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A photo from Super Nintendo World. A large Piranha Plant is in the foreground, with a Goomba, mushroom, Warp Pipe, and Pow block in the background. Photo: Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

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Visiting Super Nintendo World felt like being inside a Mario game

It opens on Feb. 17 at Universal Studios Hollywood

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Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

With a walk through a Warp Pipe, plus a light show and a classic jingle, I’m whisked from my everyday life and into the magical land of Super Nintendo World.

Super Nintendo World, which opens at Universal Studios Hollywood on Feb. 17, feels like being inside the cartoonish, otherworldly land of a Super Mario Bros. game. Immense rolling hills are populated with Mario’s pals and enemies: Koopas dart back and forth, Piranha Plants peek out of plumber pipes and open their toothy maws. All these beloved characters are in constant motion; a stack of Goombas wobbles back and forth as Yoshi circles a tree in the shade.

There are dozens of these charming tableaus set across towering sets, modeled to look like familiar Mario level environments, with soundtracks to boot. You can make a full spin within the park without breaking immersion. Bowser’s enormous castle looms over the scene, and Toadstool Cafe beckons in hungry guests. The colors of it all make it look like a game screenshot: Deserts and snowy set-pieces evoke classic Mario worlds, and coin blocks are speckled throughout the area. It is a totally seamless visual smorgasbord, and a sharp hit of nostalgia for any Nintendo fan.

A photo from Super Nintendo World, with a tall Pokey in front of a pyramid, and coin blocks in the foreground. Photo: Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

Super Nintendo World arrives at Universal Studios Hollywood after it debuted at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka last year, and boasts much of the same scenery — along with the centerpiece attraction Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge — though it occupies a smaller physical footprint, as Polygon learned during a press preview of the area. You’ll also have to go to Universal in Japan in order to ride Yoshi’s Adventure, which isn’t in the Hollywood version of the park. However, the expanded Super Nintendo World is scheduled to arrive at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida in 2025.

Bringing Nintendo’s worlds to life is a watershed moment for an amusement park whose identity was historically intertwined with moviemaking. Universal Studios Hollywood is known for movie-themed attractions like Jurassic World, Transformers, and the world-famous Studio Tour ride, which shows off recognizable sets and practical effects from classic films like Jaws. This is Universal Studios’ first amusement park section dedicated to a series of video games.

“Having a higher level of immersion is where we always want to take it, and going inside of a game is clearly another step up for us,” said Jon Corfino, vice president of Universal Creative, highlighting the importance of “interactivity” throughout Super Nintendo World.

The match makes sense. Video games and amusement parks both embody the idea of play; a player/visitor moves through a space, exploring its secrets, and leaving behind their mark as they move the story forward. That sense of exploration is alive at the park.

A sense of play

A section of Super Nintendo World, with a giant Thwomp in front of Bowser’s Castle. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

Super Nintendo World tells a classic story: “Peach has had her Golden Mushroom stolen by Bowser Jr.,” Corfino said. Guests play through a series of four minigames, plus one final boss battle, in order to help her win the mushroom back.

The park delivers on its “game come to life” promise beyond the spectacular scenery. There are various interactive coin blocks and games speckled throughout the park. And for $40, guests can buy Power-Up Bands that play a similar role to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s wands. Tapping a band in a spot marked with the Mario “M” will trigger an Easter egg or a minigame. There are six bands to choose from, inspired by Mario, Luigi, Peach, and friends. Each of these is also an amiibo, though we don’t yet have information on whether they will work with consoles at home.

The unique twist is in the band’s points system. Interacting with elements and playing minigames adds points to your total score, much like a tally from playing a Mario video game. Guests’ totals are all synced to the Universal Studios Hollywood app.

A projection of pixelated Mario against a brick wall backdrop. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

Cute interactive elements are hidden throughout the park’s nooks and crannies. One spot makes an NES-style Mario from the original Super Mario Bros., pixel art and all, appear in a stone wall (pictured). Hitting the underside of one of the many coin blocks, produces that telltale tinkling sound of a coin collected. (Punch it without a band and it still reacts, but with a different sound.)

One of the four main minigames in the land asks guests to aim at an enormous Piranha Plant in order to win a key. And in the park’s final boss fight, Bowser Jr. Boss Battle, my group piled into a room with a large screen, each of us standing on top of a number from one to 15. Our shadows were visible against the screen projection, and we were able to play the game by moving: I jumped to hit coin blocks, swatted away Bob-ombs falling from the sky, caught a Fire Flower, and waved my hands wildly to throw fireballs at Bowser Jr. as he flew by. We won the Golden Mushroom!

Each of these Easter eggs is a particular joy for Nintendo die-hards, from the nods to Mario’s origins to beloved enemy designs that have shown up in numerous games since, like a wobbly Goomba stack. The legacy of the games also extends to the restaurant in Super Nintendo World. Toadstool Cafe is an extension of this playful charm, with screens that show off a kitchen full of bustling Toads — it seems culinary exploits are Toad’s next adventure — taking and making your orders. Though the cafe wasn’t formally open yet, just seeing its interior was a delight.

Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge

A large statue of Bowser at the entrance of Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge at Super Nintendo World. Photo: Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

The centerpiece of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood is its new ride, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge. It will be the first of its kind in this park, blending together augmented reality with classic dark-ride elements to create something new. Four people share a Mario Kart car, don AR goggles, and throw shells and bananas to their hearts’ content. They’ll ride through underwater courses, zoom through the clouds, and compete for the Golden Cup. According to Universal, it’s worth going on multiple rides: You might get a different ending, depending on how you play.

“It is an actual moving ride and you will go through a series of environments where there’s mapping, there are LED screens, there are physical animations with special effects, and there’s AR goggles,” Corfino said. The way that it blends “all that together to make it look like it all goes away and becomes one thing is really the art of the whole thing,” he added.

A photo from Super Nintendo World’s Mario Kart ride, which shows Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, and Toad’s karting outfits and helmet. Photo: Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

I wasn’t able to test the ride, as it is still undergoing safety runs in the lead-up to opening. But I was impressed by the level of detail even in the queue; the ride welcomes guests with an homage to Super Mario World games — complete with the classic scores, which immediately took me back to long afternoons trying to prevent baby Mario from floating away in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island — and fluffy, crayon-art-style clouds and trees right out of Yoshi’s Crafted World. Another section of the queue takes players through an ice-world-like region, one of the mainstays of Super Mario Bros. level design.

A book about Piranha Plants and a Goomba paperweight inside the queue to Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

Guests then move through Bowser’s Castle, getting an inside look at the mind of Mario’s infamous nemesis and his cronies. There are tons of books scattered about, including self-help for talking to princesses, a guide on the dangers of bananas, and lots of care manuals for Piranha Plants. A portrait of Peach sits in an enormous Bowser-sized throne. If you look closely, you can tell precisely which games are referenced. A floating diorama of a planet is a reminder of Super Mario Galaxy, the 2007 paradigm-shifting Mario game that not only put him into a 3D world, but reimagined the idea of space and perspective. The major evolution of Nintendo over the last 20 years is on full display in the park.

The merch

The sign and Warp Pipe inspired entrance for Super Nintendo World’s gift shop, called the 1-Up Factory. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

Super Nintendo World’s 1-Up Factory wasn’t open to press during the time I visited, but a shop dedicated to the new park section is already open in Universal Studios Hollywood’s CityWalk, the strip of stores and restaurants that form a mini downtown in front of the theme park’s entrance. I took a peek inside and was delighted by the plushies, keychains, and clothes to commemorate even the smallest of Mario’s friends and foes.

Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, and Bowser exist in plush form, but there are also Goombas, Bob-ombs, and Toad — including a Toad in a dashing chef’s outfit (this one was tempting). There are coin block throw pillows, and matching Mario and Luigi shirts that say Player 1 and Player 2 on them, along with tons of plush mini keychains, including a cute little Shy Guy. We’ll have to wait until the park opens to see what’s in the 1-Up Factory, but the existing options already look promising for any Nintendo devotee.

Pre-sale is currently open for Super Nintendo World tickets at Universal Studios Hollywood through its website.