After years of development, Universal’s Super Nintendo World is finally set to open at Universal Studios Japan… soon?
Originally scheduled to open last summer, in time for an Olympics that still haven’t happened, the opening was delayed due to Covid-19. In November Universal announced an opening date of Feb. 4—yep, tomorrow—but last month it was delayed again due to a State of Emergency order in Osaka Prefecture. It won’t open until that order has expired, which, according to Japanese theme park expert TDR Explorer, is currently scheduled for Feb. 7. So maybe everybody in Japan will be able to finally visit the Mushroom Kingdom later this week.
It might not be officially open yet, but some lucky fans have gotten a sneak preview of the land’s major ride, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge. This kart racing ride combines practical effects and animatronics with an augmented reality visor to recreate a Mario Kart race in the real world. Full ride-through videos have made their way onto YouTube, giving the rest of the world a chance to see what this long-anticipated attraction looks like. I’m one of those weirdoes who usually avoids video of rides I haven’t ridden yet—I like surprises—but due to this pandemic it’ll probably be years before I ever get a chance to ride this thing. So let’s do it.
Here’s a video from the Universal Parks News Today channel, with an extensive look at the queue and preshow, and a full run of the ride, including the AR components. And below that are my thoughts, so keep reading.
One thing full ride-through videos like this reinforce is the fundamental nature of theme parks: you wait a good while for something that’s really short but hopefully very sweet. This is a 20 minute video that’s about 13 minutes of walking through the empty queue, two minutes of preshow, and then about five minutes for the actual ride. No complaints about that, or anything—that’s just what the theme park industry is. The days of lengthy epics like Pirates of the Caribbean or the original EPCOT rides are long gone, and even something as amazing as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, an experience that’s almost 18 minutes long, only has about five minutes aboard the primary ride vehicle. What matters today is the world-building—the transportive nature of the whole show, and how thoroughly it places you within the world of the ride. Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge seems to do a really good job of that.
Throughout the lengthy queue you’ll see all manner of Mario business. After the grand entrance into Koopa’s Castle (they call Bowser “Koopa” in Japan, y’know) you’ll enter into a series of garages covered with ads for car-related products from the Mushroom Kingdom. This quotidian environment eventually gives way to more elaborately themed rooms, including Bowser’s library and throne room. You’ll see various little gag references to the games, along with small showpieces, like a Boo that comes to life out of a small painting and seems to float around on a shelf, and an assembly line for Bob-ombs. It’s become standard in theme park design to go all out with the queue spaces, and pack them with detail and even interactive gimmicks in order to keep people entertained during the wait. It looks like Universal did a good job of that here.
Eventually you’ll make it to a short preshow hosted by Lakitu, the cloud-riding camera operator from the games. A short video presentation gives you the basics of how to aim your shells and “steer” your vehicle, and explains how you’re racing for Team Mario against the nefarious Team Koopa. A short walk through the Team Mario locker room offers a glimpse of the racing suits for Mario, Peach and the gang, and also raises some frightening thoughts about what those characters would look like in the real world. And then finally you board your kart vehicle and strap on your AR visor before the race starts.
If you’ve ever played a Mario Kart game, you’ll immediately recognize some of your surroundings. Heck, if you only have basic Mario literacy—as basic as the original NES Super Mario Bros.—you’ll still be familiar with some of the game’s scenes, enemies, and power-ups. You’ll race through an underwater section, complete with schools of cheeps and a bloober, and take a short trip through Boo’s Mansion, full of boos and magikoopas. At least one of Bowser’s wooden skyships makes an appearance, and his children are all over the ride, trying to ensure victory for their overbearing dad’s team. Of course you eventually wind up on Rainbow Road, after getting blasted into the sky and fortuitously grabbing an invincible star power-up. All the while you’re launching virtual shells at the physical sets and AR characters that surround you.
Based on this video, Koopa’s Challenge is basically Mario’s Wild Ride with augmented reality animation placed over it. As a big fan of classic dark rides, and as a guy who has a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride figure sitting a foot away from me on my desk right this very second (and, uh, a Mr. Toad ballcap on the same desk), you better believe that makes me happy.
If there’s one thing about it that some critics will harp on, it’s the apparent lack of speed. The beginning and ending both seem to use AR to replicate the sensation of moving very fast, but most of the ride doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. It looks like a Fantasyland-style dark ride, moving steadily but somewhat slowly through dioramas that recreate the world of the games, only you have a pair of goggles adding a cartoon overlay on top of it all. Speed can be a tricky thing in theme park rides, though; it feels like you blast out of Radiator Springs Racers with a fury, but that Disney ride tops out at 40 miles per hour. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad doesn’t go faster than 35 MPH. They both feel a lot faster, though, and it’s possible that Mario Kart similarly feels faster than it looks in this video. In terms of expectations vs. reality in the speed department, this absolutely does not look anything like the debacle of Universal’s Fast and Furious ride.
It’s great to finally get a good look at this ride after so many years. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we finally get to ride it—whether that’s when the pandemic lets up enough to make international travel practical again, or when Universal builds the Super Nintendo Worlds coming to its parks in California and Florida. You can’t really form that strong of an opinion on a ride that you’ve only seen on YouTube, but visually, at least, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge is a delightful treat for Mario fans. Now hopefully we’ll get video of that Yoshi ride, too…
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.