Nintendo is creating an entertainment empire, and it all starts with Mario

Nintendo is creating an entertainment empire, and it all starts with Mario

With theme parks and a movie, the company is pushing outside of its traditional console gaming comfort zone.

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Over the last few years, video games have penetrated pop culture in a big way. Everyone seems to want a piece: the most popular franchises, like Halo, The Last of Us, and League of Legends, all have hit TV shows, while Netflix is trying to make gaming a pillar of its future. So many gaming properties are being adapted for film and TV that it can be hard to keep track. Nintendo, too, has gotten in on the action. With Switch sales still going strong, the company just opened its second theme park attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood and will soon be releasing the first Super Mario Bros. animated movie. For Nintendo’s leadership, this shift into broader entertainment was a natural one.

“I think people view Nintendo as a gaming company,” explains Shinya Takahashi, Nintendo’s senior managing executive officer. “But we have always thought of ourselves as an entertainment company.”

It’s not entirely new territory, of course. Nintendo released a much-maligned live-action Super Mario movie in 1993, and there have been Mario and Zelda animated series that followed the Mario fever of the ’90s before fizzling out. But the recent projects are part of a larger push from Nintendo into spaces outside of the console and handheld games the company is best known for. Things started out with Super Mario Run on mobile and have gotten bigger from there with both the theme parks and the movie.

One of the big shifts this time around for Nintendo is that the company is much more heavily involved in these outside projects. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, in particular, has had a hand in basically everything, working on Mario Run, producing the animated movie, and helping lead the creation of Super Nintendo World in both Osaka (where it debuted) and Los Angeles.

For Miyamoto, all of these projects point to a similar goal, even despite how different they are. “I think it’s having the intended effect of introducing and providing more opportunities and touchpoints for people to interact with and know Mario,” he says of the theme parks. Takahashi, meanwhile, says that the goal is to reach as many people as possible with the park. “Rather than a particular age group, or a particular target audience, it encompasses everyone, whether they know Mario from games or are children who have never played the games before,” he explains.

An important part of making these projects work was finding the right partners. For the film, Nintendo is working with Illumination — the animation studio behind franchises like Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets — while Universal Creative is building the theme parks. According to Takahashi, the partnership with Universal came about after many discussions, which helped him realize that the two companies were aligned. “When we were discussing the creation of things, whether that’s something in the games or a physical object that moves in the real world, the philosophy that both teams approached it with matched,” he explains. “That was when we understood that we had the right partnership.”

It also helped that “there were a lot of Nintendo fans within the Universal Creative team,” according to Takahashi. “And because they understand what we’re about, they were able to take that into the project.” (The feeling was mutual. More than two decades ago, Takahashi took a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood to check out the Back to the Future ride.)

A photo of Shinya Takahashi and Shigeru Miyamoto at the opening of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Shinya Takahashi and Shigeru Miyamoto at the opening of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Image: Araya Doheny / Getty Images for Universal Studios Hollywood

The collaboration is evident when you visit the park. Super Nintendo World is as detailed as any of the other attractions at Universal and is largely separated from the rest of the park — you enter via a warp pipe — to add an extra layer of immersion. The lifelike rendition of the Mushroom Kingdom includes goombas and pokeys running along the hills that surround the attraction, thwomps and piranha plants that move about menacingly, and question blocks that you can punch (while wearing an NFC bracelet) to collect coins.

Even the bathrooms fit, with a look (and sound) that makes them feel like an underwater level from the original Super Mario Bros. The same goes for the restaurant, Toadstool Cafe, where you can have mushroom soup served in a mushroom, followed by a question block tiramisu, while listening to Chef Toad screech. “I was excited to work on this project because it is very much that immersive environment,” says executive chef Julia Thrash, a veteran of the theme park culinary world. “It’s not just about the food, it’s how we incorporate the food into everything.” (To keep up the immersion, during our conversation, Thrash repeatedly referred to Toad — the fictional head of the restaurant who greets you as you enter — as a real person.)

As someone who grew up trying to find every secret in the NES games and Super Mario World, the attention to detail in Super Nintendo World was almost surreal. It really felt like the eight-bit worlds I grew up on brought to life. Part of this has to do with the design of the park, which is all-encompassing, making it easy to forget Jurassic World and Transformers rides are just outside. But it’s also just how authentic everything is: the movement of the creatures, the sounds and musical cues, and the details in Bowser’s castle — like a Bob-omb factory where you can see the iconic creatures being made, or a library filled with Mushroom Kingdom lore — that make waiting in line just so you can spot everything worth it. The only time I felt pulled out of the experience was when the employees clapped as my kart was pulling back into the loading area after the ride.

That kind of all-encompassing experience is becoming the standard for modern theme parks, whether it’s a galactic starcruiser or the colorful world of Pandora. What makes Super Nintendo World different — and intrinsically Nintendo — is how playful it is. While there is only one main ride, an intense augmented reality take on Mario Kart, there are all kinds of mini-games and attractions that let you earn coins and chase a high score for the online leaderboard. There are secrets to uncover, like hidden eight-bit characters lurking in the walls, and there’s even a story holding it all together. In order to face off against Bowser Jr. (essentially the park’s final boss) to liberate a stolen coin, you first have to collect three keys by completing challenges so that you can unlock his dungeon using your wristband.

For now, the park is entirely focused on Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. But there’s a good chance that will change in the future; there’s already a Donkey Kong-themed area under construction in Osaka. That’s part of the reason it’s called Super Nintendo World. According to Takahashi, while other properties have been considered, such as Splatoon, it just made the most sense to start with Mario. “When you think of Nintendo you think Mario,” he says. “He’s the fulcrum around which everything revolves.” He adds that “the reason we focused on Mario is we wanted to see how authentically and realistically we could bring that world to life, so that’s why we focused on one single IP at this point.”

A photo of a piranha plant at Super Nintendo World.

A photo of a piranha plant at Super Nintendo World.

A piranha plant at Super Nintendo World.
Image: NBCUniversal

Now that Nintendo has opened up its second park (there are also planned versions for Florida and Singapore), Takahashi says that the experience has really driven home just how widely known Mario is. “We understood that Mario was beloved by game fans,” he says. “But having the park really helped us understand that Mario is beloved by people who are non-gamers as well.” For Miyamoto, it has been particularly illuminating seeing an audience who isn’t as familiar with the video games enjoy the park. “There are actually a lot of people who know who Mario is, but never played the game, or don’t really know who Mario is,” he says.

It’s not clear where Nintendo might go from here. Takahashi says that some of Nintendo’s newer franchises, like Splatoon or Arms, are an important part of its expansion into new mediums, but there are no announced plans for them right now. Miyamoto, meanwhile, is interested in exploring the concept of interactivity in new ways. He’s particularly intrigued by the idea of continuing to merge technology and entertainment, much like he has done with Super Nintendo World. “To be able to be at that intersection is really something that I feel very fortunate and excited about,” he says.

While Nintendo is closely connected to video games, it’s clear that they’re far from the company’s only priority. Already, you can be a fan of Mario without having touched a controller; there are so many ways to interact with the little guy, whether it’s a game on your phone or a real-world attraction designed to immerse you in the Mushroom Kingdom. For Miyamoto, each of these is just as significant as a traditional Super Mario release. How you discover the character is less crucial than the fact that you discovered him at all.

“The important part is that the idea of Nintendo stays with people’s hearts,” he says.

Andrew Webster

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