It’s a big deal to come through that warp pipe for the first time. Though Super Nintendo World has only been announced since 2016, Super Mario players have been crouching down and jumping up into the recognizable green plumbing fixtures for decades. That and nearly every other detail at Universal Studios Hollywood’s newest area caters to longtime and recent Mario players’ wish fulfillment.
“Once you come through the warp pipe and come into the land, you’re totally immersed in this game experience that is so kinetic, it’s almost like you’ve kind of forgotten about that other part [of the park],” says Jon Corfino, vice president of creative at Universal Studios Hollywood.
On the other side of that warp pipe, you’ll enter the newest iteration of Super Nintendo World, the second to open following a similar one in Japan in 2021 (a third is planned for the company’s Orlando theme park). Through the foyer of Peach’s Castle the music begins to swell, familiar sound effects chime, captivatingly colorful characters dance back and forth along the horizon-filling hilltops and Bowser’s Castle beckons you inside. The Mushroom Kingdom’s larger-than-life qualities also leave us positively reassessing the heroism of Mario’s adventures as Goombas and Piranha Plants appear way less stompable than they do on screen.
“Well, you’re the same size you would be in the game—let’s just put it that way,” Corfino tells us during a tour of Super Nintendo World. (When we ask if Mario has a canonical height, we’re told that he indeed does—but it’s a secret.)
There are far more tangible secrets to uncover inside of Super Nintendo World, which abruptly began to welcome visitors in mid-January for a mix of technical rehearsals and pass member previews. Since the land doesn’t officially open until February 17, Universal has been using that time to hone operations—from the restaurant to crowd flow—but otherwise the Mushroom Kingdom is already complete, save for some Easter eggs that Corfino says will sneak in soon.
For Mario fans, the vivid environment—full of familiar characters and settings from all eras of the nearly four-decade-old video game franchise—may be reason enough to visit. But there are, of course, plenty of theme park-style activities to attract you, too: Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, an augmented reality-enhanced ride that finds you competing on some of the chaotic racing series’ courses; Toadstool Cafe, an adorable restaurant where animated mushroom-capped Toads toil away in the kitchen; and the 1-UP Factory store, where you’ll find exclusive merchandise themed to the franchise’s core characters.
(For those curious about the differences between Hollywood and the Osaka originator: Japan’s version is configured across multiple levels, features a few extra merch and snack stands, and has a Yoshi ride that’s absent in L.A.—otherwise things look largely the same.)
A level of interactivity is baked into almost every block-shaped corner of the land: You can partake in four minigames dubbed Key Challenges; pose for photos with Mario, Luigi and Peach; peer through digital binoculars with a Yoshi ambling along in the distance; and punch ? and POW blocks to hear that familiar coin sound.
You can actually keep track of all of those coins on your phone and collect digital stickers if you purchase a Power-Up Band, essentially a smart slap bracelet ($40) available in a half-dozen character themes. That’s also the only way you can uncover hidden 8-bit characters that glow on walls or enter a shadowy showdown with Bowser Jr.; you’ll need to complete three of the Key Challenges and then tap your band at the lock-shaped entrance to the final minigame.
Super Nintendo World largely lets visitors find their own path between all of these experiences—and touch, tap and bump almost anything they come into contact with along the way. A stylized map in the Universal app hints at where you might find interactive points, but otherwise the land eschews overly aggressive hand-holding; entire caves and lookouts are largely left for you to discover without any obvious signposting (don’t worry, the bathrooms are still clearly marked).
“There’s always ways to make sure people don’t go where they’re not supposed to go: lock the door, put a sign up there,” Corfino says. “But if you see an open archway or passageway or a stair, go ahead and go on up. It was meant to be that [way], there’s no order or sequence that you’re supposed to do—you can do it a different way each time.”
“It’s not like we give you rules and you kind of have this score sheet where you know exactly what you’re doing because that’s not how a game works,” Corfino continues. “You know, it’s designed to have it be like you’re learning along the way, especially with the ride.”
Indeed, you’ll almost certainly walk away from Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge with a different score each time. Even Corfino, who estimates he’s been on it over 200 times, has never gotten the same score twice. (“Sometimes I do a lot better than I think, and sometimes, what’s the matter with me?”) And yes, you can technically lose the race if your car doesn’t collect enough coins.
In a nutshell (or a Koopa shell, if you will), your kart follows a set path in the style of classic dark rides but with a sense of speed and player choice added by the proprietary augmented reality glasses. You tighten a Mario-themed visor on your head while you’re still waiting in the queue, and then once you board your kart you simply magnetically snap on the lenses. As the vehicle skids and spins along a physical course, steering prompts and combative karts appear in your visor and seem to hover in real space, as do the shells that you can launch using buttons on the steering wheel. It’s kind of a lot to try to picture, so we don’t blame you if you’re searching for a ride-through video at this very moment—but after riding twice, we’d say that the many videos online don’t effectively capture how it all comes together. That’s partially by design, though.
“The magic, if you will, of the Mario Kart ride has to do not so much with technology,” Corfino elaborates. “Very engaging dimensionalized sets, interactivity inside the ride, video mapping, LED screens, physical effects: It is the layering of all those things that is really the artwork.”
Artwork can take time, and that’s one of the few benefits that Corfino says pandemic delays provided. He walked us through one specific scene—“I’m going to get really picky here”—where Bowser is looking back at you in augmented reality and soon after appears in that same pose on an LED screen. In both formats, the virtual sunlight is illuminating the left side of his face, but the level of light and contrast needs to stay consistent between the two to really sell the effect. “So that’s where we were really able to kind of just sit there and really dial everything in,” he explains.
While the ride is just starting to welcome racers in L.A., the park’s Japanese counterpart is already turning its attention from coins to bananas with a Donkey Kong-inspired area due to open in 2024. The “Nintendo” part of Super Nintendo World encompasses tons of characters outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, so we of course had to ask Corfino if we might ever see some other familiar faces show up here.
“In the game community things evolve,” he says. “Where does this go to from here? We’ve got such a deep and long-term relationship with Nintendo that we talk about those things in terms of what other things could we offer here? What other events or types of things? So you never know, anything’s possible.”