Go Inside the Making of Universal's Super Nintendo World

March 17, 2021, 5:30 PM · Six years in the making, Super Nintendo World officially opens on Thursday to guests at Universal Studios Japan.

To prepare for the grand opening, Universal Parks and Resorts today hosted an online press interview with two of the creative leaders behind the land: Thierry Coup, Senior Vice President and Chief Creative Officer for Universal Creative, and Tom Geraghty, Senior Director of Technology and Innovation for Universal Creative.

Here is an edited transcript of their responses, which detail Universal's work on designing and building Super Nintendo World, starting with Tom's description of the entry to the land.

Tom Geraghty: We're set back on a lot which gives us a walkway of quiet solitude. You see some scores in the ground; you see some numbers that are release dates of games. It's a green pathway. You come up to the warp pipe, and you understand that's how you're magically going to enter into this land.

You've come out through Peach's Castle onto the Mushroom Concourse, and you see Mount Beanpole ahead of you. Your first couple of blocks are there. Princess Peach is over there to meet, your first character. It's an incredibly moving experience - the kind of thing I think we've seen when people enter [Hogsmeade] or Diagon Alley or another experience. It's so immersive.

Thierry Coup: [That] is probably the most breathtaking moment in any theme park experience. That's my favorite one, and every time I walk through that, I just cannot believe that view. It doesn't feel real, but it is real. You're inside it. It looks like the ultimate 3D illustration, and everything is moving. Every time you go through it, it's still an amazing moment.

Thierry: The seamless integration of the gameplay within Super Nintendo World is really the result of having the team create this state-of-the-art technology which is the Power Up band. This Power Up band really allows us to completely fuse the physical world with the gaming world and bring that to life. Once you wear this band within Super Nintendo World, everything around you - your entire world - becomes interactive, and you're gonna feel exactly what it's like to be Mario in the game.

You go on Mario Kart and we've taken interactivity to a level that has never been achieved before in any ride - extremely complex - but we want it to be invisible. What it does, it takes you into into level of experience that only your dreams could imagine before but now it's happening around you. You're inside it. You're one of the main characters in this story, and you don't know there's so much technology behind you.

Tom: To build on that in with the characters, many, many, many, patents were earned by our teams throughout this. Our characters are costume characters perfectly representative of the characters: Mario, Luigi, Toad, Princess Peach. They have animated eyes and they can actually talk with you - in Japanese; it'll be English when we come to America, They will greet you. They will ask you about your experiences. Your Power Up band is how you're introduced, so that they know what you've done. It's just magical. Toad, I think, is everyone's favorite. Toad is this little thing, about four feet wide, and if it wasn't for Covid, everyone would be hugging him.

Luigi and Mario
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Japan

Thierry: I think the entire entertainment industry believed that augmented reality wasn't ready for primetime, but we're showing the world that it actually is. We had to invent our own augmented reality to create this incredible Mario Kart experience, and truly I hope it's going to inspire a lot of people, a lot of different entertainment venues around the world, and show them how incredible this technology is.

Tom: The Power Up band is a Nintendo Amiibo, so you can put it on your Switch and you'll get a Princess Peach costume for the characters in your game or whatever. Also, the app has leaderboards. My interns would say, I fell down the leaderboard, and I can't wait to get back on the weekend because I've got to go back in and get my score back up. You can keep track of those things from home because the app works everywhere.

Mario Kart was built in a game engine, so while Thierry was back in the States, he could actually drive Mario Kart here in a game engine, and give us notes in Japan, so we also used all that tech in the design and delivery process.

Thierry: Because it's in a game engine, we can keep updating, upgrading, putting in new characters, changing themes, changing actions on the fly. So if there was a special event, anything we want to release, [that] can be done overnight, if we really wanted to. That makes it so much more flexible, and again, it freshens up the experience every time you come back you could experience something new and exciting.

We really wanted to understand the gaming philosophy at Nintendo and how they approach their game design. So it was different than looking at it as if it were a film property or any other type of story. That's changed from the very beginning. We wanted to really understand and intrinsically design our experience with the understanding of what the Nintendo fans love and want to expect.

Ultimately we brought the best of our knowledge in theme park and experiential design, combined with Mr. [Shigeru] Miyamoto and his team's video game design. So that was really a different approach from the beginning. We wanted to ensure that the interactivity was taken into consideration very much from the get-go. So our ride vehicle for Mario Kart was designed with that in mind from day one - how do we make this ride vehicle interactive, which is very difficult to do - very challenging - but we did it.

It's a different approach, and, of course, at the end, it's why this is so unique, and it's taken the theme park experience to a whole new level.

Tom: One of the few things that was the same was, we say, what are the key expectations of our guests? They want to punch a block; they want to drive a kart; they want to meet Mario and Peach; they want to eat at Kinopio's Cafe. When people go to a theme park experience, there's a few key notes you have to hit, to make sure that you entertain them in a way they expect, and then you have to delight them by going beyond that. What Thierry mentioned was absolutely the key, which is they come at it from a very similar place - what can the technology do? Can my creative go farther than that?

Miyamoto-san, he had bigger ideas than the Switch could deliver, so they had to pull back on his ideas. But then he challenged the tech guys to get there, and I think the same thing happened with the creative ideas and the technology [on Super Nintendo World]. Can we can we make the AR wider? Can we make the field of view deeper? So there's the entire difference, which is the video game property in the deep, deep, deep interactivity, and there's the basic - I think we designed one of the best theme park experiences ever, by keeping an eye on those key expectations.

It also has to be modular, because augmented reality isn't going to last as long as most of our 15- to 20-year ride vehicle experiences. We know that [AR] is going to advance and come into your home, and we need to keep beating that, so we have plans to iterate the tech to support the creative that we may change, so that it can be like that.

Thierry: We thought AR would be the perfect technology for this. You want to be able to go through some of the incredible items in Mario Kart. You want to collect things; you want you want to see the characters fly at you, and certain things you could not do with with with stereo or 3D or any kind of other projection. It had to be AR, and we went and we looked at what was existing on the market. It wasn't quite there.

We still did a test to prove to our senior leadership. We went to Cat in the Hat at Universal's Islands of Adventure, and we strapped a pair of AR glasses on Mr. Tom Williams, our chairman, to show him what we intended to do, and he got it. He loved it. And in true fashion, he said go ahead and do it, knowing that it wasn't quite ready. But he believed in us, and that's what's incredible about Universal.

And then I told Tom, now you figure it out.

Tom: Yes, we had to advance the technology, it was not ready for us.

Everybody has a steering wheel. Everybody has buttons to throw shells. That's how you interact in the game. And we talked for years about, should I take a turn and I get to [steer], and how do I tell different riders it's their turn, or should we all steer at the same time? Somewhere in the near design process, we came up with the steering game, so you get a signal that says you should turn left or you should turn right, and if everybody in the vehicle does it at the same time then it goes farther. There's a pin in the vehicle on the track, and it's a little bit off center so when everybody steers you can drift the ride vehicle. If you're the only person steering then it drifts just for you, but if we're all steering together we can make a drift a little bit more, but that was important thing for us I think to make that happen.

Thierry: Drifting is one of the iconic moves in the Mario Kart game, so you get extra points for drifting. If you drift correctly at the right time, you get rewarded in the Mario Kart ride, just like you would in the real game. It's the feeling of going sideways in a turn, just the right angle, so you make that turn in a perfectly smooth progression. So we have that as part of the game in Mario Kart, just like you would have it in the video game.

Tom: Almost half of your score is being able to steer correctly. Half of your score is throwing shells at the Koopalings and the enemies. And then you can get a stamp if you get every single drift right.

Thierry: If you go to Mario Kart, he will tell you, if you if you throw a shell at a certain character at a certain time in the scene, you will get extra points. So there's a lot more depth. As a first time player, you may not even get into that, but when you come back, if you're an avid gamer, you're going to really get into this as that allows you to get to the highest scores.

I think interactivity needs to be part of every future attraction. We want to make sure we engage our guests and that they participate even more actively into their experience and create their own journey, their own adventure. So I think that's going to keep changing. This kind of sets the bar to a new level, and in the future we're going to keep looking at developing as much interactivity as possible. And augmented reality, I think, will also be part of many attractions in the future.

Tom: I agree. I look at Spider-Man as an inflection point for immersion. I look at Hogwarts and Diagon Alley as an inflection point for immersion in the beginning of interactivity with interactive ones, and then this is that next inflection point, which is complete interactivity and immersion together.

Thierry: We have more kinetic elements in this land than any other land we've ever created - characters moving and Piranha Plants and Koopas and...

Tom: ...more than 100 animated figures outside.

Thierry: To really make this world come to life as a true Nintendo game, we had to channel all this motion. It would be typical theme park technology, but pushing it to a point where we know it had to work in the elements in Osaka, in Japan, where you know there are seasons, not like Orlando.

Tom: The park is just off of Osaka Bay. It snowed before I left. It has the range of weather from hot and humid to very, very cold, and it needs to work every day.

Thierry: I think we probably had the most fun out of any creations in designing this project. It was challenging, no doubt, but this was the most fun, and it shows in the in the product. It shows in the results.

This is the most innovative experience we've ever created at Universal.

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