Yesterday, Universal Studios Hollywood invited me to be among the first members of the public to walk through its new Super Nintendo World. The land's not quite ready for park visitors, but even with its finishing touches coming into place, Super Nintendo World scores as one of the most amazing theme park lands yet built.
Standing next to Transformers The Ride 3D on Universal's Lower Lot, the closed-off green warp pipe that leads into Super Nintendo Land has been tempting park visitors for months. Many visitors have been able get a few glimpses into the land from the Starway escalators to the Lower Lot, as well as from vantage point behind Super Silly Fun Land. But it's only when you step into Super Nintendo World that you can truly appreciate Universal's effort to bring a video game to life in a fully immersive, practical setting.
With final decorations underway, Universal did not permit video recording inside the land, and I could take pictures only of a limited number of sites where crews were not working. Universal Creative Vice President Jon Corfino showed me around the land, previewing the adventures that will await Universal Studios Hollywood visitors when the land opens for technical rehearsal previews next month. So consider this your spoiler warning going forward.
First, while fans may be tempted to rush across the land to the Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge interactive augmented reality dark ride when they first enter Super Nintendo World, Universal has designed the entire land as a practical game experience. Fans who stop to listen and watch instead of rushing through Princess Peach's Castle on the far side of the entry warp pipe will learn that Bowser Jr. has stolen Peach's Golden Mushroom. And that by completing four Golden Key tasks in the land, visitors can earn the opportunity to play the Boss Battle Junior game for the Golden Mushroom and return it to Princess Peach.
Universal will be selling Power Up wristbands, starting January 5, that visitors can use to track their activity across Super Nintendo World - and as an amiibo on your Nintendo Switch unit at home. The Power Up Bands are not necessary to interact with the challenges in the land or to see your score on Mario Kart, but they will keep a record of your scores. Corfino said that the live characters in the land - Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach - will have access to your scores if you are wearing a Power Up Band when you meet them.
Leaderboards in the land also will list the top scorers using Power Up Bands in the land. The Power Up Band syncs with the Universal Studios Hollywood app to link your account in that app, which will be updated when the Power Up Bands launch.
The four Golden Key challenges feature Sleeping Piranha, Goomba, Thwomp, and Koopa Troopa. I got to see Corfino play the Koopa Troopa challenge, which requires hitting a block at the right time to knock the Koopa Troopa up a warp pipe. Like all Super Nintendo World challenges, it's all about the timing. Just remember that when you hit your block to light it up, that light must transfer across two more blocks before it hits the Koopa. Hit your block too early or too late and you won't win the challenge. And the challenges can operate on both an easy and a hard mode, which broadens or narrows your margin for error on the timing, all to keep the game from becoming stale on multiple plays.
The final Boss Battle Junior is a multi-player game that takes place in a theater inside Bowser Jr's lair. Using a mix of practical and screen effects, the game promises to be a show unto itself and will initially be open to all Super Nintendo World guests, whether you have completed the four Golden Key tasks with a Power Up Band or not.
After getting a preview of Boss Battle Junior, we headed up an adjacent staircase to a view point above the land, where visitors can use AR tower viewers to see animated Nintendo characters in the land below.
Okay, enough with the supporting players. Let's get to the star of this show - Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge.
Comprising multiple rooms in Bowser's Castle, Mario Kart's queue is one of the most visually engaging I've ever experienced. Easter eggs abound, including some clever book titles in Bowser's library.
The queues leads into two pre-show rooms, where visitors will watch "Mario Kart Television" to learn how to play the game, which pits Team Mario against Team Bowser in a real-life game of Mario Kart that blends practical and augmented reality video effects.
"You can have brilliant game engine technology, but having the visual nature of it be that seamless - having the ability to blend the physical elements on set, and also interior game engine lighting and everything else, is really where the magic happens," Corfino said. "You're going around and you're turning and you're going through sets that are incredibly detailed, and yet the images have to match those backgrounds. Lighting has to match with the AR, with the physical environments, with whatever projected video mapping or LED screens we have. So that's where having it all come together is what really puts you in that world of 'Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this.'"
Universal Creative developed its own augmented reality visors for the ride, which click onto a red Mario visor that riders will put on in the final preshow area. Four people ride on each Mario Kart ride vehicle, but Corfino said that they will play independently.
"If you're looking that way and I'm looking this way, I'm not seeing what you are," he said. Corfino also said that the game will adjust its level of difficulty for riders using Power Up Bands, based on their success (or lack of it) in the game.
I did not get to go on the ride yesterday, so I cannot report on how successfully Universal has redesigned the classic Mario Kart experience for a practical setting. But the level of visual and interactive detail present through the rest of the land sets a high bar for Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge to clear.
Super Nintendo World also includes the Toadstool Cafe restaurant, which we walked through but did not get to sample.
Super Nintendo World opens officially at Universal Studios Hollywood on February 17, with reservation-only passholder previews starting January 29. A larger version of Super Nintendo World will open with Universal Orlando's Epic Universe theme park in 2025.
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