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Saturday, May 18, 2024

We Build the LEGO Super Mario: Bowser's Airship, Which Triggered a Memory From Three Decades Ago

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The partnership between LEGO and Nintendo caters to two specific audiences — children still innocent enough to play pretend and adults who grew up on Nintendo and want to relive their nostalgic memories.

The Bowser's Airship expansion is the first set to target both audiences nearly equally. It is compatible with the other sets in the children's line. But it is also more cohesive, singular, and display-worthy than any of the sets before it. as if it was designed to stand alone.

LEGO Super Mario: Bowser's Airship Build Part 1

When Nintendo and LEGO first announced their partnership in 2020, I expected more replicas of childhood artifacts, like this recreation of the original Nintendo Entertainment System along with an '80s era television set. The number of visually iconic Nintendo properties — Hyrule Castle, Ridley from Super Metroid, the Arwings from Star Fox — lent themselves, in my mind, to brick interpretations. But instead, the partnership has resulted in many more LEGO Super Mario playsets, which promote a peculiar amalgamation of physical play and digital interactivity.

It starts with the LEGO Super Mario starter set, which also comes with the LEGO Mario figurine that drives all the interactive elements. It is motion-sensitive and has LED displays for its eyes. If you lie it down on its side, it goes to sleep and snores. If you tap it along the ground, it makes walking sounds. Lifting it upwards makes a jumping sound.

All the LEGO Mario sets have printed barcodes on them in strategically placed areas, and when LEGO Mario "stomps" on them, they make a corresponding, interactive sound. Stomp on a Goomba and you'll hear it "smush" under your feet. Stick Mario in a green pipe, and you'll hear its 8-bit suction sound.

The goal is to build the ultimate Mario course, with as many varied, interactive elements as possible (hence the expansion sets). The more interactive elements you stomp on within a set amount of time, the more coins you earn. LEGO Mario syncs with a digital app on your phone, which contains all building instructions and tracks your most lucrative runs.

My 6-year-old son Michael's record — he has several expansion sets — is 158 coins. As you might expect, the more expensive the set, the greater the coin earning opportunities.

LEGO Super Mario: Bowser's Airship Build Part 2

There is nothing preventing Michael from simply jumping from barcode to barcode, or spamming the jumps on them to rack up the score. The game's "rules" are entirely self-enforced; he makes the decision to treat this coin collecting mission as if it were a real, interactive course. And he does; he trots the LEGO Mario figure from location to location, from trap to booby obstacle, creating a full storyline in his head as he proceeds.

As an adult looking in on this, it is at once odd and charming to see this play out. We are used to seeing digital entertainment as passively interactive. But LEGO Mario is an odd combination of physical and digital, and requires the child to interact with something tactile and buildable at all times, which is what I like most about it. It's not press-and-go; he has to imagine the scenarios and enact them, which to me makes all the difference.

Here is a story that my son has told, via his actions, with the LEGO Bowser's Airship. I've bolded the interactive elements and inserted their respective special effects noises in parentheses:

Mario needs to commandeer Kamek's airship, high above Peach's castle. Mario starts by launching himself out of a massive cannon (cannon explosion, airship music from Super Mario Bros 3). Mario knocks down the ship's mast (brick smashing), triggering security. A Pirate Goomba attacks, but Mario knocks off his hat, and stomps him (smush sound). Kamek gets involved, but after an epic battle Mario knocks him off his broomstick and defeats him (smush sound). He then flies off with Kamek's broomstick (magic wand sounds from Super Mario World). He destroys the massive Bowser head on the ship's aft (brick smashing). There's one last enemy, the Rocky Wrench behind the steering wheel. Mario hits the POW Block (POW Block sound), which throws the Rocky Wrench out of the cockpit. Mario defeats him (smush sound) and sits in the pilot's seat (Sky World song from Super Mario Bros. 3). The ship is now Mario's. Next stop, Bowser's Castle!

That's one of the hundreds of variations, especially if you mix and match elements from other expansion sets. It is whatever your child wants it to be.

It is possible to enjoy this build solely as a playset. But there is something else that sets this airship apart. The other Mario expansion sets are very open-air and sparse; the interactive elements occur widely spaced apart, giving your child and LEGO Mario plenty of room to improvise, jump, and play. Bowser's airship is a dense build with its elements closely bunched together. You can open up the completed ship via hinges to give you some more playroom, but not much. The final product does not look like the other playsets; it looks like an adult LEGO build, designed to sit on a shelf or coffee table.

The build process is fairly simple and straightforward, though fun. For an experienced builder, the most interesting parts are the bottom of the ship where you lay down the LEGO Technic rods and pins that ultimately serve as a folding hinge, allowing you to open up and close the ship for easier access. When free building, I frequently use LEGO Technic to reinforce a build and make it stronger. But using it to create a simple lever machine? That's something I want to try more on my own.

The airship has great decorative elements. The lanterns on the side are a nice touch, and the red reinforcements near the top of the ship contrast well with the wooden brown at the bottom. The Bowser heads on the fore and aft of the ship are appropriately imposing. The ship is sort of rounded and cute with stout proportions, as befitting the Mario universe. When my son wasn't playing with it this weekend, I found myself looking at it absent-mindedly and smiling.

Then this morning, looking at it rustled a childhood memory. I remembered getting a Super Mario 3 strategy guide in 1990, compliments of my subscription to Nintendo Power. It was a thorough book with lots of hand-drawn artwork. And seeing this chubby LEGO ship triggered a memory of a specific picture in the guide — a mob shot of all the Koopa kids on a single airship. Wendy O. Koopa was winking, and I remembered Lemmy and Iggy were hanging off the side, or maybe off the anchor.

I looked around, and I found this PNG of the original image floating around on GTA Forums in a 2019 post. Someone had added in Bowser Jr at some point (either Nintendo or a dedicated fan, as it's clear from a cursory search that the image is a favorite one of fans to try drawing on their own), but there was no mistaking it from what I saw in that official Nintendo strategy guide from over 30 years ago. Looking at the LEGO Bowser's Airship, I knew I had seen it somewhere. And no doubt, this was one of its inspiring images.

UPDATE: I went into my garage and dug through my old issues of Nintendo Power (yes I saved them all), and I located the original image. Clearly, I have a little Mandela effect going on; it doesn't look exactly the way I thought it did. I probably saw the redrawn image at some point in the last few years, and I conflated it with the one I saw in the guide three decades ago. But there you go.

I can easily imagine an adult buying LEGO Bowser's Airship, independent of the LEGO Super Mario Starter set, and enjoying it for what it is. Take away the printed barcode bricks and replace them with same-colored bricks, and there would be no way of telling that this airship was ever connected to something else. It stands on its own, as a reminder of our 8-bit days, when its physical impossibilities captured our imaginations.

The LEGO Bowser's Airship, Set #71391 is composed of 1152 pieces and retails for $99.99. It requires the LEGO Super Mario Starter Set to bring its audio-interactive elements to life.

Kevin Wong is a LEGO aficionado. Talk about your favorite sets with him on Twitter at @kevinjameswong.

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