amusements.
These sets have got me thinking about different expressions of play – whether it be quiet hours spent at the kitchen table building a Lego castle or boisterous afternoons cross-legged in front of the TV with my brother, trying to complete Super Mario World together – and the great delight that awaits me in sharing these joyful childhood pleasures with my own children. My three-year-old son is delighted by Lego Mario, cackling at the little figure’s yelps of embarrassment when he pulls off his dungarees, insisting one evening he join us for dinner, a plate of bricks before Mario’s squat little body.
Right now I build for him and he plays or directs, splicing structures together with no regard for my precise constructions of the levels and towers on the box. I look forward to seeing him build Lego structures by himself, and to witnessing his first steps into the Mario video game worlds that ignited my imagination as a child.