During last year’s LA Tech Week, the word on every AR professional’s lips was “gamification” — the process of incorporating game elements into everyday experiences to help companies drive traffic and engagement, elevate in-person experiences, and provide consumer incentives and rewards. And nobody knows how to gamify a park experience quite like a gaming company.
Enter Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Merging old school theme park values with new school technology, a trip to Super Nintendo World is as immersive and technologically ambitious as guests want it to be.
Upon arrival, guests have the option of enjoying the park in one of two ways: either as a traditional park goer who is there to partake of the food, attractions, and character meet and greets, or as an active participant in the game, an experience open to anyone who chooses to purchase a $40 Power-Up Band.
Available inside Super Nintendo World and at corresponding retail shops within Universal Studios, the bands — basically high tech snap bracelets — come in one of six character options: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Toad, and Princess Daisy. Whichever character a guest chooses will determine the team they play for inside the park. Once purchased, the Power-Up Bands sync with the Universal Studios app, and allow parkgoers to collect digital treasures, level up by completing milestones, and to check their scores. Back at home, the Power-Up Band can be used as an amiibo — a physical item featuring a Nintendo character that consumers can tap against their Nintendo systems to make that character appear in the game, and unlock special items.
Nintendo’s Power-Up Bands share some similarities with Disney’s MagicBands, which were originally introduced in 2013. Serving as something of a Disney resort-specific wallet, the bands are equipped with radio frequency chips and allow guests to access theme park and hotel room tickets, and make purchases.
When beta testing on the MagicBands began in 2014, revenue in the company’s parks and resorts segment increased by 6%. And in October of 2022, the company released a revamped version of the product, calling it the MagicBand+. A waterproof, rechargeable version of the same tech, the MagicBand+ allows patrons to unlock exclusive games within the parks and retail for between $35 and $65.
Which is to say, the possibilities for gamifying the park experience are enormous: in 2022, Universal announced a partnership with The Pokemon Company, and their intentions to bring interactive experiences to their park in Japan. PokemonGo is credited with being one of the most successful AR apps since its launch in 2016, so expectations for the collaboration are high.
The journey into Super Nintendo World begins, as one might expect, at the mouth of a green pipe. Walking through a tunnel pulsating with lights as the Mushroom Kingdom comes into view while the game’s theme music and signature sound effects echo in the background, it’s hard not to get excited — even for me, someone who has never won a game of Mario Kart in her entire life.
For Power-Up Band participants, the premise of the game is simple: Bowser Jr. has stolen the Golden Mushroom and hidden it away behind minion guards. Guests are charged with collecting at least three of the necessary keys to take back the Golden Mushroom before being permitted to challenge Bowser Jr. in his Shadow Showdown. Keys are accrued through participation in the park’s four mini-games, like Goomba’s Crazy Crain, which requires guests to pump a handle as fast as they can to keep Goomba from falling backward. Or the Thwomp Panel Panic, where guests compete to turn all the boxes a certain color before time runs out (during my turn, I was advised by an employee that blue is the easier option because there are fewer boxes).
Also available for collection are hidden stamps (I found the mushroom), and coins, courtesy of the yellow question boxes scattered around the park. To claim the coins, guests are instructed to touch the face of their Power-Up Bands to the bottom of the box (“hit it hard,” an employee recommended after watching me fumble around for a minute). By the end of the day, I collected 1,271 points and, given that these encounters were entirely hands-free, hopefully, zero germs.
Incorporating AR and VR technology into the theme park experiences is becoming increasingly standard. Legoland offers an AR scavenger hunt, Disney partnered with Snapchat to create AR lenses so guests could snap selfies with their favorite characters, and the company is also working on new technology that would allow visitors to experience AR attractions without AR glasses.
Nintendo representative director and fellow Shigeru Miyamoto was instrumental in helping to bring the company’s vision for the park to life. In an interview with Polygon, he explains how the team fused new technology with traditional park design, saying, “we have AR technology and Mario Kart that’s blended together to create this harmony of the actual physical backdrops that are in the physical space and the changing virtual backdrop that’s in front of the screen.”
The theme park experience is changing: at the minimum, a one-day ticket to Universal Studios Hollywood will run you $109 dollars; at Disneyland, a similar pass retails starting at $83. These prices are prohibitive for most families, and adding attractions available only to people who can afford to purchase additional technology will continue to widen the rift between the people who can and can’t afford to enjoy these kinds of experiences.
That said, the Power-Up Bands are fun, intuitive, and reusable. And for families who have the means, or plan on taking multiple trips to the park, the bands are an easy way to capture some of the experience and bring it home with you. Amusement park gift shops are still well-trafficked, but digital souvenirs like amiibos give patrons a functional memory of their time at the park, and offer a creative way to elevate their at-home gaming experience.
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