If you haven’t been to an amusement park in a long time because, like me, you feel like you’ve outgrown it, or you don’t have a family of your own as an excuse for a day like this, then maybe they’re tired of their utopian tricks masking their capitalist tendencies to rob your wallet of everything, what is it worth.
However, it’s easy to fall for the trick when it’s done well and also aligns with your own interests. So even though I haven’t visited a theme park in over 15 years, I’m just as excited to be opening Super Nintendo World in Hollywood this month. Or rather, I’m excited that you’re all planning to go, because I’ve already had the pleasure of visiting it at Universal Studios Japan, which is essentially the same experience.
When it comes to theme parks, there are a few things to prepare for before heading to Super Nintendo World. Firstly, it’s a smaller area located within the Universal Studios park, and the one in Japan also features the Harry Potter Wizarding World, an area dedicated to Peanuts characters, and even, funnily enough, next to the Mushroom Kingdom, Waterworld.
Being both new and popular, purchasing a Universal Studios ticket also does not guarantee entry to Super Nintendo World. In Japan, you must receive a timed entry ticket, which must be requested in the park app on the day of your stay. Despite arriving when the park opened, I still had to wait until 11:30am before I could get in.
It’s also not a place you visit for the thrilling roller coasters of just two rides, the augmented reality-based Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge and the relaxing, kid-friendly Yoshi’s Adventure (the latter is not in the Hollywood version). Thrill-seekers might be better off checking out the park’s other attractions – I took a drive through nearby Jurassic Park while waiting for my time to enter. Instead, Super Nintendo World is really about immersing you in the world of Mario and friends, which is exactly what it does the moment you first walk through the entrance to the big green warp tube.
The moment you see yourself stepping out into Peach’s Castle, it’s hard not to be charmed by the paintings on the wall that make you feel like you could jump into the stained glass window of the princess herself. And when you go out and see the familiar rectangular land masses seen in many 2D games, inhabited by recognizable characters like Yoshis, Thwomps, and of course the flagpole on top, even the cloudy weather at the time couldn’t dispel the magic that really transported me to the world, previously only seen in video games.
It’s not just that the models look exactly as you imagine, even all the gold coins spin in place, just like in the Mario game. But I think it’s the fun design that makes it a proper video game theme park. Of course, there are question blocks that you can hit to earn coins, or music blocks that produce notes. The rides themselves aren’t just passive experiences you sit through: in Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge you compete against others for the highest score; even Yoshi’s Adventure has a simple interactive element of identifying colored eggs.
Getting the most out of this interactivity comes with extra costs though, as you’ll need to buy an expensive booster kit which costs around £23 (multiply that if you’re a family) which tracks your score as well as the keys you earn in interactive mini-challenges dotted around the site, with where three keys are required to unlock the boss fight with Bowser Jr.
For a one-time visit, this is a significant cost, but you may better appreciate the value if you plan on repeat visits or at another Super Nintendo World site. This certainly seems to be the intention as the app the booster straps are connected to shows you all the collectable stamps you can get which are realistically impossible to unlock in a single visit. There’s certainly incentive to return with plans to expand the site so that there are other attractions in addition to Mario, such as Donkey Kong, although observant folks can currently spot Pikmin in the wild, brazenly placed in positions that make it difficult to get a good shot on camera.
But while Super Nintendo World was on my itinerary when I was planning my first post-Covid trip to Japan, there was another trip that came as a surprise on my way back to Tokyo.
Nintendo is not the first to open a video game theme park. Sega did this early in the mid-1990s with Joypolis, a chain of indoor amusement parks. However, most of them have since closed except for one in Odaiba. Since I thought of a day trip to Tokyo’s Pleasure Island, where there is also a giant Gundama Unicorn statue, I thought I should visit Joypolis as well. But compared to the new wonder of Super Nintendo World, would this decades-old indoor theme park be a pitiful shadow of its former self?
As it turned out, Joypolis was technically more fun than Super Nintendo World in terms of rides and games on offer. I arrived after lunch in the afternoon, with only a few hours until the park closes that day, and yet I had my passport for all the rides and games, otherwise I would have had to pay a base entry fee for each ride at the top.
Led by staff dressed in retro-futuristic Joypolis uniforms, these rides covered the gamut. The AS-1 motion simulator that Michael Jackson famously starred in has long since disappeared, but other moving pods have drawn queues, including a 360 shooter based on the Transformers movies. Meanwhile, in Sonic Athletics, you can choose between Blue Blur and friends to compete in three competitions held on a treadmill. For a more traditional gaming experience, there’s a condensed but also a tweaked version of the arcade shooter The House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn, where the challenge isn’t so much surviving given you have infinite ammo, but seeing which player can get a high score both in this group and in the whole day.
There’s a surprising amount of different licensed IP, including a ghost house-type experience starring Sadako from the Ring series, which I have to admit I slipped away from. However, it was a personal delight to discover that Joypolis has its own exclusive Ace Attorney game featuring three different cases of varying complexity set within the facility.
Basically, there’s a recreation of the Phoenix Wright office where you’re assigned a case, but to find clues and interview witnesses, this is done by going to the different booths located on the same floor, while you’re also given a mini booklet where you can jot down clues to use in process, accessible from another special booth in the recreation of the courthouse.
The main caveat is that this game can only be played in Japanese, and the staff will warn non-Japanese-speaking tourists in advance. Thankfully, with Google Translate on my phone, I was able to complete the easiest case and find out what was going on, and work my way through all the delightful objections and plot twists the series is so well known for.
Plus, Joypolis still somehow manages to cram in its own thrill rides, which seems all the more blogging indoors, even if I remember the Pepsi Max Drop at London’s former Trocadero. Half-pipe Tokyo is exactly what it seems, simulating half-pipe riding while strapped in and trying to hit the “board” with your foot at the right moment while J-pop music plays. Gekion Live Coaster is perhaps the strangest combination – an indoor roller coaster that is also a rhythm game!
Although I went in with lowered expectations, I left pleasantly surprised by Joypolis, and actually believe it’s a worthy companion visit alongside Super Nintendo World. I suppose part of it is just the old Sega fanboy in me. But since the company’s exit from the arcade gaming industry in Japan has sadly resulted in the closure or rebranding of its once iconic game centers under new GiGO owners, it’s also unique that Joypolis still carries the Sega logo as it is owned by another company that still uses licensing. This means you can also buy Sonic merch and even get your picture taken with the hog itself.
For a break from another amusement park, these are truly magical places on earth, and the only thing more magical is perhaps eating at a themed restaurant. But that’s for another article.