A chubby red toadstool glides back and forth on a mountain ledge while a row of spinning golden coins levitate nearby, hovering above a line of brick blocks. Turtles waddle along the surrounding clifftops, like lookout guards patrolling the valley below, while a tower of angry brown blobs with big frowns teeters to and fro on another precipitous ledge. Elsewhere, gigantic red plants snap their hungry jaws at passersby, a serrated stone block slams down with a great “thwomp!” and a big castle crowned with horns looms on a hilltop, providing a menacing backdrop to the trippy scene.
Welcome to Super Nintendo World, the closest thing you can get to diving head-first inside a video game and experiencing the likely effects of swallowing one of Mario’s magic mushrooms. It is the latest attraction to open at Universal Studios Hollywood, the sprawling Californian theme park that began over a century ago as a humble studio backlot tour on a former chicken ranch.
German-born film producer Carl Laemmle first welcomed visitors to his “movie city” in 1915 – four decades before Disneyland was established – to marvel at the million-dollar film-making paradise, complete with a zoo, post office and police department, as well as a community of Native Americans who lived in tepees on site and performed in his cowboy films. For a 25-cent admission fee, visitors could watch westerns being shot, gawp at stunt shows, see a simulated flash flood and enjoy a chicken lunchbox for a nickel.
A century later, the stunt shows and flood simulators remain, in souped-up form, but the surrounding park has been transformed beyond recognition. The Universal complex now rambles across more than 400 acres, three-quarters of which are still dedicated to film studios, although they make up an ever-shrinking proportion. The theme park is gradually nibbling away at the studio’s soundstages to make room for ever more elaborate rides and immersive worlds. In the age of the experience economy, fantasy thrill-seeking is big business: with resorts in Florida, Osaka and now Beijing, NBCUniversal’s theme park division reported record revenues of over $2bn in the third quarter of 2022. Post-pandemic, the appetite for physical, immersive experiences is stronger than ever.
Announced in 2015, Nintendo’s partnership with Universal Studios came in response to several years of declining gaming revenue and console market share. After a foray into physical toys, in the form of its Amiibo line, the theme park was seen as a way to monetise the Nintendo brand outside of the screen. For Universal, it represents the first expansion beyond film- and TV-themed rides, and a step up in designing a total environment – with the opening timed to capitalise on the release of an animated Super Mario Bros movie this spring. Super Nintendo World (a larger version of which opened in Osaka in 2021) is the theme park’s most complete, all-encompassing world yet, an entire work of real-life video game architecture. It is an astonishing place to explore, for Nintendo fans and the uninitiated alike.
The journey begins by walking through a green warp pipe, the familiar tubular tunnel that transports Mario around his various lands (complete with the sound effect from the game), which drops you in the porch of Princess Peach’s castle – the heroine that Mario spends his life trying to save from the big baddie dragon-turtle, Bowser. From here, the castle gates open into a spectacular saturated landscape where every last detail has been transported from the Super Mario games, pixel for pixel. It looks as if the entire world might have been 3D-printed, but the technology is surprisingly low-fi: most of what you see has been hand-carved from plaster and painted on site by an army of fastidious set decorators.
Steep cliffs of pixelated earth, their cartoonish sedimentary layers exposed, rise up to blocky terraces of bright green grass, where the various creatures from the games patrol back and forth, their springy, waddling gait meticulously simulated IRL. Yellow question mark blocks project out from the walls, some within striking height: whack their rubbery undersides and they flash and chime with the classic coin-winning sound effect. Interactive games are scattered around the landscape, Mario theme tunes are piped through hidden speakers, while cutouts of rolling green hills cleverly block out the surrounding rides and neighbouring buildings, creating the effect of being completely immersed in the Mushroom Kingdom.
“It is one of the most complex and varied worlds we have ever built here,” says Jon Corfino, vice president of Universal Creative, who also oversaw the Simpsons-themed Springfield attraction, the Despicable Me Minions ride, and the recent revamp of the blockbuster Jurassic World. “We’ve spent the last six years layering together animation, physical effects and new digital technology to bring the video game to life.”
Developed in close collaboration with Nintendo’s design team in Japan (and overseen by Mario’s creator, 70-year-old Shigeru Miyamoto, himself) the attraction follows the story that Bowser’s son, Bowser Jr, has stolen a golden mushroom from Princess Peach, and you are tasked with getting it back. You must complete a series of simple challenges – which range from cranking a handle to dislodge an angry Goomba, to whacking a set of alarm clocks to keep a Piranha Plant snoozing – before you can attempt the “boss battle” with Bowser Jr in an interactive projection-based game.
The catch is that, in order to collect the various digital stamps, keys and coins that are dotted around the world, you must first buy a $40 Power-Up RFID wristband (on top of the $109 theme park admission fee), which lets you track your progress in an app. Just like the $60 interactive wands sold in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter next door, it is another gimmick to keep visitors coming back, tempting you to beat your high scores and see your rank on a public leader board. It’s a clever use of tech, but it also makes you long for the simpler, cheaper days of Laemmle and his nickel lunchbox.
The novelty culinary stakes have been upped in the form of the Toadstool Cafe, housed inside a colossal red mushroom. Here, a $16.99 Mario Burger (with a moustache stamped on the bun) and $9.99 Princess Peach cupcake can be washed down with a drink from a $20 collectible mushroom cup. You can momentarily forget the hole being burned in your wallet with dreamy views out through the windows, which are actually digital screens that play animations depicting life in the bucolic Toad world outside, and chaotic scenes in the Toad-staffed kitchen.
All of the intricate scenography and narrative detail makes it easy to forget there is an actual ride here too, themed around the Mario Kart racing game. Queueing has long been elevated to an art form at both Universal and Disney’s theme parks, and this is one of the most elaborate environments for waiting in line yet. The queue takes you through a sequence of rooms in Bowser’s Castle, a brilliantly conceived villain’s lair, complete with bomb-making workshop, a library of self-help books (including How to Talk to Princesses and Sibling Rivalries and How to Exploit Them), and a gigantic statue of Bowser himself, looming at the centre of a rotunda. With its sense of menace combined with unbridled kitsch, it feels a lot like walking the halls of the palace of Kim Jong-il.
The ride itself is Universal’s first experiment with augmented reality technology, with visitors donning a plastic Mario cap, to which an AR visor is magnetically clipped. Rather than a fast and furious race, the ride is more of a sedate crawl through a series of environments, with an interactive shoot-em-up element overlaid on the visor. Buttons on the steering wheel allow you to fire shells at various baddies along the way, to accrue points and extra ammo. But with four people to a kart, it’s tricky to work out who is shooting what, if the steering has any effect, and what exactly you’re supposed to be doing. There are moments where the AR comes into its own – such as when you accelerate into hyperdrive on the Rainbow Road – but a lot of the time it’s a confusing distraction from the impressive animatronics and physical sets around you.
“It’s designed for repeat rides,” says Corfino. “Each time, you will have a different experience, gain more rewards, and understand more about how the game works.” It sounds like a good idea in principle, a ride that gets more sophisticated the more you play it, but it makes less sense when it takes an hour and a half to queue up again for the fleeting frisson of a four-minute experience.
Still, there’s a lot more to enjoy back out in the psychedelic surrounds of the Mushroom Kingdom. Dedicated explorers will discover a series of stairs that lead to raised vantage points, where binoculars allow you to look down at the teeming world below, overlaid with more weird and wonderful AR things from the Mario games, like gliding bullets and flying turtles.
It feels fitting that, in this city of fakery and simulacra – where, as Noël Coward once put it, “there is always something so delightfully real about what is phony, and something so phony about what is real” – Universal has conjured the ultimate synthetic landscape. And you’ll have that pesky theme tune ringing in your ears for days to come.