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A statue of Bowser in front of his castle in the queue for Super Nintendo World’s attraction Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge. Photo: NBCUniversal

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Super Nintendo World delivers on the ultimate Mario Kart fantasy

Race Bowser and throw shells in Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge

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.

Super Nintendo World, which opened Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood, is a deeply immersive and interactive simulacrum of Mario’s world. Walking through a Warp Pipe immediately transports visitors into the Mushroom Kingdom, a brightly colored set wrapping around that section of the park to create the illusion of being inside a game. Koopas move back and forth along the green hills designed to look like classic Super Mario Bros. levels. Stacks of Goombas teeter back and forth, and large Thwomp blocks thwomp — though safely out of the way of any park visitors.

The gem in the park’s crown is Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, a dark ride that uses augmented reality to drop visitors into the classic racing game series. The one attraction in Universal Studios Hollywood’s Super Nintendo World, Bowser’s Challenge has the accompanying chaos of taunts from competitors, shells flying everywhere, and a vehicle that’s prone to a little tailspin when hitting an obstacle.

On the ride, four people share a kart, and zoom together on a track through a series of worlds that mimic Mario Kart’s most famous settings. A Pokey meanders through a desert world, Ty-foos blow at riders during their time flying through the skies, and things get a little twisted as riders get a taste of Luigi’s haunted mansion. And no Mario Kart session would be complete without a trip down the looping track of Rainbow Road.

These practical effects seamlessly blend with AR, which riders experience through a Mario-themed visor and accompanying goggles. Peach, Toad, Yoshi, and others are the competition, throwing shells and causing a ruckus. As the ride goes on, players break virtual, multicolored question-mark boxes to receive shells, which can be to thrown at the other racers and objects around you — like flying Koopas or Bullet Bills whizzing through the sky — by clicking buttons at the top of your steering wheel. Look around while wearing the AR goggles, as the ride is overflowing with objects to lob shells around and enemies to aim at.

Various Mario Kart outfits for Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, and Toad in the waiting area for Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge in Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo: NBCUniversal

The tech itself isn’t fussy. The AR goggles are attached by a cord to the steering module, and magnetically snap into the visors that riders are given while in the queue. Aiming feels natural, as you launch shells in the direction you’re physically facing.

Just like in a multiplayer showdown on the Switch, driving and shooting skills determine who wins the race. (Team Bowser roasted me in both of my times on the ride, but since I tested it on my own without the support of teammates, I plead innocence.) It also means that every time a visitor goes through Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, they’ll have a slightly different experience.

And each ride on Bowser’s Challenge, like much of the park, can be logged in the Universal Studios Hollywood app. A tap of the park’s Power-Up Band on the Mario logo in the center of the steering wheel records the final score on a park leaderboard, which displays daily and all-time high scores. There’s also a ton of achievement-like stamps to unlock in the app, like for pulling off unique shell throws or feats in the ride. During my two ride-throughs, I unlocked a few stamps for hitting hidden question blocks.

The entrance to Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge at Super Nintendo World in Universal Studios Hollywood. A large piece of scenery emulates the look of a Super Mario Bros. level, with lots of coin blocks, POW blocks, and Thwomps speckled throughout. Photo: NBCUniversal

The wait for the ride will undoubtedly be long, as Super Nintendo World is finally opening to the public in Los Angeles. But even the queue leading up to the ride is stuffed with Easter eggs that will delight Nintendo lovers. The opening bit of the line wraps through a Yoshi-inspired world, with music and iconography from the Super Mario World series — though the park in Universal Studios Hollywood does not have the Yoshi’s Adventure ride, as in Osaka, Japan. (A recently announced port of the park, set for construction at Universal’s Epic Universe park in Orlando, Florida, is expected to expand on the LA footprint to match the Japanese park’s offerings.)

The ride’s queue finally leads into Bowser’s Castle, which is fitted with an enormous throne, a Bob-omb factory line, and tons of funny reference books on topics like wooing princesses and caring for Piranha Plants. Portraits and statues of the villain himself deck out the towering behemoth. As a rider waits, they can also peek out at one of the best views in the park, right at the entrance of Bowser’s Castle — from the perch, all of Super Nintendo World is visible in its full glory.

Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood opens to the public on Feb. 17.