Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood is a surreal space, complete with life-size coin boxes, interactive games, and food… with mustaches. The park, which opened late last week, truly feels like you’re standing in the middle of a Mario game. The attention to detail when it comes to the art—the scale!—and even the mushroom soup is on par with anything you’d see in Nintendo’s world-renowned level design.
I needed to understand how Nintendo made Mario’s world feel so improbably real. So I met the Koopa King himself: Doug Bowser, the president of Nintendo of America. Yes, the man who ironically shares the same name as the classic Mario villain. The man was just as in awe of the park as I was, even down to the coin-block tiramisu at the Toadstool Cafe. He’s also hyped for the Super Mario Bros. Movie, upcoming Nintendo games (The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, anyone?) and the recent news that the Switch has become the video game company’s highest selling home console of all time. Mario has always been a global force in video games, sure. But we’ve never seen anything close to Super Nintendo World—a place where even the bathrooms are decked out to feel like an underwater level.
At the theme park, I bonded with Bowser over our love for little Italian plumber from Brooklyn, the Nintendo socks we both wore that day, and his ongoing plans to steal the princess.
What was the idea behind creating Super Nintendo World?
The opportunity that we saw years ago as we embarked on some of these projects was the ability really to accomplish two things. One, is to continue to share our Nintendo IP with more and more people outside of the gaming space. But it’s also a celebration of our fans, too, as Mr. Shigeru Miyamoto said last night [at the official unveiling of Super Nintendo World]. It’s like playing the game because you’re finding little gems and easter eggs—and you can just keep wandering and enjoying the experience.
What were the challenges of getting people to want to experience the world of Super Mario outside of the home?
Just the authenticity of it all. If you look at the effort that goes into making our video games and the care we take for our IP in video game development, the same care was applied to this experience. If we can find ways to engage people in other areas, such as cinemas and theme parks, and really give them unique experiences—not something that you would experience at home in the video game itself, but it’s still consistent—we think it’s a wonderful opportunity to introduce new people and celebrate existing players.
Why build an interactive ride like Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge instead of a more traditional go-kart or bumper car experience?
That is the work of Mr. Miyamoto, but I would say that I think what we’ve got is something that can be enjoyed by everyone. It allows you to really feel what it would be like if you were sitting in a kart, playing Mario Kart.
What did you think of the response to the Super Mario Bros. Movie trailer?
As you look through those trailers, it’s fun to see some of those characters that maybe didn’t have a voice before really truly come to life and take on a personality, if you will. I always enjoy seeing how they’ve been able to weave various aspects of gameplay into a storyline. I’m excited to see the whole movie when the time comes.
Did you expect such a polarizing response to the voice acting? Especially since the Mario characters have such distinct voices, even without really ever speaking in full sentences in the video games.
Everyone has the right to their opinion, and of course, you’re right—there isn’t usually a dialogue when it comes to these particular players. But that’s part of the careful process that was taken on by both Nintendo and Illumination as they went through this to ensure that as they built that feature, [to make sure] it was still authentic and true to the characters themselves.
Do you have a favorite Nintendo character? Outside of the obvious?
Well, I don’t stray too far from the castle, as I would say. Clearly, Bowser is my favorite. Some people look at him in an adverse way, but I like to think he has a soft underbelly. But Donkey Kong is one of my favorite characters overall, and I’m still playing Donkey Kong games to this day.
Bowser has seemingly become something of a nicer guy in recent games. Can we attribute that to your inner workings?
I’d like to lay claim to that, but that’s not my doing. [Laughs]
Have you had a chance to eat at the Toadstool Cafe?
Yes. I’ve had the Mario burger, the mushroom soup, and the spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are quite good, actually. They’re fireball meatballs, I believe. And I may have sampled every one of the desserts.
I noticed a couple of the employees were either wearing fake mustaches or had grown their own in the style of Mario and Luigi.
I hadn’t noticed that. [Laughs] There’s just such a sense of immersion and engagement that’s so wonderful… I stood today, just on the inside of the castle entrance, and I watched people walk in. There were some faces with just pure wonderment. Then there was a girl who walked in and a tear came down her face. And I was just like, This is what we love to do.
And we don’t even have all the kids running around yet.
Right? [Laughs] I’m looking forward to it.
Josh Rosenberg is an entertainment writer living in Brooklyn, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day; his past work can be found at CBR, Spin, Insider, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.