The highly-anticipated Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan opened to the public on 18 March 2021.
Speaking about the new themed expansion, Thierry Coup, senior VP and CCO, Universal Creative, said that the goal of Super Nintendo World was to create a feeling of being inside a : “You’re not just playing the game; you’re living the game, you’re living the adventure.”
Now, as Super Nintendo World opens for the first time, we speak to David “Dez” Hernandez, Creative Director & Vision Keeper for the project, to find out more about how Universal Creative made this goal a reality.
Jumping at the chance
Working with such a well-known IP may have been a daunting prospect for some. However, Hernandez is no stranger to working with beloved brands, having previously been involved with projects for big hitters such as Nickelodeon, Lucasfilm and Disney. Speaking about the concept, Hernandez, a self-confessed “fanboy” and lifelong gamer, says:
“When I first came onto the project, we were speculating new ideas and new ideas for Universal and they asked me about Nintendo. And as soon as they said the word Nintendo, I just jumped out of my seat and lit up.”
“I know it so well. Not just Mario, but the entire library of games. And I think my in-depth knowledge of that meant that I was able to create so much, so quickly, in concept. That meant that when we presented it for the first time to the Nintendo people, which was very intimidating, they jumped in and they loved it.
“We created a bond, a relationship, which helped me to maintain the original intent and to follow along the entire process. Which is how the title Vision Keeper came about.”
Presenting Super Nintendo World
Rides and attractions at Super Nintendo World include Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge and Yoshi’s Adventure, as well as Bowser Jr. Shadow Showdown. Plus, there will also be a range of themed retail and F&B, including Kinopio’s Cafe and Yoshi’s Snack Island. The themed expansion has been designed to make guests feel as if they have walked into one of the enduringly-popular Super Mario World games, as Hernandez explains:
“My initial thought was to drop the joystick, drop the controller. That’s how I looked at it. I said, ‘There’s no longer a controller. There’s no longer a screen. You’re in. You’re the avatar, you’re the character.’ And that is something I wanted, for people just to believe that they are in the game.”
“It started with my initial sketches for the land itself. I locked onto their 3D environments for Mario, which brought me to Mario 64, a favourite of mine when I was younger, and then to Super Mario 3D World, which is the newer four-player version.
“That allowed Mario free reign to run through his land with his friends. And I wanted to recreate that with our guests. And that’s what I imagine, children running, grabbing their parents and running, saying ‘I know what to do here. I know where to go.’ I wanted it to be familiar. Different, but familiar.”
Bringing Mario World to life
“I wanted everything to be different in this world and so huge and so immersive that it was it was going to shock people when they were here,” says Hernandez. “But I also wanted that familiarity. Kids, and even parents, because Mario’s been around for thirty years now, they just want to run up and know what to do with a punch block or a music note.”
Firstly, the design team needed to identify which elements from the game world they wanted to bring to life.
“That was difficult,” says Hernandez. “With the games, you had a controller and you were on the screen with up to four players maximum. So you could always control that environment. But we have hundreds of guests, if not thousands, walking around the land. So how are we going to get this personal gaming experience with each guest?
“That led us to create a pathway through the land that was very planned, on the creative end, yet that felt very random for the guest. It’s like, ‘What’s around this corner? What’s around that turn?’ So it always feels like a personal game, even though are 30 guests behind you waiting to do it next.”
A truly immersive experience
For Hernandez and the creative team, the idea was to create an experience so that visitors would forget where they were.
“I thought it was very necessary to keep the guests closed in and keep it intimate,” he says. “I want you to forget you were in a theme park, to forget you were just in the parking lot. Whatever you saw last, this was going to make you forget that.”
“In the game, you have free-world access and you can roam around. So that’s what I wanted to make the guests feel. That no matter which way they went, they were in control, even though we knew where they were going. You could run over here and explore a this, or you could run over there and explore that, and we wanted to make sure it felt just like the game in that sense.”
Working with Nintendo royalty
Nintendo, the IP owner, which first introduced Mario and friends in 1985, also worked closely with the creative team throughout the process. This included the original creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto.
“Mr Miyamoto is incredible,” says Hernandez. “He’s just like me. We were two thirteen-year-old boys reimagining everything. When I first created the concept package, I put it together and the executives said, we’re taking this to Japan. My first thought was they’re never going to let us do this. It’s just so new and so different.”
“But not only did they want to do it, but they also embraced it and they love the idea. One of the most exciting moments of my career was when Mr Miyamoto went up to the whiteboard with me. I was drawing and he started finishing my drawing with his ideas and we were working together. I just thought to myself, here’s a man I’ve looked up to for over thirty years and we’re brainstorming together.”
The Super Nintendo World concept evolves
Taking the concept of Super Nintendo World from paper to a real-world application meant that it underwent some changes along the way, says Hernandez:
“The concepts grew and expanded because we had more ideas. It was amazing having Mr Miyamoto and his team, they made us think of the games differently. We’re used to taking you through the park, it’s very linear, and all of these ideas of how the game should play and how a guest should interact with that game before they go to the next point threw us in a different direction.”
“Then we started to understand that process and we wanted it to feel like an ongoing game and you were collecting and growing and scoring as you went. We wanted to make sure you were going through the levels.”
One of the challenges was deciding where the guest journey should begin, as well as the visitor flow through Super Nintendo World.
“Every game I have played, you start at Peach’s Castle. I wanted to make sure the guests had that same experience,” says Hernandez. “But we didn’t want to have the castle sitting outside in Universal Studios. It’s like how we’ve done Hogwarts, part of the success of the Wizarding World [of Harry Potter] is you feel immersed and enclosed and we want to recreate that. That’s where we came up with the green warp pipe.”
“You have a large warp pipe that takes you in and then surprisingly brings you out of Peach’s castle with the entire vista of Mario World. Then, we wanted to give you the choice. You can see the entrance to Mario Kart, you can see the restaurant, you can see Yoshi’s Adventure and all of this is moving and kinetic and alive. That allows the guests to think and decide which way they want to go.”
Interactivity at Super Nintendo World
Interactivity is a big part of Super Nintendo World, not just within the rides themselves but also through objects such as magic buttons and blocks that visitors can interact with.
“One of the first things Mr Miyamoto showed me was how Mario, when you first start on the screen, he comes from left to right,” says Hernandez. “And once he gets to the centre of the screen, he stays in the centre of the screen as you control him through the rest of the world. So it was a prompt saying, ‘here’s Mario, but now we want you to move’. And that translated to us; we thought, ‘how do we want you to move?’”
“So we had these interactive games showing right away. We have the slot machine to your left. We have Peach’s gazebo to your right. The team wanted to make sure that you saw there was gaming as soon as you come in. But it wasn’t linear.
“That was the key, to keep it random. To keep it random, we wanted people to be able to see a piranha plant, and go ‘I want to run over there and play with the piranha plant. I can come back up here later and play with the slot machine.’
“There is no linear order, which helped us with traffic flow. But it also makes guests feel like they are making the choice, which made it more like a video game.”
When they visit Super Nintendo World, guests can also use Power-Up Bands. These can be linked to smartphones and allow people to collect digital coins and compete with other visitors.
“We knew we wanted to be able to collect an inventory,” says Hernandez. “We didn’t want you to just be able to hit your coin sound and forget about it. The experience should not be passive and that’s where we came up with the idea for the app.”
“The design team and the technical team blew me away, coming up with how we’re going to use the wristband to collect our inventory and look at it in the app as a scoreboard, a leader board, just as you would in the game. That led us to how we’re going to create interactivity along the way.
“You start up by punching a block. Once you get to that, it shows how you collect and you just continue. Mr Miyamoto has a great theory; explore, discover, play. So you’re never getting instructions, you’re never actually learning. You’re exploring and as you explore, you discover. That turns into a game and that is what keeps it fun.
“The app will allow you to collect those coins and keep those items and the band will allow that as well. So if you do come back, you can bring your score up or do even better.”
Emerging technologies on show
Super Nintendo World has certainly pushed the boundaries of what can make possible in a theme park environment. Hernandez feels this is an area that will continue to evolve.
“Not only have we discovered a lot of tech and emerging technologies, but I think one of the things we started to do was making the ride interactive, and that made the land interactive,” he says.
“We knew that gaming had to be the continual point of this experience. And I think you’re going to see that a lot more in other attractions, for all theme parks. Instead of just sitting passively in a vehicle, I think we’re going to get choices and options within attractions. This takes away that linear feeling. It means you could ride it two or three times and always get a different experience.
“With my children, we have the Oculus and the VR and the AR, and I see them playing these video games. And I always wonder, how am I going to compete with this environment? Because once the theme park is built, it’s done.
“So we have to really research and be far ahead with emerging technologies and partner with other companies, to know that when our attraction comes out in three to six years, it’s going to be just as competitive and different as it was when we started brainstorming.”
No VR at Super Nintendo World
However, despite fully embracing technology, the team made a conscious decision not to use virtual reality. Instead, they opted for AR goggles on the Super Nintendo World’s Mario Kart ride, as Hernandez explains:
“We knew we didn’t want VR because we wanted you to feel like you were moving through and so much of the world was built on the outside, we didn’t want to just make another video experience. And I can’t take all the credit for that.”
“Our executive team and designers, we all came together and we thought of every option, 3D projection mapping, real-world practical effects, animated figures, all mixed in with that extra added layer of AR, which just made it more action-based.”
As well as the technological elements, much work has gone into the look and feel of Super Nintendo World, making it truly feel like guests have stepped into another land.
“One of the things I always kept saying was that I wanted you to feel as if you were in a Ray Harryhausen movie,” says Hernandez. “Everything was big and you knew there were bigger things than you. You are just a small piece of this puzzle environment.”
“To make that environment feel 3D, I came up with a process we call hyper-real. That was the painting process for the entire environment. We put lighting and shading onto the objects. So, if you look at a stone or brick, there is already a highlight and a shadow created by paint. And that allowed a little bit of an uncanny feeling.
“So when you look at everything, it just seems a little different. That allows us to have that 3D game look.”
Music creates atmosphere
This immersive atmosphere at Super Nintendo World is further enhanced by a specially created soundscape.
“I was very lucky in that I was able to work with a great composer, Danny Donadi,” says Hernandez. “We were able to go out to Prague and record with the Prague Symphony to create a symphonic orchestral sound of all these video games sounds we’ve heard for the past 30 years.”
“When you progress forward, you’ll hear the music change with the levels of the game as you move through the levels of the land. It’s that emotional reaction that I was looking for.
“We wanted to make sure you weren’t inundated and getting tired of repetitive music. So as you walk through the land, if you walk towards the left, you may hear the cello version but without a beat, as you walk past here you hear the percussion beats, or the music may change to the violins and horns over to your right. As you move through the land, you’re hearing that music and continues your experience.”
Storytelling is key to success
All of these elements, both high and low tech, combine in Super Nintendo World to tell a story. For Hernandez, storytelling is key to an attraction’s success:
“The keyword is story. I always felt I am a storyteller and that’s what I’m trying to do. I want to be able to tell a story and have the guests experience that story.”
“In my opinion, you’re going to see a lot more expanded realities, going forward. I think you’re going to see a lot of places where guests not only make choices but can also affect the environment and the story around them.”
Talking of possible tools that could help designers to tell stories in the future, as technology continues to develop, he adds:
“I would like to see 3D projection come to the next level, be it if we could pull off holograms, holographs or anything, but in full colour. Not the little blue Star Wars ones, but a true environment, where you don’t need the goggles.
“As we get higher on with our video resolution, we’re going to have a lot more space to be creative with character animation or environmental animation. Or even 3D projection mapping, where guests feel as if they’ve gone through it and it’s actually next to them.”
“When I think of new properties now, I immediately go into how can I add an extra layer. How can I bring some interactivity into this attraction? How can I make this a little more than just another ride, another boat ride, another car ride etc.?
“Because having that interactive element and keeping the guest engaged, even the mother in the back seat who may have never played a video game will start interacting because there are buttons and there are choices, I think that just brings a whole family experience together. We never had that option before.”
Super Nintendo World: coming soon to the US
Most of the plans for Super Nintendo World at Universal Hollywood Studios and Universal Orlando Resort are still under wraps. However, Hernandez offers a small teaser:
“Hollywood and Orlando are well on the way. The pandemic, of course, got in the way, as it did with everyone and slowed things down. But we’re moving forward. And I think Universal Creative is going to have fun. Especially with the Orlando property, because there’s so much more space.”
Images: Nintendo & Universal Studios Japan | David Hernandez
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