This review is based on a press tour of Super Nintendo World, attended by IGN Japan. Please note that Japan is currently banning entry for non-resident foreign nationals as a countermeasure to the COVID-19 pandemic, until further notice.
Also, Super Nintendo World has stringent hygiene policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to keep the area from overcrowding, entry is only permitted with a free Timed Entry Ticket which can be reserved in advance or on the day, but are not guaranteed; masks and temperature checks are required; and guests are asked to use hand sanitizer dispensers placed at frequent intervals throughout the park.
It’s difficult to define the feelings of nostalgia, celebration, and joy I felt at Super Nintendo World, the brand-new area at Universal Studios Japan that is completely dedicated to the wonderful world of Mario and friends. Its grand opening was last week, just in time to celebrate the little red-hatted plumber’s 35th anniversary.
The level of immersion at Super Nintendo World is extraordinary, with a deceptively large, self-contained area sculpted to look like a 3D platform game come to brilliant life and mask any hints of the outside world almost entirely. There’s plenty to see and do without having to join a long line, thanks to a host of pioneering interactive activities that gamify every moment of your visit. And above all, the whole area is packed to bursting with the sense of creativity and attention to detail that typifies the best Nintendo games. Everywhere you look in Super Nintendo World you are rewarded with an eyeful of color and a heartful of charm. It’s hard to imagine even the most casual fan of Super Mario not being delighted by it.
60 Photos From Our Super Nintendo World Visit
Visitors enter the themed area via a warp pipe that leads from the Super Star Plaza in USJ to the inside of Peach’s Castle. (This is a tightly designed experience that focuses mainly on the Mario games and their spinoffs; while the word Nintendo is in the title, series such as The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing, and Metroid are not represented at Super Nintendo World.) High above you, platforms sway lazily back and forth, coins spin in place, Goombas plod dopily along, Thwomps slide gracefully upwards and come crashing down, Piranha Plants sway and bear their teeth, and Mario and Luigi pose for photos with guests. It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels like being transported into a 3D Mario game.
The two rides are based on Mario Kart and Yoshi, and while you might find some hidden Pikmin if you look hard enough, this really is the land of Mario.
I’ll come back to the rides shortly, but the most impressive thing about Super Nintendo World is how much fun is on offer even without them.
Bright yellow Question Blocks are placed here and there, and punching the soft button underneath fills the air with the familiar sound of coins being dispensed. The mini-game Piranha Plant Nap Mishap has you and up to three friends slapping the tops of 12 oversized ringing alarm clocks like a mad game of Whack-A-Mole, to repeatedly silence them before they fully awaken the huge Piranha Plant that looms ominously overhead. In the Bob-omb Kaboom Room, touching Mario logo panels hidden on the walls causes 8-bit sprites of Mario and friends to appear. And so on – dozens of these activities, challenges, and distractions litter the main routes through the park so that you can engage with them as you pass.
It makes for a deeper experience all around. For example, the exquisite architecture of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area at Disney World and Disneyland Park is gorgeous, but I felt it lacked the living detail such as aliens wandering throughout and emergent entertainment, whereas Super Nintendo World is filled to the brim with activities and Easter eggs that can be enjoyed without a long line.
What really gives meaning to these interactive elements is an ingenious gamified collection system. If you buy a Power-Up Band (3,200 yen each, or about $31 USD/£23) and register it with the official USJ app on your phone the band will record every coin you find, every challenge you win, every attraction you ride, and turn them into achievements. The app displays your running tally of coins along with the keys you collect by successfully completing a challenge like Piranha Plant Nap Mishap mentioned above. A set of leaderboards show personal coin rankings, team rankings based on which of the six character-themed Power-Up Bands you registered, and separate charts for attractions such as the Mario Kart ride, with daily and all-time rankings to check your performance.
The app also records the hundreds of available stamps that you unlock as you play. Stamps at Super Nintendo World are like an achievements system, with each stamp accompanied by a description of how to earn it – for example, by visiting the park within a certain date period, finding a Fire Flower in a Question Block, punching a POW Block, or by winning on the Mario Kart ride. Many of these stamps you will unlock without even thinking about it, which means that every time you open the app you get a fresh surprise and reminder of your visit as your stamp collection is updated, while others might give you a clear motivation to try different things or to plan for your next visit.
In the case of keys, there is a more direct reward: If you collect three keys by completing challenges you will be able to play a “boss battle” game called Bowser Jr. Shadow Showdown. Bowser Jr. and other enemy characters appear on a huge screen, and you must repel them using your entire body via a motion-controlled projection-mapping system that casts your silhouette onto the screen, transforming your movements into attacks. The motion control is basic and sometimes feels like you are just flailing randomly, but it’s a fun and energetic experience nonetheless, and it makes your successes in the various challenges feel all the more valuable.
And then there are the rides. For most visitors, the main draw will be Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge, which is an on-rails kart ride that hurtles up to four people through a course based on a variety of stages from the Mario Kart series. One minute you’re in a stage that resembles Grumble Volcano with lava all around you; the next you’re underwater in an area similar to the Water Park course; and the next you’re subjected to a powerful rush as you fly headlong down the Rainbow Road.
Super Nintendo World in Universal Studios Japan – Sneak Peek
Here, too, there is a high-concept twist: In addition to the beautifully recreated scenery all around you, an augmented reality headband displays animated characters on HoloLens-like transparent screens in front of your eyes. These include characters on your own team, such as Mario, Luigi, and Peach, but also enemy karters such as Bowser and a parade of Goombas and other enemies that get in your face. Collect Shells from the item boxes that occasionally cross your path, and you can aim at enemies by turning your head and then fire with a button attached to the steering wheel, earning you points when you hit them. Meanwhile, red arrows pop up frequently to tell you to steer left or right, and successfully responding adds more points to your tally. Your whole team will need to contribute if you want to beat the score of the AI-controlled Team Bowser and win a special gold trophy-shaped stamp.
The ride lasts five minutes, and as a Mario Kart experience I’d rate it slightly behind the incredible Mario Kart Arcade GP VR developed by Bandai Namco (that game used full VR to drop you convincingly into the Mushroom Kingdom). On Koopa’s Challenge, the mixed-reality approach is a little more fiddly, with the edges of the AR frame giving a limited view of the characters, while the busywork of steering and attacking enemies as your kart careens and twists feels overly frantic. But as an indulgence in sensory overload, it’s a magnificent achievement.
The other ride, Yoshi’s Adventure, is a much more laid back experience. Here, you and a friend ride in one of many multicolored Yoshis in a trainlike chain that follows a meandering path through a high-up desert area of Super Nintendo World. It’s outdoor section is populated by teetering Pokeys and Piranha Plants, offering a Conkdor’s-eye view of the park at a relaxed speed, while a winding tunnel elsewhere houses a diorama of super-cute characters such as Baby Mario, Baby Peach, Poochy, and some Shy Guys. There is an interactive element: you’re on the lookout for giant eggs dotted around the course so you can hit the corresponding colored button on a panel inside the carriage when you find one – but really the main draw here is the scenery. It’s a gentle ride that offers a fantastic view of Super Nintendo World, but not much beyond that.
Of course, you can expect to line up for these rides, and USJ have thought of that too. Rides elsewhere at USJ and at theme parks such as Disneyland have long pacified the queuing public by providing eye candy along the route of the line, but Super Nintendo World has taken it to the next level. The line for Koopa’s Challenge (Koopa is the Japanese name for Bowser) takes you through the great hall of Bowser’s Castle, past a huge statue of the scaly villain himself, through atmospheric stone corridors cluttered with portraits and Mario Kart trophies, and then into Bowser’s study – a vast room filled with books with amusing titles that reveal a glimpse into Bowser’s character, like How to Talk to Princesses or Dental Hygiene for Chain Chomps. We see his huge throne-like chair, his shopping list, and many more accoutrements for princess-kidnapping naughtiness. Another room shows an assembly line for Bob-ombs and Bullet Bills. And more, more, more.
Super Nintendo World Merch
The level of detail in this line alone is astounding – they could have gotten away with far less, and the commitment to immersing visitors in this corner of Mario’s world is worthy of applause.
Another quick example of a simple gimmick used to raise the level of immersion: The binoculars from the various 3D Mario games not only let you see into the distance at the park, they also overlay AR items and characters, such as flying Koopa Paratroopas, to add another layer of life. It’s a tiny thing that you might walk right past, but over and over, Super Nintendo World rewards your curiosity and makes you want to look out for Easter eggs.
When I visited Super Nintendo World, it was as part of a press tour the day before opening, and I was limited to four and a half hours in the park. I could have happily stayed all day. There’s tons more to do – meet-and-greet opportunities with extremely high quality mascots (Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad) that speak recorded phrases that change depending on your Power-Up Band; an underground stage that shows you the world from Small Mario’s perspective, with giant blocks that made me feel truly tiny; a vast gift shop stocked with a wallet-shattering shattering selection of around 150 exclusive items of super desirable merchandise, including two variations of the adorable walking Tokotoko Mario figure; a restaurant staffed by new character Chef Kinopio (Kinopio is the Japanese name for Toad), serving a large selection of Mario-themed dishes in a toadstool-shaped dining room, with “windows” made from video screens that show a variety of animated shenanigans unfolding in Toad Town; and many more challenges than the ones described above.
Oh wait, and the music – all day long, music from games throughout the Super Mario series is piped throughout Super Nintendo World, and it’s as wonderful as it sounds. Four and a half hours wasn’t enough; I didn’t want to leave, and I can’t wait to go back.