[ My Blog ] Super Mario Brothers Aquarium

I didn’t plan on showing the internet my Super Mario Brothers aquarium until it was completely finished and stocked, but someone on my Facebook page got a little excited and posted it to Reddit. You can guess what happened after that.

For the past couple of months, I have been working on this aquarium after being inspired by a similar tank my friend showed to me a few years ago that had also circulated the internet. I was 23 and living with my parents at the time, but so clearly remember him posting the picture to my Facebook wall and challenging me to recreate it, knowing my crafty background. I promised I would, but not until I had a place of my own, as a 55 gallon aquarium in a small, second-story bedroom would be disastrous. In the meantime, I was able to acquire the tank from said friend, who’s mother originally used it to house a bearded dragon that had outgrown it.

A year later, I moved into a little house with my boyfriend, Jay, thus kickstarting this project and its long journey to completion. Between a layoff, the start of a small business, job changes, and the everyday tasks to ensure our house remains standing and our cats alive, it took about another year before I really got to work on it, but it’s finally here!

This post will provide you with progress shots and detailed descriptions on how I went about making this tank, start to finish. People are constantly asking where they can purchase this set up and I’m here to remind you that you can’t - everything was handmade and constructed by me. It took a crap-ton of planning and, thankfully, just a tad bit of math, which Jay so kindly did all the work assisted me with. And aside from the Legos being an ungodly amount of money, the set up was also relatively cheap.

During the initial planning stages, I took a look at all the old games Jay and I had in our collection to see if there was a game, other than Mario, that I could possibly recreate a level from within the tank. Our first thought was The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, but I soon realized there weren’t enough visually engaging structures within each level, like castles and flags, like there were in Mario. Considering this would be the first thing people would see when walking into our house, we wanted it to be not only recognizable, but awesome to look at. Just a backdrop and some paint/vinyl thrown on the top and bottom wouldn’t have been something to be proud of. Plus, you have to remember there were living things going into this tank, living things that required enough hiding spaces to feel safe. Ultimately, we went back to Super Mario Bros. and I decided on World 8-1 (I’ll explain the change in plans later).

So I got to work on the very bottom of the tank, hand painting the bricks along the bottom strip to resemble the ground within the level. Looking back, I’m continuously wondering why the hell I didn’t do this part in vinyl, but I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out nonetheless. Just some brown, black and white acrylic paint, along with an entire roll of painter’s tape to get the lines straight, was enough to compete this step.

Bottom Rim

[ LARGE CASTLE ]
World 8-1 had one large castle at the beginning of the level and a smaller one at the end, so I started constructing the large one as my next step. My tank is a 55 gallon long, meaning it’s less wide than other 55 gallons, but longer for more space to swim. Because of this, Jay I had to do a few measurements and calculations to not only make sure the castle would fit into the tank, but still have the correct amount of “windows” like it does within the game. I am absolute shit at math, so if you're trying to recreate this you’re own your own here, but it varies anyway depending on the size of your tank.

It was built with a combination of brown 2 x 4 legos and some 2 x 1’s. Unfortunately, brown Legos are like the Loch Ness monster of the Lego world and I was only able to obtain them 40 minutes away at my “local” Lego store. And the 2 x 1’s? They were available at said store in every other color except brown, so I actually mixed in a few brick red ones, but made sure they were kept along the sides or back of the castle so they wouldn’t stand out. It was pointed out to me recently that the 2 x 1’s are now available individually online in some places, but I can assure you, I googled the shit out of them and they were no where to be found at the time that didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

Speaking of which, the Legos were the most expensive part of the project. A “large” cup of individuals is $15 and a small cup is $8. I went through about 8 large cups and maybe 4 small cups (for the whole project, not just the big castle), so prepare your wallets.

Large Castle

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It was here that I stopped working on the tank for a bit, as I got laid off from my full-time job and started up a small business selling gaming related goodies out of complete panic for a lack of income. Luckily, the business was extremely successful considering it was the holiday season and I was later offered a new full-time job, where I am currently working as an interactive designer/developer.

It didn’t take long for me to become annoyed with the partially finished, enormous empty tank sitting in the middle of our entryway, so I finally felt comfortable enough to get back to working on it.

[ BACKDROP ]
This is where the change in plans (levels) happened. The tank obviously needed a backdrop (background), as what’s a Mario level without all the fun pixelated clouds and hills? I started searching for the sky color in large rolls of paper so the scene could be seamless vs combining multiple pieces of paper together, making it look like it came out of a kindergarden art project. Despite my efforts (i.e. a lot of hours googling), I was unable to find the correct color paper for the sky in World 8-1. It has a purple tone to it and being a perfectionist, anything not exact was unacceptable.

I was kinda at a dead stop here and went back to the drawing board to review other levels within Super Mario Bros. After much consideration and some discussion with The Pixelist team we agreed World 1-1 would be the best. It’s recognizable, nostalgic and had plenty of structures to be visually engaging for anyone seeing it in person (and for us who had to look at it every day). I wasn’t a fan of recreating a level that had previously been done by someone else, but I was determined to make it better.

So the backdrop paper was purchased from Amazon. The roll was as tall as me and it contained enough paper to re-color our house, but it was surprisingly inexpensive ($20). A trip to Michaels allowed me to purchase the card stock for the additional designs within the background (clouds, hills, etc) and I was ready to start piecing it together.

Tank

I have a bachelors of science in Graphic Design, meaning I have the entire adobe suite on my laptop that I work in on a daily basis. Using Adobe Illustrator, a vector based program, I re-drew a section of the background so that I could bring it into my die-cutting program to be cut. I had 48” to work with, so a couple of measurements determined the size each hill, bush, and cloud would be.

Backdrop Screen

Having everything in vector format made it much simpler to bring into my die-cutting software, Silhouette Studio, as the program has a trace feature and vectors are always of the highest quality. For me, this meant no pixelation would be picked up by the tracing function like it would if I had used, say, a .JPG. Once the pieces were all traced, I sent them to my machine to be cut out in the correct colored card stock. For the black outlines, those were cut out of vinyl and stuck on to their corresponding piece.

Cutting

With a light coating of spray adhesive, each hill, cloud and bush were attached to the measured and cut background paper. To make sure it was waterproof, as filters and fish tank things tend to splash everywhere, I took it right to Staples and had it laminated for $17.

Backdrop

[ SMALL CASTLE & DETAILS ]
Despite the level change, I still needed to construct a small castle, as World 1-1 had one at the end like 8-1. I built it relatively the same way I built the larger one, but only using the top/middle tiers and being sure to include the “windows.”

Small Castle

With each castle completed, it was time to add the brick details. After interrupting Jay’s game of League of Legends approximately 100 times to ask him what the line on the ruler was, I measured each side of each castle and also each tier, making the lines in my die-cutting software and cutting them out of vinyl. I applied the horizontal lines and vertical lines one by one until both castles had beautiful brick work.

Details

[ PVC PIPES ]
I spent an odd amount of time searching Lowes for the perfect PVC pipe to create the pipes found in Mario. Being a tiny, 13-year-old-looking girl in a hardware store, I had to ninja my way past every store employee to avoid the inevitable “can I help you find anything?” question. “Yes hello I’m looking for a PVC pipe that looks exactly like this one in Mario. Plz respond” would have been an interesting part of that employee's day to say the least.

Stupidly, I went to Lowes on my lunch break without planning out the measurements prior and purchased two pipes that ended up being the size of the small castle, so a second trip was needed before finding the right size. It was surprisingly difficult finding a pipe that didn’t bend or curve or have more than one opening at the top - I give plumbers credit for having to learn each one of these because there were approximately 4,000 types. For the actual pipes, I ended up going with two “adapters,” which I believe are an inch in diameter. To make one pipe slightly taller than the other, like in the game, I purchased a one inch diameter “coupling.” I didn’t want the adapter to fit into the coupling, but instead be the same size to avoid a weird bulging overlap - because of this, I also grabbed a can of PVC pipe glue to stick them together. Everything I got was in the “PVC Pipes and Fittings” aisle.

To give them their color, I spray painted them in a lime green spray paint - a couple of coats did the trick. To give them their darker green shading, I re-drew the shading, measured to the size of the pipes, in Illustrator and once again used my machine to cut it out of vinyl. To add a touch of black outline along the lip and underside, I used a few of my left over vinyl lines from the castle details.

PVC Pipe

[ STAIRCASE ]
Using more of the brown 2 x 4 Legos, I was able to construct the staircase. I really didn’t bother to spend any time measuring or planning it out because I wasn’t worried about it not fitting in the tank. Instead, I built it until I found a height and width that replicated what it was in the game - slightly taller than the castle, but slightly shorter than the flagpole. I again used my machine to cut out more black and white strips to make the shadowing/highlighting details on the structure and placed them on by hand, following the lines the Legos already create when pieced together.

PVC Pipe

[ FLAG ]
The flag was a bit more difficult than expected; finding the materials at least. The first thing that came to mind for the pole was a rock candy stick, but I couldn’t find one long enough to be the length I needed without the price being silly. After some browsing in Michael’s, I came across lollipop sticks - they were perfect design wise, but I was worried about deterioration in the water over time. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find the plastic kind, so purchased the wooden-like ones (not the paper kind) in hopes the enamel I would be spraying over everything would protect it.

For the ball at the top, I bought some rock candy (that I was going to buy anyway) and dismantled the ball on the end of the stick, hot gluing it to the end of the lollipop stick. I can’t say hot glue is the best choice in this instance (you know, being under water and all), but I’m giving it a shot anyway. If it fails over time, it’s quite simple to rebuild. The stick and ball were painted with their respective colors.

The actual flag was made, once again, out of the magical material vinyl (seriously you can do anything with this stuff). I recreated the flag in Illustrator, both the white part and the two green peace signs, adding a few extra millimeters in the middle so I could wrap the white part around the stick and have the two ends meet perfectly. I went back and forth on aesthetics, debating whether or not to make it the pixelated verizon or more realistic and smooth, but the decision was pretty clear.

Flag Screenshot

Flag

[ TOP DESIGN ]
After purchasing the two aquarium hoods for the tank, it started to feel real. The tank was almost complete, but something about the rim at the top was looking pretty lame - it certainly didn’t fit the theme.

It was here that I turned to Reddit - the more people exposed, the more ideas I would have to brainstorm with. Painting it blue was a popular choice, as was painting the bricks from the bottom on. My favorite idea, however, was the suggestion to do the row of clouds you encounter in certain levels - the ones that you discover after traveling up the mysterious block vine. It was brilliant.

Clouds

There were abut 100 of these little dudes cut out in vinyl. I cut the white part separately, then the black outline - putting them on one by one.

Clouds Row

I even left a space for the vine, which I totally fell in love with once I made it and stuck it on.

Vine

[ LEVEL SPECS ]
Per some additional suggestions from Reddit, I added the level specs to the glass part of my tank (in vinyl of course). I spent a little over two weeks, consistently, on this project, plus the time I put in before taking a bit of a break, so put the estimated amount of hours under the "Time" label. World 1-1 obviously represents the level I based the tank off of. Number of coins will eventually be the number of fish I have when I get to that point and I am still unsure of what the score should represent. I feel like this part really tied everything together, especially since I got it to go on straight.

Vine

[ MAKING IT FISH SAFE ]
The biggest qualm I've been receiving regarding this tank was whether or not everything was safe for the fish that would inhabit it - the short answer is yes. Thanks to going to a technical high school, I actually have quite the background in aquatics, spending 4 years "majoring" in tank maintenance and fish care. I understand that chemicals from the spray paint and other materials used are hazardous to fish health, and hours of research for this tank can also back that.

While Legos are actually fish-safe on their own, the paint and glues and vinyl I used is not. To ensure everything was water proof and non-toxic, each piece was sprayed down with Krylon Fusion, a clear coated enamel that's been proven by many auqarists to be safe and long lasting. While Krylon themselves don't recommended or guarantee success (to cover their ass), results from people using this for many years say otherwise.

Krylon

[ ALMOST COMPLETE ]
Fish are the only things left for this tank to reach full completion. Despite being low on funds (tfw recent graduate with crazy student loans), I was able to purchase the filter I needed for a good discount, which was the one thing holding me back from getting the tank to function. As soon as it arrives, I will be adding the water and cycling the tank for about a month to ensure safe water quality levels, then purchasing my fish.

This was definitely the biggest project I have ever tackled before and I couldn't be more proud of how everything turned out. Crafting is a hobby of mine, as are aquarium set-ups; bringing gaming into it was just icing on the cake. For those looking to recreate this tank, I hope this post helps! Despite the amount of work required, it is definitely a full-filling, unique and awe-inspiring piece to have within your home.

[New tank image]

Check out the frequently asked questions below for additional information. For further questions, please feel free to comment below and I will answer them as they come.

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[ FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ]

1. Y U NO DO UNDERWATER LEVEL!?!
This is by far the most common question I get. Obviously this came to mind, but as I researched each water level, I found there weren't many objects or structures I could build to put inside the tank. Fish are naturally shy, like to hide and can actually die from stress if they don't have somewhere they can get away. The castles will provide protection for the less dominant fish in the tank, especially since the main fish I’m putting in is an Electric Blue Jacks Dempsey, which are highly aggressive and territorial.

And also because fuck the water levels.

2. Is this tank safe for fish?
In case you didn't read the post: This tank was built with a combination of Legos, vinyl, and spray paint. Legos are actually quite safe for tanks, but the other two are not. Because of this, every piece has been sprayed down with aquarist recommended Krylon Fusion clear enamel.

3. Where the hell are the fish?
While it’s pretty much ready to go, aquariums need to be “cycled.” This is when the good bacteria establishes in your filter/tank that will help keep all the water levels at fish-healthy levels. To cycle the tank, I have to pretend to feed non existent fish. The ammonia from the food will build up in the water, jump starting the cycle. It takes a good 4-6 weeks for a cycle to fully complete before the water is safe for the fish to be added. Cycling cannot be done until the filter is present and since I just acquired it, this process has yet to start.

4. What kind of fish are you putting in it?
My main fish is going to be an Electric Blue Jacks Dempsey. These fish are a type of cichlid, which are territorial by nature, so I have to be careful about what else goes in. I have also decided on a Dinosaur Eel and freshwater Butterfly Fish, as they will fair well with the Jack. I'm hoping to also get some schooling fish in there such as Rainbow Fish or Danios to stock it well.

5. What the hell is a die cutter and where can I buy one?
The machine I used is called the Silhouette Cameo. It's a small scale die cutting machine that cuts any type of paper, card stock, vinyl, some fabrics, sugar sheets, cork board, and dozens of other things. It's accompanied with free software called Silhouette Studio, which allows me to bring in my own artwork as vector format (or just simple JPGs), trace it, and cut it to whatever size I want. It's $300 new, but totally worth the investment. I had the original model, the Silhouette SD, and both machines paid for themselves in a month or two with the projects I made and sold.

6. Do you sell these?
Currently, I have no "kits" in stock and unless there is extreme demand (or a good price offered...HINT HINT), I don't plan on listing them anywhere in the hopes people buy. The Legos themselves are pretty costly and shipping would most likely be a nightmare. I will however, be more than happy to sell the files/illustrations I created for the die cutting machine and other pieces. Just send me a message if you're interested.

7. Do you have any future projects planned?
I'm always working on a project, so there will be plenty more in the future. In terms of fish tanks, I want to do a small The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past theme for my betta fish tank at work. It won't be as grand and large scale as this tank, but fun nonetheless.

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Sig