AR for attractions? It's in the karts
Review of Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge at Super Nintendo World
4.25 out of 5
For a brief while, attraction designers were rushing to graft virtual reality technology onto rides such as roller coasters, thereby turning them into themed experiences. The attempts were rife with problems, including the considerable extra time that outfitting passengers with goggles added to the loading and unloading processes, the bulky (not to mention, balky) goggles themselves, the hygiene concerns of sharing goggles, and the challenges of synchronizing VR content with rides’ motion profiles. I generally have a cast iron stomach when it comes to thrill rides (which is fortuitous, given my job), but when the VR media was way out of sync during a ride aboard the Superman coaster at Six Flags New England a number of years ago, I turned green as kryptonite and very nearly blew super-sized chunks.
The biggest reason why the fad was doomed to fail, however, is that VR runs counter to the very essence of theme parks. They are highly social places where we go to commune with one another and have fun together. When guests don VR goggles, they are disconnected from the physical environment and, more critically, isolated from friends, family members, and other park visitors.
Augmented reality, or AR, on the other hand, superimposes generated media onto the real world. It allows users to maintain contact with the environment and with other people. As such, it holds promise as a means of storytelling at parks. Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, the highlight at Universal Studio Hollywood’s just-opened Super Nintendo World, is the first major attraction to incorporate AR. As a proof of concept, it does so with great style. The AR media augments what is already a grand-scale, E-Ticket ride.
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Before I jump into the review, let me say that I’m not much of a video gamer. I loved me some ColecoVision back in the day. (Look it up kids; it was a thing.) Sure, I played Nintendo alongside my sons when they were younger. But I don’t really know a Goomba from a Thwomp. Please don’t hold that against me; but also know Nintendo fluency is not a prerequisite to enjoy the Mario Kart attraction. I found it highly engaging and believe that super-fans, casual fans, and non-fans alike will do so as well.
Guests approach the attraction by entering a green pipe at the base of the whimsically adorned Mount Beanpole. That takes them into Bowser’s Castle, which has to be one of the longest queues in parkdom. A hulking statue of the fearsome Koopa greets visitors. The path winds through a series of cavernous rooms that are jammed with Mario mishegas. One contains a gaggle of Bob-ombs, seemingly poised to explode.
The queue sets the stage for a showdown race between Team Bowser (boo!) and Team Mario (that’s-a us). There are two pre-show rooms, the second of which explains the game play. Guests learn that they are supposed to steer in the direction prompted to both score points and avoid spinouts. Although each person in the four-passenger vehicles has a steering wheel, nobody can actually steer the vehicles, which are on a fixed track. The way to really rack up points is by tossing shells at targets and collecting gold coins. Guests do that by turning their heads in the direction of the targets and pressing two buttons mounted on their steering wheels. As in the Mario games, players don’t have unlimited shells to toss. They can restock ammo by dipping their heads when presented with question blocks. Universal says there are also Easter eggs embedded in the attraction to score even more points. Let us know if you discover any.
Before making their way to the karts, guests are given adjustable headgear that resemble Mario’s “M”-emblazoned cap. When they get into the vehicles, they magnetically attach tethered face shields to the headgear, which snap into place with minimal fuss.
About the vehicles: Much has been made (partly by Universal itself) about restrictions that might prevent visitors with waist sizes larger than 40 inches from fitting into the seats; don’t believe it. I rode with a friend whose girth is considerably bigger than 40 inches, and he was able to get in with no problem. Apparently, it’s more about certain body types. There is a test seat outside the queue that anybody with concerns should try before entering the attraction.
If my description of how to play the game sounds confusing, don’t fret. I found it quite intuitive and easy to get up to speed. Having said that, I did catch myself sometimes steering towards targets (which doesn’t do the trick) instead of turning my head to aim. But I quickly corrected myself.
Unlike the Mario Kart games, the attraction is not a head-to-head race. It’s a virtual race against Team Bowser based on scoring points. Also, contrary to what Universal has said, the vehicles don’t really drift as they do in the games. They move fairly slowly, as in a typical dark ride. Every now and again, especially towards the start of the attraction, they sharply turn left or right. (That’s when guests are cued to turn their wheels.) There is a mild drifting sensation that’s accentuated by the sound of screeching tires.
The AR media that’s projected onto the face visors is a real hoot. It’s a riot of characters, question blocks, and other imagery that is quite responsive to the game play. It’s also well tuned to the action taking place beyond the shields. And there’s plenty of action.
AR may be the novel and primary feature of Mario Kart, but its creators have borrowed liberally from the attraction designer’s palette and included high-resolution video screens, projection mapping (including a giant Bowser that springs to colorful life), glorious practical sets with animatronics and much more. In one especially captivating scene, a room lifted from the game franchise’s “Twisted Mansion” literally bends and twists. That one left me scratching my head. There are also star fields, disco balls, vibrating seats, and even fog and heat (that’s used to transition into an underwater scene.)
For the finale, Mario Kart sends passengers racing down Rainbow Road. There’s so much going on there, it’s almost sensory overload–with an emphasis on “almost.” Here, as throughout the course, the AR melds remarkably well with the rest of the theme park trickery.
Like any great attraction–and this is a great attraction–the effects and technology mostly fade into the background, and the story takes center stage. It truly felt as if I had entered a video game (sorry Tron) and was playing to lord it over Team Bowser. I’m happy to say my vehicle’s Team Mario repeatedly vanquished our rival on multiple races.
What better way to showcase AR in an attraction than with a video game, the medium that introduced us to 32-bit digital graphics? Mario Kart bodes well for the future of AR in parks. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Are you planning to visit Universal Studios Hollywood to experience Mario Kart? Might you wait until Super Nintendo World opens at the new Epic Universe theme park in Orlando scheduled to open in 2025? What are your thoughts about VR and AR for park attractions?