Can you play with LEGO Super Mario without LEGO?

Hi, I’m Dan. Together with my partner, Saki, we run Playfool, a design studio with a mission to create opportunities that spark imagination and cultivate creativity through play.

As you can imagine, I’ve loved seeing Nintendo’s recent innovative and creativity-stimulating experiments such as Nintendo LABO, the latest of which being Lego Super Mario. Using special, interactive bricks, you can build all sorts of courses for Mario to hop around, collect coins and smash some goombas.

While the set was fun to build, unfortunately, the overall experience wore thin quick. Perhaps I’m just too old, but even for kids, I think there’s still a lot of untapped potential. So I want to push the possibilities of Lego Mario a bit further, and it starts with reverse engineering the barcodes.

Lego Mario’s magic lies in the little barcode scanning camera nestled in his bum. The codes themselves comprise of 29 lines, 0.2mm in width and spaced 0.2mm apart. Each holds a unique sequence of colours, which tells Mario whether it’s a goomba, question mark block or some other action.

LEGO Mario from the bottom

This sort of tech isn’t new to the toy world. Sony’s Toio uses virtually invisible codes to move around these little cubes, creating a magical and mesmerising result. But the good thing about these more obvious and colourful barcodes is that they’re much easier for me to replicate.

Goomba’s barcode from the sets.

The simplest way I can do this is just by taking a photo. After snapping goomba’s barcode, I scaled it to the original size and printed it out on some ordinary paper using Adobe Illustrator. Even though the print resolution isn’t as good as the real deal, Mario still doesn’t seem to have a problem reading it.

Printed barcode picture

The next step is to print more of the barcodes but this time I’ll recreate them from scratch. So I started by creating a line pattern identical to the original. To make sure the colours are accurate I used the companion app, which let us easily screenshot and eyedrop the exact hues.

Eyedropping the exact hues using the app

We then repeated this process for all the barcodes of the starter kit and created the blandest course imaginable: I got the start, followed by a goomba, question mark block, cloud thing, rotating thing, Bowser Jr and the goal. And it worked perfectly! So now that I’ve managed to successfully counterfeit an entire course, how can I take it further?

Testing all the barcodes from the starter course.

Well, it turns out that the barcodes don’t need to be contained within this little square, in fact you can supersize them and Mario will react wherever you place him. The barcodes are no longer just tiles but a whole new crafting material, which we can tear or cut into any shape or size. As long as it’s bigger than the original bricks, Mario won’t have any problem recognising it.

Now, what makes this really interesting is that we can begin to use Lego Mario outside of the box (or err should I say brick). So we went a little further and made some barcode stickers which you can easily slap onto anything and transform it into a functional piece of the course.

Turning the barcodes into a crafting material.

Now that we’re no longer bound by the brick, you can make a homemade crafty course integrating LEGO and paper craft of their own making. I’ve shared the printable barcodes available for everyone here. So have fun!

Hand crafted warp pipe with our own printed barcode inside.

You can watch the whole process and the crafty course here and follow our Twitter / Instagram for more Playfool-ness!

Co-founder @studioplayfool. Co-creator of @itsalivegame