Today’s question has been asked quite a bit. Here’s an email I got from John: “Good afternoon, I’m a big fan of TPU and love your content. I was wondering your opinion of the Mario Kart attraction at Universal Studios Japan. I mean maybe the ride through video doesn’t do it justice, no doubt of that. I just want to know who’s idea it was to design an attraction based around a RACE, go about as fast as the Haunted Mansion does. Should we have not gotten a Test Track type of ride? Thanks for your time, keep up the good work!”
Great question and one that has been asked many times since YouTube videos started to surface of Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge. If you haven’t seen one of those videos yet, I’ll break it down for you. This attraction is the first to use augmented reality headsets that can react to their environment in real-time as a ride vehicle moves along a track. The ride itself is extremely slow and most of the “action” takes place inside the headset. You can read more about this in some of the articles we have posted about this attraction in the years prior to it opening. Or you can watch one of the on-ride videos below.
Let’s start by saying that no theme park attraction is as good on YouTube as it is in person. If you’re the type of person who has their mind made up about an attraction before they ride it because of what you’ve seen on YouTube? That’s insanity. You can’t get the sensations, the smells and even a full picture of what a ride is like on YouTube… ever. If anything, it’s just a flavor of what it may be like.
In the case of Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge, that may be more true than any other ride on the planet. It’s hard enough to get a good POV on a ride that uses 3D glasses. This AR version was designed to be seen from the POV of your eyeball in an upright position. This means its nearly impossible to get a great video of what it’s truly like to ride the attraction.
Still, I think it’s fair to say from those who have ridden the attraction that the general consensus is that it’s not terrible, but not great either. What I want you to keep in mind is, this is literally the first time this technology has been used. Sure, augmented reality has been around for a while. However, to do it on a moving ride vehicle is something that frankly, is far ahead of its time.
Now we take 3D movies and rides for granted in theme parks. The technology has become arguably overused especially now when you can see 3D in your home or local movie theater of equal quality. That wasn’t always the case. 3D has come a long way over the years. It’s incredibly sharp and realistic, even if it no longer has the wow factor it once did.
Think of technology like augmented reality and 3D glasses on a bell curve. Those paper 3D glasses that were used in the 1950’s I showed you earlier? Think of that as the beginning of the bell curve for that technology. Perhaps the peak of 3D technology was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when picture quality became extremely sharp and you could create an image digitally and not on film. Arguably, 3D is now somewhere on the back end of that bell curve for theme parks. While the tech has come a long way, it certainly isn’t as desirable as it once was in theme parks as it was even ten years ago.
Now let’s think about augmented reality in a theme park. On that bell curve, we are just at the beginning. Universal putting it on a ride vehicle is a big step forward. However, it’s hardly perfect and nowhere near its full potential. Someone had to be the first to do it. On the one hand, theme park fans have to recognize that the first time a new technology is used on a ride, its hardly going to be perfect. On the other, if you take a step back, its exciting to think about how this can be used in the future. Universal took a big swing by being the first to utilize this technology first. Will it be worth it? Time will tell.
Why wasn’t this a high speed attraction? Well, I can tell you that there were definitely pitches made about this being more of a Radiator Springs type of ride. There were a few ideas to make it a “fast” ride, but none of them stuck. Why? The answer isn’t exactly sexy.
Roller coasters and rides like Test Track take up an enormous footprint. You want speed? You need to have the room for it. In the case of Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Hollywood, space is at a premium. I know that parks tell you that can build whatever they can dream up, but they also have to deal with reality.
Speed is great and all, but when you create a fast attraction, often times you have to compromise scenic because you’ve only got so much budget. Test Track literally takes you on a scenic tour of Epcot’s employee parking lot. There are few thrill rides that offer great scenic and high speeds. Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure is still the most expensive attraction Universal has ever built (by a LONG shot) and that’s because they had the land to build the thrills and the budget to theme it as a forest. Even that budget was slashed for the actual build. Side note: would you like to see some of the scenery and effects that were cut from that attraction? Let me know in the comments and I’ll cover that in a future article.
Thus, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan didn’t have the land to build a high speed attraction that would last longer than 60 seconds. Unless they were going to skimp on the land itself and some of the interactive elements. It would be a shame to lose out on that.
Another thing you have to keep in mind, Universal didn’t have full control over what got built for Mario Kart. This is a partnership with Nintendo. What did Nintendo require for each of the attractions Universal was building? Interactivity. If you think about it, Nintendo isn’t a passive brand. My understanding is that from the beginning, they wanted as much of the land as possible to be interactive including the attractions.
Finally, I think most theme park fans are forgetting about this. Super Nintendo Land will have a roller coaster. Unfortunately, Donkey Kong got pushed back to phase two. However, this attraction will not only open (maybe in 2022?), but it will easily be the signature attraction of the land.
Hopefully this answers your question, John. I understand your frustration with Super Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge. However, when you look at the bigger picture, you can kind of see where Universal is coming from on this one. Your thoughts?
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