Over the past decade, there has been an arms race in the theme park world. Universal’s Harry Potter area brought the Wizarding World to full three-dimensional life. Disney shot back with an Avatar-themed area with real floating mountains and one of the greatest simulator rides ever made, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the long-awaited Star Wars land that puts guests in an expansive, in-continuity adventure. And now, Universal is taking the trends of interactive, immersive storytelling to the next level with the big man himself: Mario.
Super Nintendo World, which opened on February 17th at Universal Studios Hollywood, brings to life the world of Nintendo’s beloved game series on a scale never before seen. Have you ever wanted to punch a coin block? You can. Throw a shell in Mario Kart? Go for it. Eat a big ol’ bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs just like your old pal, Mario? Just save room for the Mushroom Garlic Knots. The land was developed closely with Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto himself was involved in the design process, helping turn the land into more than just a place to ride an attraction or hug Princess Peach. This is a full-on, real-life Mario game.
I’m not kidding. Those coins you “got” from taking your picture hitting a question mark block? There’s an app tracking your score on a leaderboard. There are collectible stamps that act like achievements. There’s an entire game that you can only play if you collect three keys from other parts of the land. They WILL NOT let you in without those keys!
And so, if Super Nintendo World wants to be a real-life video game, we will review it like a video game. In this overview, we’re going to look at the Graphics, the Sound, The Gameplay, and yes, the Fun Factor, to let you, the gamer, know if walking through that warp pipe next to the Transformers ride is going to be a good use of your time. Let’s-a-go!
NOTE: This review is based on two visits to Super Nintendo World before its official opening, one during technical rehearsals and one during an Annual Passholder preview. I did not get to experience all the attractions and there were still some hiccups in operations. Things will most likely smooth out by opening day, so consider this an “Early Access” review.
The first thing you’ll notice as you step out of Princess Peach’s castle into Super Nintendo World is just how much movement there is. Everywhere you look, there is a Koopa or Goomba trotting along a path, a Thwomp taking a momentary pause before hurtling to the ground, or a massive Piranha Plant rising up out of the ground. The land crackles with kinetic energy, drawing you in to explore every nook and cranny and see who else might be around. The icon at the center of the land, Mount Beanpole, features multiple moving platforms and animatronics with the iconic end-of-level flagpole at the top. If you poke around, you’ll catch sight of a snow area, an underground cave, a desert zone just out of reach. Everything looks like it was ripped straight out of New Super Mario Bros, immaculately presented with bright colors and pristine detailing.
Even the line for the headlining attraction “Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge” charms, giving you plenty to look at while you navigate the large series of switchbacks. You start off in Yoshi’s Island, depicted in the iconic crayon-inspired style, before entering Bowser’s Castle to get ready for the big race. The castle is where true gamers will have a blast. There are so many references to Mario history packed in here, you’ll want to actually slow down a little and read the title of every book on the shelf.
It’s impressive just how well Universal Creative was able to bring the world of Mario to life here, and I hope the company really invests in keeping the place looking like it does at the opening. How will all of this fare after a year of sitting in the Los Angeles sunlight? What happens when a bean counter asks “do all those coins really need to be spinning?” But for now, I can confidently say you’ve never seen a theme park land like this before.
Also, there’s a robot Yoshi on Mount Beanpole. It’s so good. He just walks around in a little circle moving his little arms. Every time I saw it I would say to my partner, “Aw, look at Yoshi. He’s just having a good time.” What a chill dude.
Universal spared no expense in bringing the soundscape of Mario to life. Brand new orchestral renditions of songs from across the Mario series play throughout the land, though my favorite track is the 8-bit version of “Gusty Garden Galaxy” that plays just outside by a warp pipe photo spot.
All of the classic Mario voices are here. Universal wisely did not play any cross-promotional games and featured Charles Martinet as Mario instead of Chris Pratt. You’ll even get to hear a little monologue from the new character Chef Toad while in line at the Toadstool Cafe that will make you say “Wow, I’m not sure I wanted to hear this much dialogue from Toad!”One charming element quickly turns annoying, however: the coin blocks. Every time you hit one, it makes the iconic “ding” sound. Great! How fun. But there are dozens of blocks throughout the land, and people are punching those things constantly. I think you can see where this is going. You eventually tune out the coins, but it certainly makes the first impression a tad overwhelming.
Theme parks have been playing with interactivity as a major selling point for years now. You can buy wands at Harry Potter Land and “cast spells” on interactive elements, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge features an app that tracks your credits that you win on the Millennium Falcon ride and lets you scan lore dumps throughout the area. Super Nintendo World takes this concept a step further. You are not just interacting with the land, you are playing in it.
Throughout the land, there are mini-challenges to defeat classic Mario enemies. My personal favorite was a game where you have to put a massive Piranha Plant to sleep by working with a team to hit as many stopwatches as you can that are scattered around a small area. Each of these games reward you with a key, and earning three will allow you to take on Bowser Jr. for a final showdown. It’s fun, quick, easy, and encourages repeat visits.
This simplicity doesn’t quite transfer to the actual ride. In “Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge,” you don’t just sit as your Mario Kart races through a greatest hits collection of tracks ripped from the game, brought to life in full three-dimensional set pieces and props. You have to drift around corners and fire shells off at Bowser and his Koopalings in order to build up as many coins as possible. This is done through a wheel attached to your lap bar and an AR headset that places Mario and the gang onto the scenery around you. To shoot a shell, you just look at your target and press a button on the wheel.
It’s easy and intuitive, but it took me several rides to be able to focus on the AR characters. I never quite felt like I had a firm grasp on how to best hit the targets, and I often just wanted to ignore them entirely. There isn’t any force feedback to indicate a hit. This is also another recent ride from Universal that has a size limit, and larger guests may struggle to fit in the restraints. Considering this is a slow-moving ride that doesn’t require more than a lap bar, it’s odd to have it be so inaccessible to some audiences.
So, despite some quibbles with the ride, it seems like Universal has created the ultimate interactive Mario experience, right? Well, there’s a catch, and it’s one that gamers will know very well. That’s right, it’s microtransactions.
In order to activate any of these games track your coin count, or earn achievements, you must buy a $40 “Power-Up Band,” which is essentially a slap bracelet with an NFC chip at the center. There’s six designs to choose from, each corresponding to a different character (I, of course, picked my main man Yoshi). You scan the band into the Universal app, and then you can punch those coin blocks to your heart’s content. As long as one person in your party has a band, you can still play the group games like the Pirahna Plant or Bowser Jr. But if you want the full experience, be prepared to pony up. I also found that the band struggled to stay secure around my wrist, and I often reverted to holding it in my hand.
I strongly recommend you go to Universal Studios Hollywood to see Super Nintendo World. Despite the steep upcharge on Power-Up Bands and one somewhat disappointing ride, I believe it is absolutely worth the trip. This is a land made for Nintendo fans. It’s identified what is so fantastic about Mario and brought it to life. There is so much fun to be had here in just walking around and taking in the sights, listening to the music, poking around the hidden paths and corners.