Game Design,  Travel

super nintendo world and the interactive theme park pipe dream

On 4 February, 2021, Super Nintendo World will be the first theme park to open during a pandemic.  Okay, so it isn’t a standalone theme park, but a section of Universal Studios Japan.  It is significant, however, because it’s first major theme park based on a video game series.

From what I’ve seen, it looks incredible, even just the environment design of the place.  Then, Nintendo released a video of Shigeru Miyamoto touring the new park, in which the legendary game designer and creator of Super Mario previewed various attractions and features with giddy ebullience.  Miyamoto looked like he was having the time of his life, and it’s delightful to watch.  How could you not be excited after that?

I only know what’s been revealed to the public about Super Nintendo World so far.  And given Universal Studios’ recent reputation of cutting-edge theme park technology and innovations (in particular with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), I have no doubt that it is going to be a really cool place to visit.

But, this is a video game theme park.  And from what I’ve seen, I’m concerned that there may be too much emphasis on the “game” part and not so much on the “park”.  A lot of the Super Nintendo World’s interactivity seems to be “gamified” in some way or another, and that might not always be for the best.

Audiences of video games and theme parks have different expectations.  They are two very different experiences, and the design of each needs to adapt to what can and can’t be done well in that particular medium.

In this blog post, I’m going to explore the design challenges of Super Nintendo World in its unique approach to taking on a video game franchise in a themed entertainment experience.  In particular, I will focus on two main components of the theme park that have been highly advertised, the main ride Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge and the Power-Up Bands used for interactive activities around the land.

Image from: Universal Studios Japan

Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge

Let’s start with the main attraction.  Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge is an AR ride based on the Mario Kart franchise, in which guests will have the chance to race against an opposing car to bring home the trophy.  The Universal Studios website describes it as follows:

Image from: Universal Studios Japan

Race on Mario Kart!
Race your way to victory! Iconic Mario Kart courses have been brought to life with cutting-edge technology. Challenge enemies with shells! Aim for the finish line with Mario and Peach! The world’s first interactive Mario Kart theme park ride will leave you with a rush of adrenaline!

*Based on in-house research of facilities featuring the world of Mario Kart, theme park original attractions and the games

Universal Studios Japan

This is certainly a strong concept.  Any Mario Kart fan would be thrilled to jump into a real life game and experience the race from behind the wheel.  But there are several things to consider when designing this game as a theme park ride.


1. Keep it Simple

Integrating gaming and rides have been done before, like the successful Toy Story: Midway Mania ride in the Disney parks.  In this ride, pairs of guests spin through a series of screens, where they can shoot at targets that appear on them.  It’s a single, simple interaction that doesn’t change throughout the ride, with the flavour coming from the characters and the spinning motion of the ride vehicle rather than the gameplay itself.

Koopa’s Challenge, however, sounds like it goes beyond this conceit.  While Midway Mania uses 3D glasses, Koopa’s Challenge uses AR glasses, which means that there are elements appearing in mixed virtual and real forms, rather than just on screens.  Gameplay wise, Koopa’s Challenge also sounds more complex.

The Mario Kart vehicles have steering wheels, though this is probably just for show as the ride is on tracks.  In the middle of the steering wheel, however, is a flashing button.  If we’re going by the Mario Kart video game, this will likely be used to send obstacles (shells, probably) your opponents’ way, though how that works remains to be seen.

Image from: Universal Studios Japan

If you haven’t played Mario Kart, this interaction can be really confusing.  The way Koopa’s Challenge can overcome this is by making the ride game dead simple to play.  They must also ensure there are autopilot capabilities for those who don’t understand the instructions or want to just sit back and enjoy the ride, or for cars that have to go on empty.

Theme park rides need to be fun for the whole family, not just the gamer in the group.  This is why Disney’s Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run and even Mission: Space at Epcot rely on simple button presses and steering that are impossible to really “fail” at.

In general, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge should go light on the gaming elements and heavy on the experience elements.

2. No One Loses

Koopa’s Challenge is advertised as trying to “aim for the finish line”, but in reality, we should be prepared to have a situation where points and winning don’t matter in the end.  The ride shouldn’t feel like it ended badly for one team, much like how Disney’s Cars ride, Radiator Springs Racers, has two ride vehicles realistically race against each other on a track but ends up with both winning.

How Koopa’s Challenge handles this dilemma will be very interesting to see, especially because it lets players purposefully “challenge enemies”, which should have an effect.

3. Playtest Creatively

Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge has been in development for six years.  In games, a lot of time is spent iteratively playtesting, fixing things, and making improvements according to feedback.  However, playtesting a ride is difficult and much more expensive.  For something like Toy Story: Midway Mania, it would have been much easier to test and iterate with just a screen, makeshift controllers, and one or two prototype vehicles or just office chairs you could roll around.


For the more complex Koopa’s Challenge, possible large physical elements and AR integration with them, along with a “racing” track, would have made playtesting difficult to do on a small scale.  While I don’t expect Universal or Nintendo to reveal their design processes, I certainly hope that there was plenty of playtesting and creative ways in which they managed to do so behind the scenes.


Image from: Universal Studios Japan

Power-Up Bands

Power-Up Bands are RFID-enabled wristbands that are connected to an app on your smartphone.  Using the bands, you can punch blocks and collect coins, as well as participate in something called “Key Challenges” that involves a final boss battle.

Image from: Universal Studios Japan

Help Peach recover the Golden Mushroom taken by Bowser Jr.!
The Golden Mushroom has been stolen by Bowser Jr.! Play interactive games throughout Super Nintendo World and collect 3 keys! The Final Challenge is an exciting boss battle with Bowser Jr. Can you defeat the Mushroom Kingdom’s most devious trickster?!

*A Power-Up Band is required to experience this attraction.
*Power-Up Band will be available for purchase

Universal Studios Japan

While this reminds me of the magic wands over at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of Universal Studios, those wands were largely aimed at children and the Power-Up Bands seem to be marketed at everyone as an integral part of experiencing Super Nintendo World.  This brings to mind several considerations.

1. Barriers to Entry

Power-Up Bands cost extra and rely on a smartphone app, both of which are barriers to entry for a theme park visitor.  Additional cost is self-explanatory, especially because the interactions are largely unnecessary if you just want to visit land and go on the rides.  The smartphone app can also be prohibitive to guests because it’s one more thing to do, and doesn’t accommodate guests who aren’t technologically minded.  And in the case of visiting groups, purchasing one band for each member of the family can seem like overkill.

2. Crowd Control

In his tour video, Shigeru Miyamoto did an activity to try and earn a coin with his Power-Up Band.  He had to scan his Power-Up Band at the correct timing on a large moving animatronic scene, in order to push a shell up to collect a coin.  While this looked super cool, my mind immediately jumped to the potential crowd control issues at this particular kiosk.  It would be great if there were multiple simultaneous plays allowed, but by the size of this setup, it seemed like there was only one available.

Watching Miyamoto tour the land looks fantastic but he’s just one person in an empty theme park.  Once it gets more crowded, I would hate to have Power-Up Bands be a cause of long lines to do certain activities at specific locations where you can collect coins.  Sadly, this is probably an inevitably, but I hope that the park has set up measures to counteract it.

3. Park Over Mobile

Over-reliance on the app is a challenge because first of all, collecting coins on your phone with no tangible reward can be done in any other mobile game, anywhere.  Super Nintendo World needs to find a compelling reason for guests to come to the park to play, just like how the Harry Potter wands cause things to move in the shop windows of Diagon Alley.

Additionally, I suspect that having guests focus on their phones pulls them out of the immersion of the park.  In a sense, the Power-Up Bands and their accompanying app go against the notion of a theme park that is about bringing the digital to life.  Instead of feeling like you are walking around the Mushroom Kingdom, still requiring an electronic device to do the “game” part of the world strikes me as too close to playing the Mario games at home.


One thing that the parks have over the average gamer’s setup is the ability to work at scale, creating larger-than-life characters and even “?” boxes.  And since the interaction of punching the box to hear that coin sound is so powerful, why not take full advantage of that by having a digital sign in the park that keeps a running total of how many times that particular box was punched?

Theme parks are great at playing with scale and creating a spectacle.  It seems like having a more visible and flashy approach to reward visitors would be far more effective than keeping results limited to the private screens of guests’ mobile phones.  Having physical environments in the parks gives guests a reason to visit and take photographs rather than being buried on the app in their smartphones.

The coolest things in Super Nintendo World should be in the park itself, with the mobile app only used to enhance the park-goers’ experience.

Image from: Universal Studios Japan

Interactive Theme Parks are Still a Pipe Dream

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Super Nintendo World is next in the line of theme parks chasing the dream of being fully interactive.  While theme parts are starting to include more and more interactive elements, a smoothly immersive interactive park of the scale Super Nintendo World is attempting remains a pipe dream.

Integrating interactive elements into traditional theme park experiences like rides and restaurants sounds exciting, but it’s also difficult to do so smoothly without breaking the guests’ immersion.  Plus, the twin challenges of crowd control and maintenance in theme parks makes having anything digitally interactive even more challenging.

While most theme parks now have interactive pieces, it looks like Super Nintendo World is pushing the envelope.  If anything, the designers are showing bravery and innovation at tackling some brand new theme park versus gaming design problems, to whatever degree they succeed.  I, for one, can’t wait to see how Super Nintendo World turns out.