What can we expect from Universal's new Nintendo land?

September 17, 2019, 8:37 PM · Universal is teasing what could be an unprecedented level of interactivity in its upcoming Super Nintendo World. But will it improve upon previous attempts to make theme park lands into platforms for interactive play... or will it just offer more of the same?

For more theme park fans, interactivity means shooter rides, starting with Walt Disney World's Buzz Lightyear attraction. Disney also has its Toy Story Midway Mania attractions; Universal offers Men in Black: Alien Attack; Six Flags has its Justice League rides, and you can find many other shooter attractions from Sally Corp. and other vendors at theme parks around the world.

On these rides, you use a provided blaster or other device to aim and "fire" at designated targets in the attraction, whether they be on screen or practical. Legoland's Ninjago rides dispense with the weaponry, using a motion sensor to allow riders to interact with passing scenes using only hand motions. (It's believed that Disney will use a similar system on its upcoming Spider-Man ride at Disney California Adventure.)

With The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal took interactivity outside its attractions and spread it throughout the land. With special themed wands, fans can "cast spells" at dozens of locations within the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley lands. Disney ran with this concept of device-based interactivity in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, expanding the Play Disney Parks apps to become a "Star Wars Datapad" that visitors could use to take control of droids and spaceships within the land, read signs in the Star Wars language Aurebesh, and perform missions of assigned tasks.

Disney has been using device-based interactivity in its parks for years, including the old Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot, which started in 2006. That was replaced by a Phineas and Ferb-themed version of the game, which led players on a scavenger hunt-like tour of World Showcase pavilions using handheld devices. Old-timers might remember the Pal Mickey plush toy that came a few years before that, which interacted with hundreds of points throughout the parks in the Walt Disney World Resort. But that device did not require any significant interaction from fans beyond walking the toy past a trigger point and squeezing it to get the Mickey doll to recite some information about that location.

Eventually, Disney coalesced its efforts into the Play Disney Parks app, which allows fans to play themed games, answer trivia questions and interact with locations throughout the parks... mostly to kill time while waiting in queues. But a cell phone is not an in-universe item that supports the conceit that you are an actor within a specific destination, the way that The Wizarding World's wands do.

That's the biggest drawback with the Star Wars Datapad. In the Star Wars universe, it's the droids that hack, scan, and translate. Then people interact with droids by talking with them. A handheld communications device is something out of the Star Trek universe, not the Star Wars one.

In Super Nintendo World, wristbands will enable guest interactions throughout the land. "You are going to have a wristband that's got the big red Mario symbol on it," Universal Parks Chairman Tom Williams said at an investors' event last week.

"It's all magnetic. You slap it at your wrist and it just snaps on and it won't come off. And that allows you to interact throughout the entire land, which is built on three different levels," he said. "It's got the popular Bowser's and Princess Peach's Castle and all the different key elements. And you will be able to go up and keep score and play with the various games. That also translates to a score keeping capability, if you choose to do so, within the rides, and it actually interfaces back with your game console. So you can build on it and come back again."

The in-universe interactive device in video gaming would be a controller, but Nintendo has made hand-driven control a thing with the Wii, so having a wristband serve that function wouldn't be at all out of character. And the prospect of connecting in-park interactivity with game systems outside of the park could be revolutionary.

If I have one complaint with Universal's Harry Potter lands, it's that they do not connect with Pottermore or Wizards Unite (which don't connect with each other, either). I would love to be able to participate in a seemless Wizarding World experience that would connect all three. Perhaps Super Nintendo World might actually do something like that?

If it could, then this new land might at last realize the potential for extending theme parks from collections of stand-alone attractions into platforms for truly immersive storytelling. Parks have made progress toward that goal but no one's quite gotten there yet. Will Universal finally do it next spring in Japan?

Replies (7)

September 18, 2019 at 1:17 AM

If they do have Pokemon in at least Epic Universe, I was thinking it'd be cool if there were certain walk through attractions set up like the HHN exhibits, but instead themed to various Pokemon biomes, with a bunch of screens where Pokemon can appear and then you can capture or battle them and draw them out via time of day or whatnot all via your smartphone. Essentially, have you be able to live out a Pokemon game. Sort of like Pokemon Go, sure, but using clever Theme Park theming to set the mood and hidden screens or holograms to have Pokemon actually appear somewhat. Probably way too cumbersome to actually work well, but I think it'd be awesome if they somehow could get it to work

September 18, 2019 at 4:05 AM

With Nintendo working closely with Universal I think this could be a real winner. Nintendo is know to making very deep gameplay but suitable for entry level gamers. That is perfect for all kinds of guests. The connection with the console is a huge plus although it depends what it does, but it sounds cool. Everything is better than a mobile phone.

September 18, 2019 at 8:26 AM

I still think cell phones (and eventually VR/AR devices like Google Glass) are the future of theme park interactivity. There's just too much cost involved with creating a proprietary wearable that will never match the functionality of a mobile device.

The bottom line is that EVERYONE has a smart phone when they enter a theme park, and most parks are already training their guests to use them to view park maps, attraction information, show times, and much more. Trying to pivot to an internally developed wearable is doubling down on the past, not looking to the future, unless that wearable tech is going to integrate and serve as an extension of the park's smartphone app.

I was not a big fan of the Datapad at Galaxy's Edge, but can see the potential of the system. I see Robert's comment that holding a touch screen seems more Star Trek than Star Wars, but for me that's a pretty shallow argument, and easily rebutted by stating certain civilizations within the Star Wars Universe are more advanced than others (Star Trek has a similar conceit). The issues with the Datapad are mostly administrative with a translation feature that fails to utilize character recognition through the device's camera and interactivity that is mostly A.I. based instead of real human interactions with CMs.

I am intrigued by the integration of Nintendo game consoles into the interactivity, but I worry that the connection there will be very minimal. Nintendo hardware is always under-powered and lower tech than its competitors, and this rumored integration sounds like it might require more processing power than most current consoles are equipped with. Nintendo is just now launching a more mobile version of their Switch platform (called "Lite") that has less computing power than an iPhone 4s. While I'm sure Nintendo wants to encourage guests to buy their games and consoles as part of this relationship with Universal, grounding interactions to a game console is antiquated thinking that even rival console makers have started to understand - moving more towards mobile gaming and smart-phone integration.

Smartphones are the future of the gaming industry, and I think Universal's choice to ground their Nintendo World in a proprietary wearable and under-powered game console will inevitably cause it to be obsolete before it's a few years old.

September 18, 2019 at 11:14 AM

@Russell I agree the lack of character recognition through the camera for translation was one of the things that made me less inclinded to use the datapad app since it was tedious to type each character one at a time. However, the good news is that during my last visit to Disneyland about two weeks ago I noticed the app must have been updated because it had the option to translate using the camera. It doesn't use character recognition per se and if I remember correctly it uses some combination of GPS and image recognition. You essentially take a picture and the app gives you an image list of possible text that you're attempting to translate and you're able to select an image and then see the translation. In any event, it seems like a no brainer that the option to do something like that should have been included from the beginning but better late than never I suppose.

September 19, 2019 at 2:22 PM

This sounds dangerously close to something I designed years ago for TPA 6.1. Maybe I should try and get some royalties =)


September 20, 2019 at 10:54 AM

@Russell I see your point, but one of the issues with using smartphones in parks is the foreign crowds - me and my partner just visited Disneyland from the UK and I ended up buying a 1 month SIM contract in order to be able to use my phone in the US. Until everyone is on a phone contract (or pay as you go phone) that includes global roaming, or roaming charges are abolished, there will always be a percentage of guests that can't use certain attractions or experiences because they can't get online with their phones when away from home.

September 23, 2019 at 10:10 AM

@AaronianKenrod - That's what WiFi is for. Any device, regardless of region, SIM, or contract, can connect to WiFi. There's no dispute that certain parks lack sufficient WiFi coverage and/or bandwidth, but those are small potatoes compared to the cost of trying to internally develop a proprietary device. Cell phone/mobile devices are perfectly equipped to bridge the interactivity gap regardless of what continent the guests are coming from.

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