Universal powers up Super Nintendo World. What Japan opening foreshadows for Florida, California lands

Super Mario Bros. and its many spinoffs have kept generations of fans enthralled. The classic video game and its characters, along with other titles in the Nintendo catalog, are firmly entrenched in popular culture.

On Thursday, the brand leapt off the screen and into theme parkdom when Universal Studios Japan officially debuted Super Nintendo World.

Universal also has plans to open Nintendo lands at its parks in California, Florida and Singapore. Construction is underway at Universal Studios Hollywood, though no opening date has been announced. Mario and the gang will reportedly also be part of Epic Universe, the fourth gate planned for Universal Orlando. Construction on that project shut down last summer amid the pandemic but recently restarted. It’s likely that many of the attractions and features in Japan will find their way to the other Nintendo lands.

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The conceit at Super Nintendo World in Japan is that visitors enter the digital realm and become video game characters. They are encouraged to interact with the dimensional, life-sized environment, which is filled with spinning gold coins, question-mark blocks, polka-dot mushrooms and other quirky elements known to gamers everywhere. After purchasing and donning a Power-Up Band, guests can punch blocks (which sometimes are located just out of reach and require them to jump up) to trigger effects. By pairing the bracelet with Universal’s phone app, users can track the coins and items they collect.

“It’s really the first experience that marries gaming with a theme park,” Thierry Coup, senior vice president at Universal Creative, told USA TODAY. “You’re not just passively observing. You’re deeply engaged.”

Over 100 animated elements, including piranha plants and mushroom-like Goombas, are located outdoors and give the land a sense of urgent, kinetic energy. More animatronics can be found inside the show buildings of the land’s two rides.

Combined with blips, dings and other synthesized electronic sounds along with blocky architecture lifted from video game environments, Super Nintendo World appears to have an offbeat, hyper-realistic, yet exhilarating vibe. “It doesn’t feel real. But it is real, and you’re inside it,” is how Coup explained the land’s ambiance. “It looks like the ultimate 3D illustration.”

Super Nintendo World rides in Japan

Looming over the pixelated, brightly colored land is Bowser’s Castle. Inside the villain’s lair, guests can board the ultra-sophisticated dark ride, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge. Using tricked-out vehicles, passengers get to race alongside Mario and Peach and against an opposing team on the dual-track course. Each rider in the four-person vehicles has a steering wheel and controller buttons to throw virtual shells. The attraction features physical sets that also use projection mapping to bring the video game world to life. But what truly distinguishes the Mario Kart ride is its use of augmented reality.

One of the first major park rides to incorporate AR, the technology is ideally suited for its video game theme. Passengers wear Mario caps that have see-through visors onto which computer-generated imagery is projected. Users see the media and experience it as if it exists in the scenic environment. It’s a breakthrough for theme park storytelling.

“The entertainment industry believed that augmented reality wasn’t ready for prime time,” Coup said. “But we are showing the world that it actually is.”

“There was a technology curve that we had to bend,” added Tom Geraghty, senior director, technology & innovation at Universal Creative. Despite the incredible complexityto pull off the AR effects for the attraction, the pair said the goal was to make the technology seamless and invisible.

Another breakthrough is that the ride vehicles are capable of drifting like their video game counterparts. That is, passengers experience the feeling of going sideways as the karts navigate a curve. The trick – and it requires the cooperative choreography of all four passengers – is to adeptly steer through a turn at the proper angle. About half of the score that passengers earn on the attraction is based on steering performance.

For the land’s second attraction, Yoshi’s Adventure, passengers board ride vehicles fashioned after the egg-laying dinosaur. Tamer and more of an old-school dark ride, younger children are able to experience it. Much of the action takes place outdoors in the Mushroom Kingdom.

Mario, Luigi, Peach and Chef Toad grace Super Nintendo World

It wouldn’t be a theme park land without characters, and Super Nintendo World features meet and greets with Mario, Luigi, Peach and the diminutive Toad. Their eyes blink, their mouths move, and they can talk. The tech-enhanced characters have a pretty cool way to start a conversation; according to Geraghty, because they are able to access the data in guests’ Power-Up Bands, the actors inside the costumes know what visitors have accomplished in the land.

Chef Toad oversees Kinopio’s Café, the land’s restaurant. As you might expect, much of the fare features mushrooms, including a pizza bowl that’s filled with the toppings. Following a beverage tradition perfected by Universal with its Harry Potter-themed Butterbeer, Super Nintendo World serves Yoshi’s Lassi, a yogurt-based drink that includes cantaloupe or mango.

The Universal designers know that games are always evolving. They also know that a land that is so heavily dependent on technology will need to introduce changes and keep the experiences fresh. Because they used a game engine to design the Mario Kart attraction, they can upgrade it, trade out characters, adopt different themes and take other actions “on the fly,” Coup said. “Anything we want to release can be done overnight.”

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