Universal's Super Nintendo World Changes the Game—In Both Delightful and Tricky Ways
Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood, which opened on February 17, 2023, is the most exquisitely designed section of a theme park in the United States. It's a clear leap forward in art direction, in technology, and in that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from what amusement park nerds call "immersion." The section, which is part of the wider Universal Studios Hollywood complex, absolutely crushes anything that Universal's competitor, Disney Parks, has ever done or has plans to do. If SNW is the future of theme parks, that's a future that it'll be a blast to be a part of.
But the land also expands on American corporations' new financial model of squeezing more money—far beyond the price of admission—out of each theme park customer. Super Nintendo World's extra charges might technically be optional, but if you don't pay them, you'll have a diminished experience. That change upends the one-price-buys-all economic model that has prevailed in U.S. theme park for decades, and it could double the cost of a day spent at Universal Studios.
You'll have to spend a lot more to fully explore Super Nintendo World—I'll explain how—but in return, you'll also get a state-of-the-art day out.
The first Super Nintendo world opened in 2021 at a Universal Studios theme park in Osaka, Japan, a logical first home for the franchise, because it was Japanese programmers who originally devised the Nintendo world of video games. At this point, Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, the villain Bowser, and the their candy-colored Nintendo characters are the equivalent of contemporary folklore to just about anyone who ever played a video game from 1981 onward.
Super Nintendo World is made to feel like you've been dropped in front of your childhood game screen—towering multi-level walls teem with familiar characters from the games, who march back and forth on multiple layers, just as they do in the Super Mario and Mario Kart game series. Take, for example, this Pokey, who wriggles and wobbles as he oscillates on a parapet in a pitch-perfect physical reproduction of what millions of kids have previously only seen on screens.
Even you've never played a Mario-world game, you'll still find the sheer immensity of this built environment fascinating, weirdly beautiful and worthy of admiration. Those who have played will find it uncannily and whimsically accurate.
The area's sole ride, Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge, is a spinoff of the beloved go-cart racing games. The queue area, pictured above, is set in the castle of the evil tortoiselike villain Bowser, and as you wait to board, you tour the factory where he makes the various ridiculous weapons that function as the games' hazards. The waiting area is gorgeous and delivers nonstop sight gags.
The motion won't challenge your body, but the narrative will challenge your brain and your reflexes: Riders wear special visors that project video game characters into your line of sight no matter where you happen to turn your head.
As you scoot along, the real-world sets interact with the animated computer characters in your goggles, providing sensations as if you're moving inside a video game. The object is to use the buttons on your steering wheel to shoot animated koopa shells (like empty tortoise shells) at any enemies you see. (But don't hit your good-guy friends like Yoshi and Luigi—if you hit them, you lose points.) If the group on your cart scores more than 100 points, you're declared the winner, but if you fail to meet the mark, Bowser is declared the champ.
Even though there's still room to upgrade the visor's graphics and the field of vision, the concept is unique and extremely trippy, and the combined technology makes other shooting-gallery rides, like Universal Orlando's Men in Black and Disney's Buzz Lightyear rides, look as primitive as knocking over milk jugs at a carnival.
Having prior experience playing Mario Kart will help you recognize locations and know whom to shoot at, but even if you're from the chunky Atari 2600 era, you'll marvel at the combination of advanced technologies. Better yet, because your ride depends on how well you battle the villains, each time you get on, it will be a little different.
Once aboard, lenses for the projections, which are stored on the steering column, snap onto your visor with magnets. The visual system requires lots of behind-the-scenes maintenance and cleaning (consider bringing your own sanitizer), but the specialized equipment makes the attraction feel like even more like a major event.
Anyone can ride Bowser's Challenge without spending extra, but only people who pay more will be able to save their progress and add to it over multiple visits using the Universal Studios Hollywood app.
How is that done? Check out this guy's wrist. He's wearing a Power-Up Band, a special add-on souvenir sold inside the park. Splurge on $40 to get a band (when the land opened, there were six styles—he's wearing a Mario), and it will sync your info to your smartphone to track your achievements. (Yes, yet another theme park wants you to tour it with your phone in hand—so pack that extra battery.)
When you bop a band underneath one of the many Question Mark Blocks throughout Super Nintendo World, just like Mario bumps coin and power boxes in the games, sensors sound chimes and add even more coins to your virtual purse. Your app will tell you how much you've got, and public screens installed in the land track visitors' score progress.
The Power-Up Band may technically be optional, but the minute your kid spots other people using them, it'll be "game over" for your wallet.
Each Power-Up Band (this one is a Yoshi) comes with a stylized map to the hidden tricks in Super Nintendo Land. Even with the map, it's not easy to tell where all the activities are or how to engage with them.
Back in 2014, Universal began the in-park handheld accessory arms race—if that's the phrase— with its interactive wands that activated silly tricks around The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley. Those proved so popular with kids that the wands' functionality was expanded to other Harry Potter areas.
Universal's competitor Disney has attempted to sell more visitors on its MagicBand+, but its bracelets do very little, are confusing to set up, and can be plagued with app-based glitches.
Super Nintendo World's Power-Up Bands, though, trounce Disney in user-friendliness. Each band is extremely easy to set up: An included QR code automatically syncs it to the free Universal Studios Hollywood app (so download that first), which works smoothly and intuitively to track progress. Once you give yourself a name in the app, you can start tapping that wrist everywhere.
Make no mistake: The pressure to buy a Power-Up Bands is immense. There's a prominent bank of vending machines (pictured above) just for buying them. If you collect all six, you'll have spent $240.
Harry Potter wands and MagicBands may be optional where they are used, but the Power-Up Band is the only way to enjoy Super Nintendo World as it was imagined. For the first time, guests at a major theme park must purchase an add-on souvenir to gain full access.
In four spots around the land, Power-Up Band users may activate brief games which, once won, add a virtual key to their portfolio. Accrue three of these keys and you'll get access to a special final game (described below).
The game pictured above, Piranha Plant Nap Mishap, is an aerobic version of Whac-a-Mole that involves bashing the tops of alarm clocks to turn their color from red to white. The other games, all of which require some elbow grease, are Goomba Crazy Crank, the Koopa Troopa POWer Punch timing challenge, and Thwomp Panel Panic, which has you racing like a madcap Vanna White to turn lighted panels from one color to another.
There's a lot to unpack with this development—for one, we can expect a lot of wear and tear in Super Nintendo World. With so many robotic characters and rough-and-tumble games, Universal faces huge demands for its maintenance budgets. In the past, the company has generally met those operational demands well in delicate areas like the Wizarding World, but SNW presents complexity and the potential for breakage on a whole new level.
The other thing to watch out for is lines. Most people who buy a Power-Up Band will want to play the games to unlock keys, and that means there will be waits for each one. When the land opened, Universal capped the number of visitors on a timed schedule, and reservations had to be made in advance using the app.
That adds one more wrinkle to a visit: You have to plan ahead. The days of simply strolling into a theme park without advance plans are now as distant as hooking a Pong console to the back of your TV.
Collect three keys out of four (staff will verify your collection with a tap of your Power-Up Band), and you'll gain entrance to the indoor battle with Bowser, Jr., the Bowser Jr. Shadow Showdown. In that, you stand before a giant screen and a souped-up version of shadow becomes a player in a short group video game.
The app (pictured above are three different screens) tracks all kinds of achievements, from dozens of stickers (which are like merit badges) to coins (points).
The only way to score many of the stickers ("Visit Super Nintendo World during December," "Ride Mario Kart 5 times," unlocking easter eggs in the ride) is to spend the money to return for additional visits. It's almost as if the challenges have been churned out by a diabolical group of Bowser's henchmen dressed up as Universal accountants.
Even the food hits new achievement heights. Check out this Nintendo-ized version of a caprese salad, rendered as a man-eating Piranha Plant. You almost hate to eat it.
This dish, and many more that are just as whimsical and ingeniously conceived, are sold at the Toadstool Cafe, where you order at a counter and wait for it to be delivered to you in a themed indoor dining room. It's so original and such an intrinsic part of the Super Nintendo World experience that it's always crowded.
Outside of the Satu'li Canteen in Orlando's Animal Kingdom, there's probably no theme park restaurant in America that is this original. We hope Universal is able to maintain this level of artistry during the daily grind of operating a theme park.
You can still grab normal, everyday food in other parts of Universal Studios Hollywood, but it'll be hard to pass up the opportunity to taste (and share on social media) dishes as quirky as the so-called ? Block Tiramisu, the Super Star Chicken Salad, the boba-rich Super Star Lemon Squash, pictured above. All the other dishes are just as eye-popping.
Eating at the Toadstool Cafe is an integral part of Super Nintendo World—so you'd better budget another wad of cash for the food. The meal you see herecost a whopping $33 during the land's opening period.
We're not complaining. We wish all theme parks put as much thought and effort into being so transporting. But budget accordingly: If you buy one Power-Up Band and one meal, you'll have already added another $75 to your daily tab, and that's on top of admission and parking. And you still have souvenirs to go.
All the swag is found in the 1-UP Factory. And there's some fun stuff, from intricate Mario Kart-themed popcorn buckets to adorable jumpsuit-like hoodies that look like Mario and Luigi.
To give you a sense of prices, those yellow Question Block pillows are $30. Everything is as adorable as Japanese kawaii culture demands.
The first time you saw Mario waddling up those steel girders to stop Donkey Kong, I'll bet you never thought that one day, little children around the world would beg for plush versions of the Italian plumber to cuddle.
Even the restrooms are themed. The one for men goes with the theme from the underwater levels from the Mario games, complete with a musical underscore to match.
We never understood how a squat Italian handyman was always able to hold his breath for minutes at a time, but as long as the toilets remain clean, you won't have to do the same.
The Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, for those who are unfamiliar, shares its campus with its namesake Universal Studios, where movies and TV are made, and the grounds are scattered up the side of the mountain behind the Hollywood sign in the middle of the Los Angeles area.
Everything you've just seen is packed into a cramped section of the Lower Lot of Universal Studios, where movies have been made since just before World War I. Back then, tourists could pay a quarter to sit on bleachers and watch silent movies being made. Now, people who put a quarter into arcade games can visit a whole world based on the games.
Comcast, the parent company of Universal, decided to demolish some historic structures (including Stage 28, the reportedly haunted soundstage where 1925's landmark The Phantom of the Opera was shot) to clear what little room there is for Super Nintendo World. Several of the features present in the Japanese version had to be cut for space.
But a much larger iteration of the land is on its way. In Orlando, Universal is deep into construction of Epic Universe, a full theme park that's slated to open in 2025 with a Super Nintendo World of its own. California's version is but an abridged version of the major compound that's on its way to Florida, which will reportedly include extras like a show-moving Yoshi ride and a Donkey Kong-themed roller coaster.
Consider Hollywood's Super Nintendo World to be a trial run—not just of the land and its operational aspirations, but also for the new tactic of forcing American guests to spend much more, beyond the admission ticket, to be able to experience a theme park properly.
Super Nintendo World brings the industry several giant leaps forward, and it's the new benchmark for what's possible. But for guests' budgets, it's a sign of much more expensive days ahead.