Shigeru Miyamoto works with his hands again

Shigeru Miyamoto is responsible for some of history’s most iconic virtual worlds, from the Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario to The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule. But he started with something much more tactile, studying industrial design in college before eventually pursuing a career in video games. It’s something he’s missed over the years. “The idea of ​​creating something with my hands suits me very well,” he says. More recently, he’s had the opportunity to return to those roots by working with the team at Universal Creative on Super Nintendo World, which has just opened at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The nostalgia hit him particularly hard when he visited Florida to see where some of the theme park parts were built and to test the texture and materials. “These meetings with the smell of factories around me were calming for me,” says Miyamoto.

At 70, Miyamoto is in one of the most experimental phases of his career. Previously the face of Nintendo’s biggest games, he has spent the last few years leading projects outside of the console games for which the company is known. He helped develop Super Mario Run, Nintendo’s first major smartphone release, and is serving as a producer on The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which hits theaters in April.

And then there are the amusement parks. Nintendo has teamed up with Universal to create Super Nintendo World, an immersive experience designed to transport visitors to the Mushroom Kingdom. The first edition debuted in Osaka in 2021 (be sure to check out our impressions of the original park), and the Los Angeles location will be followed by subsequent versions in Florida and Singapore.

“We had this common idea to create something new and impressive.”

Miyamoto says that while Universal was responsible for the actual construction of the parks, the Nintendo team was very involved in the planning and design. “We had this shared idea of ​​creating something new and amazing, and the idea of ​​creating something that’s really interactive,” he explains. “In that sense, our involvement wasn’t just about reviewing assets or designs. But I’m really trying to get down to the basics of how people are going to experience this and what their experiences are going to be. And we had a lot of meetings to discuss and define what we wanted to achieve here.”

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Although Miyamoto is a relative newcomer to the field, he says that “there wasn’t any intimidation or fear at all,” in large part because he had complete trust in the Universal team. Still, he had reservations about actually going through with it. “Will people be convinced this is actually the Mushroom Kingdom?” he recalls thinking. “Will they feel like they’re in the world? That’s something you really can’t say until it’s done. So there was a lot of trial and error to really get a feel for what makes this experience so compelling.”

Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood. Image: NBC Universal

For Miyamoto, it was also a chance to use his experience in a whole new context. Super Nintendo World is almost like a giant video game: as you explore, you can collect coins, search for secrets, and find keys to unlock a specific area of ​​the park. There’s even a real-life Mario Kart ride that’s part theme park attraction, part video game. You’ll hurtle through a course made up of a series of different Mario Kart tracks – you’ll travel underwater and across an intriguing rainbow road – while firing grenades, steering to avoid obstacles, and wearing AR glasses that evoke classic characters within you bring field of view. It’s all tied together by a simple story about Bowser Jr. stealing a golden coin that visitors must reclaim.

These elements utilize almost all of the existing technology that Nintendo is familiar with. The Mario Kart ride is powered by augmented reality, something that was built into the 3DS and gained wide acceptance thanks to Pokémon Go. To collect coins and unravel mysteries, you’ll need to don a wristband that wirelessly connects to the attractions, similar to the NFC technology that powers Nintendo’s amiibo figures (in fact, the wristband doubles as an amiibo figure). These elements aren’t entirely unique to theme parks, but they allowed the team at Nintendo to build on their previous work. “We were able to bring our experience to bear,” says Miyamoto.

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Of course there are differences. Working in the real world means grappling with pesky things like “safety” and “gravity.” You can’t exactly create a working version of Mario Kart 8’s gravity-defying tracks. For the most part, says Miyamoto, this wasn’t a problem. But the real nature of the park changed the way he and the team approached the attractions. For one, they had to be short, so the team had to really condense the Super Mario experience into bite-sized moments. But they also wanted the attractions to be exciting for people who aren’t actively using them.

“There was an idea that as many people as possible could experience and enjoy this space,” says Miyamoto. “For example, people who are not even fully into the attraction can still have fun. That’s something we’ve really tried to circumvent: the restrictions. We needed to maximize the amount of joy people got, whether they’re actually doing the thing or watching others do it.”

However, he had to cut out one element from the final version. Surrounding Super Nintendo World is a towering backdrop that looks like a classic side-scrolling Super Mario game, with moving characters like a stack of Goombas and Yoshi. At the top, on a large hill, stands a traditional Mario flag. “I wish people could climb Mount Beanpole higher,” Miyamoto admits. “But obviously there are safety concerns, so that didn’t happen.” “It’s a shame because the hardware is there,” he adds, laughing.

And while the LA park’s design is broadly the same as its Osaka counterpart, Miyamoto says small changes were made to the entrance, which is a giant green warp tube, and the exit to make the experience more immersive. “The exit path here requires you to go through a tube to emphasize the fact that you’re going into the non-Nintendo World portion of Universal,” he explains. “The park will expand to Florida and Singapore and I’m sure we’ll learn from there too.”

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A giant Bowser statue greets visitors who wish to drive the Mario Kart attraction. Image: NBC Universal

One of the most exciting areas for Miyamoto has been working with new people. Nintendo is a company that has always valued outside opinions and often hires new employees with no gaming experience. In the past, Miyamoto has said that working with people of different abilities is invigorating, and working with Universal’s minds in the theme park offered something similar. “It was a lot of fun,” he says of the process. “I really enjoyed it.”

“I tried to hide and be as out of sight as possible.”

Even more exciting: the opportunity to see fans interact with his work in new ways. Thanks to Twitch and YouTube, it’s possible to watch gamers enjoy games online, and in the early days of Nintendo’s video game work, Miyamoto was able to watch people in arcades. But the scale of Super Nintendo World is a bit different. “Back in Japan, I was able to step into the world with people who were entering for the first time and see how they reacted with amazement, went wild and really just all sorts of reactions,” he says. “And being able to experience that reaction firsthand with them was a new experience for me and something I really enjoyed.”

“I tried to hide and be as out of sight as possible,” he adds. “And while some people did offer handshakes, they were more impressed with the world.” However, the relative anonymity didn’t bother him. “That’s what I wanted.”