After years of development and delays, Super Nintendo World finally opened this week at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) in Osaka. The themed area of the park is Nintendo’s biggest swing yet to leverage its most iconic characters beyond their traditional home of video game consoles.

The idea sounds strong on paper. USJ is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Asia, and Universal has experience in the field, having launched the conceptually similar Wizarding World of Harry Potter themed areas at three of its parks, including Osaka. What could go wrong?

Well, a global coronavirus pandemic, for one thing. The park is launching under less than ideal circumstances; it was originally planned to open ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which were also delayed to this year. And even in more normal times, this would be new ground for Nintendo. Its game design credentials are unimpeachable, but in many ways it’s quite a conservative company, and theme park attractions are not exactly in its wheelhouse.

With that in mind, I headed down to Osaka for the opening day to see exactly how Nintendo and USJ would pull this off. The short answer is that they’ve succeeded. Super Nintendo World is a gleefully surreal experience that pushes surprising technological boundaries. Once travel starts to open up again, it’s going to drive a huge number of visitors.

Super Nintendo World follows the blueprint set by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in that it’s housed within the larger theme park but feels entirely separate. Both areas are situated at the end of long entrance paths, and you generally can’t see the rest of the park when you’re inside. Still, a day out at Super Nintendo World starts out feeling like a regular day at USJ.

It’s fair to question the wisdom of opening a theme park at all right now, let alone a new area that’d inevitably boost visitor interest. With limits on entry imposed and the fact that USJ and Super Nintendo World are largely outdoors, though, I didn’t feel like this was unusually risky. While some nearby Asian nations have done better, Japan has been hit far less hard by the pandemic than most Western countries without enforcing strict lockdown restrictions. It goes without saying that everyone was wearing masks, though I was surprised to see a designated “mask-free zone” with some spaced-out benches by the waterfront.

Entry to Super Nintendo World is theoretically covered by a regular USJ one-day ticket, which costs 7,800 yen (about $70) on weekdays or 8,400 yen (about $75) on weekends. I say “theoretically” because once you’re inside, you’ll need to use the USJ app to secure yourself timed entry to Super Nintendo World, and space is extremely limited. If you don’t get one, you’ll have to hope you get lucky with a standby lottery for spaces that didn’t end up getting taken.

It is possible to guarantee entry with some of the express tickets that USJ sells online, which give you fast-pass access to a few rides as well as a scheduled time slot for Super Nintendo World, but they can end up more than doubling your total cost of entry. This is the route I went so as to avoid a wasted work trip from Tokyo, but it’s not going to be practical for most people who want to attend.

My Super Nintendo World slot was in the afternoon, so I killed time beforehand by exploring the rest of the park. As you’d expect, it’s also heavily decked out in Nintendo promotion. The gift stores are stacked with Mario and Luigi merchandise, and there’s a new cafe where you can get themed drinks and snacks.

Super Nintendo World itself is located down a fairly nondescript path that you could easily miss if not for the green pipes and 1UP blocks along the way. It’s overshadowed by the Waterworld attraction, which doesn’t make for an auspicious start. At the end of the path, though, there’s a giant sign and pipe to walk through, and that’s when you’re really in the park.

The experience of stepping through the pipe and into Super Nintendo World is honestly amazing. The architecture is so complete, and your view of it so well-directed, that it really does feel like you stepped into another world. I love that the designers went for a blocky, 2D-esque style for much of the environment — it would have been easy to go with something more conventional given that there are now a lot of 3D Mario games, but this approach is much more evocative. Rather than attempt to replicate a particular Mario game, the mashed-up style just screams “Nintendo.”

The first thing you’ll want to do inside Super Nintendo World is pick up a Power Up Band. It costs 3,200 yen (~$30) and you don’t strictly need it for most of the attractions, but the park experience is designed around it. The bands are available in six varieties featuring various Nintendo characters like Mario and Princess Peach. I went with Yoshi.

The band is like a chunky smartwatch that snaps around your wrist with an adjustable metal clasp. You pair it to the Super Nintendo World section of the USJ app with a QR code printed on the back, and from there the watch and app will track your progress through the park. There are lots of stamps to collect for completing certain activities — often this involves interacting with the park itself directly, like by hitting a power-up block with the band to collect coins. High-score leaderboards are displayed in the app and on touchscreens around the park; your “team” is decided by the style of band you chose.

I only got 18 out of 170 stamps in my admittedly fairly hurried time at Super Nintendo World, and the system is clearly designed to encourage repeat visits. For example, there are eight hidden 8-bit sprites that appear on the walls when you activate a switch, but the only one I found was Peach. There are also stamps and awards available based on your performance in the attractions, the most elaborate of which is Mario Kart.

The Mario Kart ride is the most ambitious attraction I’ve ever seen at a theme park. It’s essentially an AR action game set on a go-kart track, where you’re drifting through the virtual course and firing virtual shells at virtual opponents — as the kart moves through the track in real life.

The ride is located inside a re-creation of Bowser’s castle, with lots of well-crafted Mario Kart paraphernalia to look at as you line up. (The queue was fast-moving on my visit and took about half an hour in total, though I imagine wait times will be a lot longer when the park is at full capacity.) Inside you’re given a plastic Mario hat that fits onto your head with an adjustable disc, a little like a PlayStation VR headset.

Once you get to your kart, you have to attach a HoloLens-style wired visor to the helmet, which is how you see the AR imagery. The field of view is pretty good, but I found the ride quite disorientating at first. Almost immediately after the car takes off, it comes to a stop at a corner so that you can practice firing off turtle shells at various enemies flying around you. I thought the headset was glitching out at first since some of the enemies were disappearing from view; it took me a while to realize that they were supposed to be passing behind glowing objects that actually existed in real life.

There’s just a lot going on with the Mario Kart ride. It doesn’t move very fast, but it feels like it does because the track is often completely simulated. The Rainbow Road section, for example, is incredibly visually intense. Throughout all this you have to drift on command by using the steering wheel while aiming turtle shells at your opponents with your head and firing them with buttons on the wheel, often as the car itself spins in different directions.

It’s overwhelming but a whole lot of fun, and like the rest of the park it seems to be more rewarding if you try it multiple times. I know I’d get a better score the next time around.

It’s also designed to get better in the future, rather than some theme park attractions that soon find themselves technically obsolete. That’s why the headset has a modular design, for example. “It has to be modular because augmented reality isn’t going to last as long as most of our 15-20 year ride vehicle experiences,” Universal Creative director of technology Tom Geraghty said during a media roundtable this week. “We know that it’s going to advance and come into your home. So we have plans to iterate the tech to support the creative [vision] that we may change, so that it may be like that.”

You can definitely see that the Mario Kart ride is pushing at the limits of what’s possible with technology. It’s not necessarily a sleek experience right out of the gate, unlike Bandai Namco’s spectacular Mario Kart VR, but the sheer ambition is impressive.

“The technology was not ready for this,” says Universal Creative SVP Thierry Coup. “But one of the incredible things that Universal Parks & Resorts does, we look forward, and we see a technology that could allow us to deliver an experience, and we grab it and we develop it further and make it happen. There is a bit of calculated risk, but we really think that’s the only way for us to really stay on the cutting edge of the ultimate experience.

“We thought AR would be the perfect technology for this; you want to be able to go through some of the items in Mario Kart, you want to collect things, you want to see the characters fly. Certain things you can not do with stereo, 3D, or any other kind of projection. It had to be AR.”

According to Coup, Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s talismanic designer and creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, was deeply involved in the Mario Kart ride. “We are known for collaborating and partnering with the creators of all of these incredible stories that we’ve brought to life in our parks, but I think this relationship with Mr. Miyamoto and his team has been beyond anything we’ve done before,” he says. “He was involved from day one, and creatively had his hands on everything we’ve worked together on. I think we probably had the most fun out of any of our creations designing this project. Everyone was a Nintendo fan. And because Mr. Miyamoto loves to have fun when he creates, while it was challenging, this was the most fun.”

“At the very end of the project, Miyamoto-san shared that we had made his dreams come true,” adds Geraghty. “Which was just a lifetime high moment for me.”

The other ride in Super Nintendo World is Yoshi’s Adventure, which is very much on the other end of the ambition spectrum. It’s a slow-paced train ride that’s suitable for kids and gives you a good view of the park, but otherwise isn’t all that engaging.

While the Yoshi series isn’t known for its challenge, the interactive elements of Yoshi’s Adventure are minimal at best. Basically, you have three colored egg buttons in front of you, and you press them when you see that egg along the track. I’d ride it again for the extra stamps, but there’s not much to it.

Super Nintendo World also has a lot of gift shops with exclusive merchandise as well as food vendors with Mario-themed fare. Here is my Power Mushroom Pizza Bowl, which was pretty good:

One thing you won’t find on sale at Super Nintendo World — or at least I didn’t — is traditional Nintendo products like the Switch or its software. Part of that might be due to currently limited stock, but the official Nintendo stores in New York and the new one in Tokyo offer Switch games as well as the other merch. For now, at least, it seems the company wants Super Nintendo World to serve as an opportunity to showcase its IP on its own terms as opposed to as a vehicle for video games.

But if that’s the case, the scope of the park is actually quite limited at this point. It’s called Super Nintendo World, but almost everything in it is related to Mario one way or another. There’s speculation that it’ll expand to include Donkey Kong at some point — the door below is hidden in plain sight — but even that’s a Mario-adjacent franchise. Anyone looking for references to The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, or Super Smash Bros. will be disappointed.

Still, it feels like a minor miracle that Super Nintendo World exists at all, more than a year into the pandemic. What’s there right now is a great first start with obvious room to grow. Even though attractions like Mario Kart are hugely ambitious, it’s clear that improvements can and will be made to the park’s execution and scope.

Nintendo’s biggest achievement with Super Nintendo World is the way it gamifies the theme park experience. I love parks like Tokyo DisneySea, for example, but there’s not as much to do once you’ve been on all the rides. With Super Nintendo World, though, I already feel the need to go back. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before my Yoshi band gets another workout.

Photography by Sam Byford / ThinkAuthority