With the opening of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Mushroom Kingdom is now a vacation option for Nintendo fans across the United States and beyond. There are numerous interactive attractions designed to keep attendees moving, jumping, and smacking (in the friendliest possible way). There’s the expected gift shop, and there’s a surprisingly tasty cafe. There are more sounds and colors than the human brain is accustomed to absorbing in one afternoon.
But the main attraction, of course, is Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge. Using an impressive array of technology, this AR ride aims to approximate the thrill of participating in a real-world, physical Mario Kart race. Does it succeed? I’ll answer that with another question; what do you want from your amusement park rides?
Upon entering the warp pipe that leads to the queue, riders are immediately pulled into the Mario Kart world. Various rooms along the way are set up to approximate the settings of previous Mario Kart games. Glowing mushrooms and gems, brightly colored vistas, and numerous video screens will attempt to keep you pacified as you wait in line.
Upon entering Bowser’s Castle, the decorations shift more towards the “technology” behind the karts, bob-omb construction, and even books on how to woo princesses. There’s no shortage of displays to take in and discuss, all of which is surely designed to distract you from the wait.
That said, I checked the Universal app on opening day (Friday, February 17) and found there was only an estimated wait time of 50 minutes. Is that standard for Universal Studios Hollywood? If so, not too bad (I’ve been known to wait three hours for some roller-coasters).
Eventually, you’ll be given headgear to wear on the ride. This includes motion sensors (more on that in a bit), but it also serves as a way to attach the AR visor that provides the 3D imagery. You’ll then enter the launch room with a lane on each side. You’re assigned a kart, each of which has four seats.
After sitting, you pull down the steering console that also serves as your safety harness. It was pretty snug, but comfortable. Considering the much-discussed 40″ waist restriction, I’ll point out I’m size 34W.
The AR visor is attached via string to the kart’s console, and it magnetically snaps into place on your headgear. It’s this visor which does most of the work on the ride. In fact, without it, you’d basically have a county fair on-the-rails haunted house ride…albeit the greatest county fair on-the-rails haunted house ride you’ve ever experienced.
Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge never moves that fast. It never really takes a sharp angle. It just combines practical effects with images on the AR visor to trick your brain into thinking you’re experiencing something more exciting than you are. And it succeeds at that. Wonderfully.
Although you’re barely moving when the race begins, you really feel like you’re launching. Spin-outs (of course there are spinouts) feel real. Turns seem sharper than they are. And I have to admit I got chills when I first approached the thrilling Rainbow Road segment, and I’m not even much of a Mario Kart player.
The lighting and practical effects work so tightly in tandem with what’s being displayed on the AR visor that there’s barely a second to settle down and take it all in. Bowser’s Challenge feels as hectic as a Mario Kart race should (and it’s nearly as frustrating when you get inked in the game).
Of course, this is a challenge, so you’re tasked with racking up points by firing turtle shells and such (via a button on the steering console) at the obstructions that pop up on the visor. You aim by turning your head to face what you want to shoot as if piloting Blue Thunder (a reference I make solely for the two of you who’ll get it). This makes things a bit difficult, as simply turning your eyes won’t cut it; it’s your whole head or it’s a miss. “Steering” also comes into play, but I’m not sure how it affects your score. This is evidenced by my high of 100 on two rides. That was good enough to get me second place in my kart, but well short of the daily high that was displayed at the ride’s end. At the time, it was 239 if I recall.
I started in a different lane each time I rode Bowser’s Challenge, and received a slightly alternated experience. You’ll get the same landmarks each time (Rainbow Road, Luigi’s Mansion, etc.), but the gameplay elements are set up for park-goers to ride multiple times if the line-length permits and if Revenge of the Mummy doesn’t becken from across the way.
Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge is an impressive technological and visual treat that should satisfy Nintendo fans. It’s kind of like Toy Story Mania at Disney World, only much cooler and certainly more fun. I still prefer the physical thrill of an actual roller-coaster over an AR experience that’s just tricking me into thinking it’s doing more than it is, but having grown up within a morning’s drive of Cedar Point, that elitism is inescapable.
So, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge should certainly be part of your overall Universal Studios Hollywood experience. Children and adults will likely find it equally entertaining. If you’re going to the park specifically for the ride, however…well, hopefully the overall vibe of spending time in the Mushroom Kingdom rounds things out, as it’s not thrilling enough to be the central focus of your day.