On Wednesday Feb 22, 2023, my friend Jeremy and I got to experience the first video game based theme park land in the North America: Super Nintendo World (SNW) at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Having a background in both video game development and immersive experience design, I wanted to share thoughts on Nintendo’s first collaboration and venture into themed entertainment. The creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, and the team made some bold choices in themed entertainment that have great heart. These ideals are hit the reality of theme park operations with little accommodation to the reality. While I do think these ideals can still be achieved, as presented it presents bottlenecks.
I made the “North America” distinction as this is not the first Super Nintendo to open. Almost two years prior, Universal Studios Japan opened the first land and offers more than the Hollywood counterpart. I don’t want to get into comparing between the two as I haven’t been to Japan. Though I wish I could ride a Yoshi and the Donkey Kong expansion won’t join the Hollywood park.
We purchased the “Early Access” pass for $25/each on top of the park ticket. This allowed us access an hour before regular park open to enter the land. It also gave us “Universal Access” to the Studio Tour until 11am. Nothing against the tour, but this benefit is not useful for that timeframe. We also returned in the evening using the Virtual Line.
The greatest upset of Super Nintendo World centers around the same design style Miyamoto developed over 40 years not completely adjusting to a densely populated theme park.
All of Miyamoto’s work is based on exploration and discovery. By exploration and experimentation, you explore and discover experiences and learn how to play the game. An achievable goal for a theme park and what gives SNW it’s wonderful charm and great experiences.
The numbers the land technically supports is not what the land was designed for. When operations fills the land to fire capacity, the land is a sea of people with no room to explore the land and no place to wait. It’s a fault of Universal Creative that these problems are only poorly patched with an “early access” ticket and not fundamentally guiding the design of the land to accommodate for crowds while maintaining at least some of the charm. I don’t want to dismiss the land wholesale because of the capacity issues, but it’s impossible to separate the inability to enjoy the land past 10am for the foreseeable future.
I do recommend the experience of the land with at least one Power-Up Band™ per four members in your party. While it’s regrettable that half of the land’s experience is gated with physical DLC, one $40 band per party is doable.
I moved my conclusion up to the top to get to the point. Read on for my detailed analysis.
The Power-Up Bands™
Before my proper visit to Nintendo, I picked up my season pass and the wristbands. They are intertwined with the land, so a general review of the $40 + tax bands and their use will come up in every aspect of the land and it’s activities.
The Fit / The Look
They’re slap bracelets! There’s a bit of finesse to adjust the band to your wrist AND keep it on. For my adult arms, I found the right fit that kept the band on, albeit with my long sleeve hoodie over it. It’s a large bulge with the NFC ‘watch face’, but I wasn’t bothered while at SNW as it was an active tool. Once outside the land, I put it in my bag for safe keeping.
There are six characters to choose which assigns you a “team”. Teams are only for scoring / bragging rights; There’s no difference between bands while in the land besides what team your stats report to. The saving grace for the $40 add-on is they double as amiibo. Allowing to use the Bands on your Switch. So far nothing unique to the bands are in any game beyond the identity of the character. Mario bands unlock “generic” Mario unlocks, Daisy with Daisy unlocks, etc.
If you plan on returning to Super Nintendo World, you can (and should) reuse the same band. I haven’t tested unregistering and loaning bands to other friends.
Registering the Band
You register the band in the Universal App, giving you a detail of your experiences in SNW. Registration unlocks reading the status of what the band has done allowing you to register after visiting the land. I did not test having more than one player/band registered in the app, but know this is possible for families with children.
On the back of the band, a QR code pairs the band to your account. Thankfully the band doesn’t keep a constant connection to your phone as it’s a simple NFC device. Pairing to your Universal account only shows your progress. Band do not need to charge and no power drain on your phone.
Registration was adding a Player, which included options of a select list of character images based on the band’s character, list of backgrounds, and a display name. The display name will be shown publicly on leaderboards, but does not need to be unique.
However, I came across that my name “Seg” was not appropriate. I suspect because folks attempts to use “seggs” as a censor dodging word for “sex”. Days later I was able to register my name as my own, so perhaps they learned of the Scunthorpe problem.
Group Play with Power-Up Bands™
Without at least one band in your party, the experience at SNW is emptier. The band grants access to 5 mini-attractions and land-wide unlockables. Not doing them makes the land a thin experience. Which for an upsell, is pretty lame.
You can get away with one band in your party of four or less. Some activities allow group participation with a mix of folks with and without bands. The general “hit the blocks to do things” can be seen by anyone in the party. A lot of families we talked to had their children with the bands, but the parents were involved and happy with their group experiences.
Only the Bowser Jr. Shadow Showdown limits your party to the band wearer and one (or two if you’re lucky) guests.
Jeremy and I had our own bands as we’re adults with adult money. We still did group activities together and earned rewards at the same time as a team. More about that as I cover each activity.
Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge
The main “E-Ticket“, the only ride attraction of the land, and the only experience not gated with Power-Bands, Bower’s Challenge carries the weight of the whole land. It is a great interactive dark ride experience on par with or exceeds others in the ride genre with very good choices along with room for improvement.
The Universal Accessibility Problem
Universal Studios has problem with accessibility in their attractions. Ride systems are notorious for form-fitting seats and restraints to a narrow field of body types. Even to the point that an attraction excludes the target audience of the IP the ride features.
“The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash” is an omnimover dark ride that opened after pandemic lockdown with no elevations and calmer than the “Haunted Mansion“. Yet Pets has a 38” requirement with a form-fitting seat, where as Mansion is any height (with supervision) and a bench seat fitting 2-3 people. My guess the decision is for cheaper insurance premiums, but it makes the Disney Difference the ability for guests to ride most attractions, while Universal leaves many folks aside after you’re in the gates on almost every attraction.
Bower’s Challenge flirts the edge of not being accessible. While the seat is thankfully not as form-fitting as Pets, the lap bar has a lock-in range is not the same as the tester out front. While Jeremey and I were able to ride, there was an iffy moment when team members were debating if the restraint was “green zone”. The tester seat out front isn’t a guarantee you won’t be evicted at the loading platform.
Then there’s the stairs. In the course of going through any version of the queue, you will need to walk up and down two stories of stairs at least twice. There are elevators to help guests between the levels, which creates a mini Fastpass situation for both standby and Express lanes.
Universal Parks are making a very compelling set of moves to be an equal to Disney parks. Their pay and benefits to team members is vastly better than Disney’s pay and benefits to cast members. But what will always stunt Universal’s growth is the inability to make their parts accessible to the degree Disney is willing to accommodate.
This queue is one of the most fun and interesting looking queues I’ve experienced at a Universal Studios park! From the small details to the large, the queue is rich world building and a lot of deep cuts for folks looking. Universal queues have variable degrees of quality, but this queue shoots right to the top of the list.
The start of the queue is Yoshi’s land, which serves to remind everyone we don’t have the Yoshi ride. This is the ground floor of the entrance and mostly to sort between standby and Express lanes. While it looks nice, it also feels emptier as a creation made only for Hollywood’s unique layout.
Once you reach up the stairs, you make a brief outdoor queue and migrate inside Bower’s castle proper. The massive Bower statue is a delight of the queue. It’s only upsetting this starts mid-queue and not setting the tone at the entrance. Bowers’ “office and lab” one of the most delightful queues I’ve seen in a long time. So much to look at and a lot of little references.
When we first entered the land, we walked straight into the attraction and took some time going through the queue, waving people on as we wanted to see the spaces. Though true to my form, I didn’t take nearly as much photos of things I want to talk about. I want experience things, not record them on a device. Still, a few photos:
Pre-Show & Guest Preparation
Starting with the latest Mario Kart game, MKTV (Mario Kart Television) was introduced for gameplay record and playback functions. In Bowser’s Challenge, MKTV is featured in a serves as the first pre-show room in explaining how the game is going to go.
As you’ll see in the video, it’s devoid of voice acting, which makes for a strange emptiness in the presentation. While this removes language barriers, it looses style points and hard to keep paying attention to what is a unique set of instructions for an attraction. A lot of kids start to yell and get distracted for what is perceived as white noise in the presentation.
In the next room, you’re handed a Mario visor. Much like distributing 3D glasses in theme parks, there’s a constant rotation of freshly washed gear for guests to put on. As this wears like a hat, guests need to take the time to make a good fit on their heads. No electronics are on the visor; the technology is on the ride vehicle and clips on to the visor.
This allows guests to futz around with the visor to fit comfortably before getting on a ride vehicle. This makes loading more efficient and a comfortable ride experience. The only problem: You have to fit the visor and walk down two flights of stairs at the same time. If you’re towards the front, you don’t have time to walk down stairs and adjust the visor before you’re assigned a row.
Loading into the Kart
Load in was pretty easy if you recall the instructions. Sit down, pull bar towards you. The bar holds the AR equipment and is your steering wheel. Take the AR equipment and clip it into your visor. If you have a Power-Up Band™, holding it to the center of the steering wheel registers your band to your gameplay.
I didn’t get a positive feedback when registering the band. I tried getting the animation to happen to no avail. My gameplay was properly recorded, so I think once registered, the confirmation animation doesn’t repeat. If the confirmation repeated while the vehicle was still in the loading area, it would reduce the worry. That said, I am glad the range works to catch folks forgetting to do the exact action.
The car is four passengers, two rows with two seats, with the back row raised higher than the front. With AR, someone’s head blocking the view is devastating, making stadium seating a requirement.
You can request to experience the ride without AR. You don’t ruin the scores of team activities for the three other players, but still experience the attraction. AR is much more accommodating to motion sickness than VR, but it’s great they have that path available.
The Ride & Gameplay
I prefer AR to VR as long as the practical effects are stellar, and Bower’s Challenge interplays between AR and practical effects flawlessly. Shooting shells at a screen will effect objects on a screen. Elements travel back and forth from AR to screens and back. The experience arguments reality.
The Ghost House scene does a masterful job of eerie rotating the hall with practical effects that bend into screens which give the bends motion. Rainbow road gives the finally of the ride with the iconic rainbow road lighting that goes away when “jumping” the tracks. The piranha plants are actually there and moving.
In gameplay, your controls are the steering wheel. Either of two buttons “throw” shells at the dead center of your AR view. You can get used to it, but it’s not forgiving especially for travel distance of shell-to-target.
You’re given UI prompts when you need to turn the wheel. Chevrons pointing left or right mean hard left or right turn. You don’t have direct control of the ride vehicle, but the arrows match when you’d make a turn. This is fairly easy if you remember to react as soon as you see the prompt. The chevrons display in fixed space, so you always seem them where ever you look.
As I alluded to in my take at the start, there’s a lot of emergent gameplay intended to be discovered in repeat plays. From how shooting shells work to how points are gained, the game design is about discovering, learning, and discovering again. There should be these discoverable aspects to an interactive experience. Where the ride falls short is too many aspects fall into “discover after a few games”. When replaying the game means waiting 30 to 250+ minutes, you don’t get the kind of feedback loop you normally have with video games.
Where the experience is not optimal was shell management. You are given a limited amount of shells which are replenished at fixed intervals. During unplanned ride stops, your shells are infinite mode until the ride resumes. The only way to know how many shells you have or unlimited is by looking down to see the UI. Since looking is also aiming, you don’t really know how many shells you have until you’re out. If the UI fixed the shell count display, one can always tell how many shells they have and be more efficient.
I’m curious if and when the ride systems will receive software updates to manage gameplay. Would be wild if there was a Nintendo Direct highlighting an upgrade to the attraction; with Japan and US release dates.
I also wonder when the attraction is ported to a Mario Kart game? Perhaps it will be the last drop in the Mario Kart 8 Booster Course Pack?
When it comes to food at Universal Hollywood, it’s no where but up. While most offerings are better than a regional roller coaster park, there a huge lacking to almost all offerings at Universal both in selection and quality. Thankfully Toad’s Cafe brings Universal closer to a better food offerings at the park. Sadly it now highlights Universal’s lack of operational efficiency.
In a word: CUTE! This is all about Toads cooking your food and living their lives outside of the cafe. Each wall of the main dining room has large screens acting as windows. One into the kitchen, the other three at different parts of a toad village.
The setting is a fixed cycle that runs about 15 minutes, though I did not time it. There’s a day cycle with a few light cameos and small comedic events. But then the skies darken along with the lights of the dining room and Bowser air ships start reeking havoc in the town and kitchen. It’s especially funny when a bullet bill terrorizes the kitchen and staff.
I wish there was something more 1:1 on orders where the cooks are preparing your meals themselves, but I can understand how hard it is to add new dishes. With how long you’re there, I also wish there was more variance. Everyone should experience the basic day/night cycle, but it gets repetitive as you wait.
This leaves me wondering: When will Nintendo’s take on Overcooked! and create a multi-player cooking game with Toads as cooks?
There isn’t much queue line, but Jeremy thankfully snagged us a reservation window to return later. While our lunch was an early 10:30am, we weren’t going to pass up on the opportunity.
The first line upon entering is to get to a cashier to order. This took a considerable amount of time, which I realized why once approaching the team member. When we asked for the Mount Beanpole cake, the team member said they needed to check if they have it and walked (presumably) to the kitchen, returning three minutes later. I don’t blame the team member for this, but Universal needs to invest in ways the kitchen can mark items out of stock directly to the cashiers.
You order and pay for your meal, but only receive a tray, utensils, all beverages, and a buzzer puck. Walking with your tray, you approach the wait staff. There they will take your tray and take you to your table.
I want to be clear that all team members here were great. My complaints are of operations hindering the good work of the team members. And then there was Keegan.
While the interaction is brief, he was engaging within the lore of SNW and engaging on the adventures the guests went on. Overhearing him seat children and adults, his interactions give a visit to SNW meaning for guests.
At the end of the night, I waited at guests services to file a compliment for Keegan.
A few weeks later, a friend of mine went to Toad’s and suffered a 90 minute (!) wait for food to be served! Like me, she knew it wasn’t the staff themselves, but some unseen operational problem with the kitchen and setting expectations for the cashier and serving staff.
Our order was more about trying different dishes than attempting to finish them. The menu itself has fun items and we enjoyed what we had. The tiramisu ? block was about the only skippable dish we had.
I loved the mushroom soup and not just because of the presentation. While I would never dismiss having some safe dishes, Universal would do well to have interesting and not typical food choices. So far that’s only the mushroom soup, but at least it’s progress. Though I’m shocked they aren’t selling the bowls. I can’t imagine the stolen bowls…
Overall, Toad’s is a taste of a world in which Universal made food service on par with a Disney food service experience. When things are working marginally, the experience is the best in the park. When things go wrong, they go really wrong.
Power-Up Band™ Key Challenges
The story of the SNW is that Bowser Jr. has stolen the Golden Mushroom of Peach’s kingdom and you must get it back. To do so, you need three keys before unlocking Bowser Jr.’s hideout and defeat him. There are four key challenges, but you can play the 4th challenge before or after doing Bowser Jr.
The challenges fit into two single-player experiences, two team based experiences, and a final single-player boss fight. When I say team, only one member must have a band; the rest of the group doesn’t need a band to play together.
There’s no required order to do the challenges, only that you need to succeed in three to face Bowser Jr. The challenges will apparently get harder when you repeat the same challenge, but I wasn’t able to experience each more than once.
Goomba Crazy Crank
A single-player challenge with a simple task: Turn the crank fast enough to prevent the goomba from collecting your key.
Straight forward and not hard to beat the first easy level. Almost feels more a photo-op than a game, but the physicality makes the experience novel.
Koopa Troopa POWer Punch
A single-player challenge that’s I is the most challenging. A Koopa shell is bouncing between two walls, traveling within a upside down T pipe. The tall pipe has a key coin on top and a POW block is on the bottom. You hit a POW block, which hits two more POW blocks to make the shell hit the key coin.
It’s all about timing your one POW block hit. You have three chances to hit the block, otherwise you fail the challenge. My pro-tip is to spend time observing people play while you’re in the queue. While others may be at different difficulty levels, most are on easy.
Thwomp Panel Panic
This is a team challenge. Once activated, your team has to touch blue squares and make them gold. If you’re too slow, some of the blocks will reset back to blue. Upon success, all members with bands can collect the key.
This was the most video game activity in the park besides facing Bowser Jr. The tactile activity is hitting a touchscreen, albeit a big one, but doesn’t offer much else. Fun to do, but the weakest of the four activities.
Piranha Plant Nap Mishap
This is a team challenge with one band required to play. A large sleeping Piranha Plant is taking a nap. Once the challenge starts, all the alarm clocks start going off. You and your team must hit snooze as quickly as possible to prevent the plant form fully waking up. This is the best of all the Band activities, hands down.
The moment I started this challenge, my mind pulled out every thing I learned from watching Nickelodeon game shows. It has that kind of wacky physical challenge. Madcap fun and challenging.
I suspect team members tell the system how many active players there are, making it physically possible to accomplish with your party. Repeat plays also increase the difficulty.
Bowser Jr. Shadow Showdown
With your three keys, you now face Bowser Jr at his hideout. This is a game where a shadow of yourself is projected on the wall. Throw your arms to swat baddies away, jump for power ups, and defeat Bowser Jr.
As you enter the space, the only in-queue interactables are here, including the one Bowser Jr. item block. Be sure to take the time to find the M logo and hit your band, and you won’t be able to come back!
Of the land, this is arguably the “finale” of the land as a whole; resolving the story of Bowser Jr. sealing the golden mushroom from the kingdom. While it is a completely screen based attraction, the projection is a wide and tall wall with some practical effect theming to blend in the scene. While you’re in there with roughly a dozen other players, your gameplay is mostly independent of the others. I’m not sure there’s even a fail condition, but there are points and achievements you can strive for.
This becomes it’s own attraction and is pretty involved. It’s also limited to only folks with bands, so while you can bring a guest to watch, only folks with a band can play. That said, the experience is a wonderful end to the mission arc of the key challenges.
Power-Up Band™ Interactables
SNW has a bunch of small interactions with the Power-Up bands. Most are hitting question blocks but include other types as well. Most save coins to your account. Others make something display like 8-bit art versions of Mario and other characters.
This is where the original Shigeru’s design of play as discovery come to full circle. With exception of the Mark Kart queue, there are interactables all throughout the land. Thankfully they are all marked on the Universal app’s map, so you can see if you missed a whole area. And there’s one area that is hidden in plain sight!
They are fun to discover and do fill out the land’s experience. Some are fun, some are busy work, but they do offer some great fun with just exploring the land. I only wish some items did more reactions beyond a simple sound and/or lighting queue.
The Super Nintendo World Future
Universal Hollywood’s SNW is the second in a the total three planned recreations of the land. Universal Japan was the first and currently largest featuring an additional omni-mover attraction Yoshi’s Adventure and additional quick-serve food options. Hollywood is currently the only North American offering… for now.
Japan is actively building an extension based on Donkey Kong with at least one family coaster and other offerings. In 2025, Universal will open “Epic Universe” in Orlando as a copy of Japan’s version with Donkey Kong expansion at the start.
Sadly there’s no room for Hollywood to grow Nintendo. To build SNW, two soundstages were removed. The land does make Universal Hollywood a better park to visit as an addition to previous offerings. My hangups are mostly around operational issues that hamper the experience, but the experiences themselves are great and worth the visit… if you arrive their early enough to gain access to the land.