A a chubby red mushroom glides back and forth on a mountain ledge while a row of spinning gold coins levitates nearby, hovering above a line of brick blocks. Turtles waddle along the surrounding cliffs, like lookout guards patrolling the valley below, while a tower of angry brown spots with large frowns sways on another steep ledge. Elsewhere, gigantic red plants snap their hungry jaws at passers-by, a jagged block of stone snaps with a loud “thwomp!” and a large castle crowned with horns sits atop a hill, providing an ominous backdrop to the trippy scene.

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Welcome to Super Nintendo World, the closest thing to diving headfirst into a video game and feeling the likely effects of ingesting one of Mario’s magic mushrooms. It’s the latest attraction to open at Universal Studios Hollywood, the sprawling California theme park that began more than a century ago as a humble studio tour on a former chicken ranch.

German-born film producer Carl Laemmle first welcomed visitors to his “movie town” in 1915 – four decades before Disneyland was founded – to marvel at the million-dollar movie paradise. dollars, with a zoo, post office, and police department, as well as a community of Native Americans who lived in tepees on site and starred in its cowboy movies. For a 25-cent admission fee, visitors could watch filmed westerns, admire stunt shows, see a simulated flash flood, and enjoy a chicken lunch box for a penny.

Tunnel vision… the warp tube entrance to Super Nintendo World. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

A century later, the stunt shows and flood simulators remain, in bloated form, but the surrounding park has been transformed beyond recognition. The Universal complex now spans over 400 acres, three-quarters of which are still dedicated to movie studios, though they represent a shrinking proportion. The theme park gradually nibbles away at the sound stages of the studio to make way for ever more elaborate rides and immersive worlds. In the era of the experience economy, thrill-seeking is big business: With resorts in Florida, Osaka and now Beijing, NBCUniversal’s theme parks division has recorded revenue record of more than $2 billion in the third quarter of 2022. for physical and immersive experiences is stronger than ever.

Announced in 2015, Nintendo’s partnership with Universal Studios came in response to several years of declining game 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 monetize the Nintendo brand off-screen. For Universal, this represents the first expansion beyond the movie and TV-themed rides, and a step in the design of a total environment – with the opening timed to capitalize on the release of a movie. Super Mario Bros animation this spring. Super Nintendo World (a larger version of which opened in Osaka in 2021) is the largest, most comprehensive theme park world to date, an entire work of actual video game architecture. It’s an amazing 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 carries Mario around his various lands (complete with in-game sound effect), which drops you off at the porch of Princess Peach’s castle – the heroine that Mario spends his life trying to save from the big bad dragon-turtle, Bowser. From here, the castle gates open onto a spectacular saturated landscape where every detail has been transported from the Super Mario games, pixel by pixel. It looks like the whole world could have been 3D printed, but the technology is surprisingly low-fi: most of what you see was hand-sculpted in plaster and painted on site by an army of discerning decorators.

Super Nintendo World.
Virtual reality… Super Nintendo World. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

Sheer cliffs of pixelated earth, their cartoonish sedimentary layers exposed, rise up to clump terraces of bright green grass, where the games’ various creatures patrol back and forth, their bouncy, waddling gait meticulously simulated IRL . Blocks of yellow question marks protrude from walls, some at a striking height: hit their rubbery undersides and they flash and chime with the classic coin-winning sound effect. Interactive games are scattered across the landscape, Mario-themed tunes play through hidden speakers, while cutouts of green hills cleverly block surrounding rides and nearby buildings, creating the effect of being completely immersed in the Mushroom Kingdom.

“It’s one of the most complex and varied worlds we’ve 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 past six years layering animation, physical effects, and new digital technologies to bring video games to life.”

Developed in close collaboration with Nintendo’s design team in Japan (and overseen by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, 70, himself), the attraction follows the story that Bowser’s son, Bowser Jr. , stole a Golden Mushroom from Princess Peach, and you are tasked with recovering it. You must complete a series of simple challenges – which range from cranking a crank to dislodge an angry Goomba, to hitting a set of alarm clocks to keep a Piranha plant dormant – before you can attempt the “boss battle” with Bowser Jr in an interactive game. projection-based game.

Plant life… keeps the flora (or is it the fauna?) asleep
Plant life…allows flora (or is it fauna?) to sleep. Photography: Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

The catch is that to collect the various stamps, keys, and digital coins that dot the world, you must first purchase a Power-Up RFID wristband for $40 (on top of the theme park entrance fee of $109), which lets you track your progress in one app. Much like the $60 interactive wands sold in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter next door, it’s another gimmick to keep visitors coming back, tempting you to beat your high scores and see your ranking on a public leaderboard. It’s a clever use of technology, but it also makes you dream of the simpler, cheaper days of Laemmle and his nickel lunch box.

The novelty’s 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 stamped mustache on the bun) and a $9.99 Princess Peach cupcake can be washed down with a drink from a $20 collectible mushroom cup. You can momentarily forget about the burnt hole in your wallet with dreamy views through the windows, which are actually digital screens that play animations illustrating life in Toad’s bucolic world outside, and chaotic scenes inside. Toad’s equipped kitchen.

Mock turtle… a statue of Bowser in his villain's lair
Mock turtle… a statue of Bowser in his villain’s lair. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

All the intricate set design and narrative detail makes it easy to forget that there’s also a real ride here, themed around the Mario Kart racing game. Queuing has long been elevated to art at Universal and Disney theme parks, and it’s one of the most elaborate environments for queuing to date. Queue takes you through a sequence of rooms in Bowser’s Castle, a brilliantly designed villain’s lair, complete with a 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, standing in the center of a rotunda. With its sense of menace combined with unbridled kitsch, it feels like walking through the halls of Kim Jong-il’s palace.

The ride itself is Universal’s first experience with augmented reality technology, with visitors wearing a plastic Mario cap, to which an AR visor is magnetically attached. Rather than a fast and furious race, the ride feels more like a calm exploration through a series of environments, with an interactive shoot-em-up element layered over the visor. Buttons on the steering wheel allow you to fire shells at various baddies along the way, racking up points and extra ammo. But with four people in a kart, it’s hard to know who’s pulling what, if steering has an effect, and what exactly you’re supposed to do. There are times when the AR comes into its own – like when you’re speeding into hyperdrive on Rainbow Road – but for the most part it’s a confusing distraction from the impressive animatronics and physics sets around you.

“It’s designed for repeat rides,” says Corfino. “Each time you will have a different experience, earn more rewards, and better understand how the game works.” 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 again for the fleeting thrill of a four-minute experience.

Park and Roll… Mario Kart's Ride Features Augmented Reality
Park and roll… the Mario Kart ride features augmented reality. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

Still, there’s a lot more to enjoy in the psychedelic surroundings of the Mushroom Kingdom. Dedicated explorers will discover a series of stairs that lead to elevated vantage points, where binoculars allow you to gaze at the teeming world below, covered in more weird and wonderful AR things from the Mario games, like hovering balls and flying turtles.

It seems fitting that, in this city of fakes and simulacra – where, as Noel Coward once said, “there is always something so delightfully real about what is fake, and something so fake about what is real” – Universal has conjured up the ultimate synthetic landscape. And you’ll have that boring theme ringing in your ears for days to come.

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