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Words: Michael Weber
After four years of development and delays due to a world-halting pandemic, Super Nintendo World finally opened at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) on the 18th March 2021. Much hype has been drummed up for the attraction, from a Shigeru Miyamoto-hosted Nintendo Direct through to USJ's savvy use of the "technical rehearsal" shtick to get people through the door in a controlled way.
But there was no way Super Nintendo World could ever live up to its gargantuan hype, right? Well, that's what I thought too, before I stepped through the warp tunnel. Read on past the park's trailer below, for a flavour of what's on offer at this all-new chapter in Nintendo's history of fun and games.
As soon as you are out of the other side of the entry tunnel, you are met with the inside of Princess Peach's Castle from Super Mario 64, with its musical theme to match. But while this was special, it was nothing compared to the spectacle beyond the castle walls. As you step outside, and that familiar Mario motif sings out from myriad speakers dotted around the castle entrance, you are transported to the Mushroom Kingdom, and the colossal ambition of Super Nintendo World can truly be admired.
The attention to detail is nothing short of miraculous. Every aspect of the park has been curated in a way that both encapsulates the feeling of the games while engaging your senses in a way only a theme park can. The chiptune coin blips can be heard from every corner. The ominous Bowser roars coming from his menacing castle rattle your rib cage. Even smaller details, such as themed street lamp hoods, give each micro-section of the attraction its own identity.
In every direction there is something new and incredible to see, bursting with vibrant colours that deliver an immediate shot of serotonin and stir child-like wonder within you. And the first activities within the attraction, as soon as you pick your jaw up from the floor, are the bread-and-butter experience of Super Nintendo World - the interactive mini-games.
While you can simply enjoy the mini-games as a fun aside within the park's grander attractions, the optimal experience is playing them in conjunction with the Power-Up Band. Once your band is purchased and the QR code is scanned within the official USJ app, you are officially a part of the game. This means with each question-mark block you hit and coin bloop activated, a digital coin is tied to your account (this is how I imagine Bitcoin works). These coins count both towards your own personal high score as well as the hourly and daily leaderboards of each character represented on the band. In essence, the more you explore, the more coins you get, the better your own and team high score is.
The Power-Up Band also comes into play within the attractions' mini-games, which range from hitting a POW block in time to successfully squish a green koopa, to smacking alarm clocks so that a giant Piranha Plant doesn't wake up and devour you.
These games aren't the pinnacle of technical brilliance, but they are charming, entertaining and most importantly quick, meaning you're never queuing a disproportionate amount of time for each one. But the thing that is most startling, and troubling, about all of the Power-Up Band activities is just how reliant on touch and movement they are.
For starters, as well as Japan has handled COVID-19, it still very much exists in the country. No matter how much disinfecting and mask-wearing occurs, you are almost guaranteed to be hitting a surface that someone else has touched just before you, which after a year of actively avoiding such behaviour felt very weird. Outside of a pandemic, there is also an ableist issue here. As an able-bodied person I found most of these activities physically taxing. If you have trouble with movement or physicality, prepare for a lot of these mini-games to be inaccessible to you.
The sheer scope of games, easter-eggs and smackable blocks is mind-boggling. I was in Super Nintendo World, which isn't massive by any means, for at least two hours and I barely scratched the surface of what blocks produced coins and what digital stickers I could earn in-app. So for all you completionists out there, please be prepared to not 100% this unless you plan on Super Nintendo World being the only thing you see in USJ, across multiple real-world seasons.
Once the mini-games are done with, it's on to the main event: the rides. There are two rides within Super Nintendo World: Yoshi's Adventure and Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge.
Yoshi's Adventure is very much a ride designed for younger kids, offering a very slow and gentle glide through different Yoshi's Island themes and glorious views across the whole park. Throughout the day there was no more than a 30-minute wait for this ride, so it is well worth the brief wait to complete more Power-Up Band blocks within the queuing area, get a great view over all of Super Nintendo World, and witness some of the most mesmerising digital wizardry I have ever seen.
The bigger ride within Super Nintendo World is Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge. It takes place within Bowser's Castle, which is a spectacular achievement in design and makes the longer queuing time worth it just to digest all the little details. The ride itself, however, is actually the biggest disappointment of Super Nintendo World.
The idea is clever, with each racer getting a pair of AR goggles that display the AI enemies that are throwing shells in your direction while you're steering your kart along the tracks. But in practice it feels cumbersome and sometimes confusing, only really paying off right near the end of the ride.
It's also very worth noting that if you have a photo-sensitive condition, such as epilepsy, the Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge ride needs to be avoided. All in all, I came out of Bowser's Castle with a truly unique feeling of, somehow, being bad at a theme park ride.
In the context of Super Nintendo World, Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge is fine. But the attraction lives within USJ where there are rides that better realise Mario Kart's ambitious premise. This is a shame, but by no means sours the overall experience within Super Nintendo World.
Super Nintendo World is very much Mario's playground outside of a few easter-eggs that won't be spoiled in this article, so don't go expecting Link, Samus or Captain Falcon to rock up anytime soon, even in the gift shops. Said gift shops, Mario Motors and 1UP Factory, offer a plethora of Mario merch unique to Super Nintendo World, that range from delightful keyrings to full-size Mario cosplay jumpsuits.
Even the food and drinks are Mario themed, with Kinopio's Cafe (Kinopio is Toad's name in Japan) offering a burger shaped like Mario's head (bacon moustache to boot) and a question mark block tiramisu. The queue for Kinopio's Cafe, especially around lunch time, gets massive - but thankfully there are popcorn stands and food stalls offering less-substantial options such as the incredibly troubling (yet delicious) cheesy yakisoba-stuffed koopa shell.
Overall, Super Nintendo World is a breathless, faithful, gorgeously realised physical manifestation of 40 years of video game magic. Every aspect, from the biggest castle to the smallest paving stone, is meticulously designed and considered to both preserve the integrity of the intellectual property while simultaneously enhancing it to make sense in the real world.
Be warned, though: this isn't a cheap day out. USJ park tickets, and advanced entrance tickets to Super Nintendo World (which are a must, as entrance to Super Nintendo World is heavily limited) which include a couple of fast passes and the Power-Up Bands, for two people, could easily cost you in excess of £300 depending on exchange rates. But whether you are a die-hard Nintendo fan or a casual observer, Super Nintendo World is a jaw-dropping spectacle you'd be sorry to miss.
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