Once a bastion of fun in the sun, theme parks packed with people suddenly seemed scary during the pandemic—and visitors largely steered clear. Universal Studios was no exception, reporting revenue at its parks had plummeted nearly 70 percent in 2020, a drop of more than US$4 billion. But the company rallied—navigating major delays (and some serious doubt) to deliver the first Super Nintendo World in Osaka, Japan. Slated to open in line with the original date of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo last July, the JPY60 billion attraction finally opened its gates on 18 March.
First announced back in 2015, the project marks a next-level collaboration between Universal Parks and Studios and Japanese gaming giant Nintendo. Guests entering through the signature green warp pipe entrance are greeted by beloved characters like Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Princess Peach and Yoshi. But that’s just the beginning. Part of the existing Universal Studios Japan park, the new immersive space is filled with interactive high-tech surprises—a strategy to attract visitors and test out new gamified practices that can be replicated at other locations.
“The teams at Universal and Nintendo worked closely together to build something that’s never been seen before, by combining our extensive industry knowledge and utilizing cutting-edge technology,” said Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario.
The space is built around the concept of asobi—which translates to “have fun” or “to play” in Japanese. Underlying all that fun is a sophisticated technological infrastructure centered around a “power-up band” that syncs with smartphones (and, in a smooth cross-platform move, also acts as an amiibo character on Nintendo Switch for users back at home). Visitors can use the wearable to track their progress on leader boards as they rack up points and collect virtual coins for performing tasks bound to appeal to Nintendo fans, like punching question-mark blocks around the park. The team also built in several secret touch points where visitors can unlock special park features, like a light-up silhouette of a character on a nearby wall.
The rides are just as futuristic. The Mario Kart ride is set on a race track, with developers using augmented reality to create a real-life version of the videogame that lets visitors throw shells and take out opponents. While all the action takes place virtually, the team added some IRL effects like wind and the movement of the karts themselves. And well-aware that users might be spending some time in the queue, designers provided a nice little distraction with a recreation of Bowser’s lair. The area also includes Kinopio Café, full of Super Mario-themed delicacies served up on themed dishware, and designers also incorporated some character interactions here as well, with Bowser occasionally causing some kitchen chaos.
But all the buzz and tech-infused amenities couldn’t completely safeguard Super Nintendo World. Just as the park started scoring big with patrons and the gaming community at large, COVID dealt the project team another blow: In April, Universal Studios Japan announced the temporary closure of the park.
It wasn’t game over, though. The team used the time to tighten the park’s safety regulations and plan for the next normal, which meant restricting hours. Upon reopening in June, the team ensured guests had ample personal space by restricting capacity maximums and installing divisions at indoor restaurants, encouraging visitors to exit the theme park at staggered times to avoid congestion, and working to maintain short wait times for popular attractions (which users can check in real time using the park’s app).
The Osaka attraction marks the first of four Super Nintendo World projects and will be joined by two in the U.S. and one in Singapore.