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Mario Kart: Our first time on the ride


It’s fair to say that, since the day it was first announced three-and-a-half years ago, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge (which will probably be called Bowser’s Challenge here in America) has been one of the most anticipated new rides to come out of Universal in quite some time – perhaps since Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, in fact, the attraction that helped to redefine what kind of intellectual-property experience was possible in a theme park. This was not only thanks to the subject matter itself – who hasn’t wanted to strap into one of those crazy carts with Mario and friends and unleash turtle shells and banana peels while racing through the Mushroom Kingdom? – but it was fueled by Universal’s comments regarding the new ride, promising that it would be revolutionary and “unlike any the world has ever seen.”

Now that the media embargo regarding Super Nintendo World has been lifted over at Universal Studios Japan (where it’s been in technical rehearsals since December 20, 2020), and now that we’ve had the chance to ride Koopa’s Challenge for ourselves, we can start to weigh in on just how revolutionary – and satisfactory – of an experience it is. And in order to properly do that, we’ll need to start, just like any attraction does, with the queue.

(Before we plunge into the new theme-park land’s flagship attraction, we should point out that we’re also taking a number of its other elements out for a spin, too, such as Yoshi’s Adventure and Bowser, Jr. Shadow Showdown.)

Mario Kart: The queue

Mario Kart Koopa's Challenge queue
Bowser’s trophy room, with all the various Mario Kart cups on display

Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge’s queue is a short-but-sweet journey through Bowser’s Castle, hitting several different major locations as you learn the basic premise behind the ride: Bowser, King of the Koopas, and his clan of Koopaling offspring have challenged Mario and his cadre of allies to a giant showdown of a race, with the golden Universal cup going to the victors. (You, of course, are being recruited to fight alongside the good guys, doing your best to help them win by fighting back against the Koopas and their various assortment of dirty tricks.)

The journey starts off by walking up a grand flight of stairs and past the majestic statue Bowser has had erected of himself. From there, you’ll hit up a type of stock room, where various racing supplies, such as tires, have been stacked; King Koopa’s personal throne room, where he has left a picture of Princess Peach longingly on his throne; and his secret armory, where he manufactures a veritable army of Bomb-ombs, Bullet Bills, and Mechakoopas. Everything strikes a fine balance between being faithful to the cartoony world of Super Mario Bros. and the sense of lived-in reality that a theme-park land necessarily demands (much like the rest of Super Nintendo World outside, as well); there is a magazine write-up devoted to Bowser titled “brute force” in one area, while advertisements for various “in-world” services – such as Green Shell Taxi and Bowser Oil – dot the whole dungeon landscape. (Our personal favorite touch, however, has to be the rather striking Art Deco-esque Piranha Plant lamp that sits prominently in Koopa’s den.)

Mario Kart Koopa's Challenge queue
The coolest part of the Mario Kart queue, by far – Art Deco Pirahna Plant lamps!

Along the way, guests are introduced to Team Mario (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Toad, and Yoshi) and Team Koopa (namely, Bowser and all his various children) in the form of banners that are hung prominently on the wall – a nice call-out for long-time videogame fans and a great primer for all those who are new to Mario Kart. In fact, that dual heavy-lifting can be applied to the entire experience overall, from the showcases of the various enemies and traps that riders will have to face while racing to the MKTV (Mario Kart Television) broadcast van to the Koopa handprint-activated weapon-manufacturing room. (Both veterans and newbies alike will also want to pay attention to the various little visual gags that occasionally pop up in the queue, such as the King Book portrait coming to life, which is a great effect.)

Mario Kart: The ride experience

Mario Kart Mario Motors
Help Mario win the trophy against Team Koopa

The heart of the Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge experience is the augmented-reality glasses that you’re handed before boarding – that we already knew before heading in. But what really caught our attention was just how, exactly, the ride handles passing out this centerpiece: first you’re given a Mario-style hat when entering the preshow room, and then, when you climb aboard the ride vehicle, you receive the AR googles themselves, which snap onto the brim of your super hat via magnets. It’s actually a pretty nifty process, and one that helps streamline the boarding process (something which, unfortunately, wasn’t always the case for such virtual reality-added attractions as SeaWorld’s short-lived Kraken revamp).

There’s one extra step here, and it’s a small-but-important one: connecting your Power Up Band to the ride, in order to enable score tracking and stat collection. This is also done quickly and simply, by tapping your wristband to the big M on the steering wheel in front of you.

Speaking of steering, this would be a good time to point out how Mario Kart operates. Each of the four seats comes equipped with a set of the controls, allowing each rider to get the opportunity to drive the kart during the zany race. Each of you is also able to shoot turtle shells at any point during the ride – this is how you combat that dastardly Koopa clan – and you’re assigned one of four different colors, just so you know who’s throwing what during the heat of the action (it’s also an easy way to keep track of everyone’s score totals at the very end). Firing is accomplished by hitting triggers on the top of the steering wheel, but keep in mind you’ll also have to aim by physically looking directly at your target – and you’ll need some shells in the first place, of course, which can be achieved by the driver running into question-mark blocks, just like in the games. (And for every baddie that’s vanquished, you earn a coin as a reward, as well.)

At the start of the race, you’re paired up with another ride vehicle that’s filled with four additional guests, and the two of you are randomly assigned the color of either red or blue, just to help make the various members of Team Mario easier to track. While you’re competing against all the other passengers in both of the karts for the best individual score, always remember that you’ll also have to work together to collectively beat Team Koopa, the “computer”-controlled players – and, yes, they really can win, if you don’t do the best job in following the driving instructions (arrows pop up on your glasses when it’s your turn at the wheel, letting you know which way you have to turn) or in attacking Bowser when he appears, in AR form, all around you.

The race course itself consists of several different sections, hitting a nice cross-selection of all the various racetracks from all the various Mario Kart installments over the past 29 years. Each is brought to life using a combination of physical sets and lighting, augmented-reality imagery, and, in at least a few memorable sequences, video projections – exactly as Universal promised way back when. While we don’t want to give away too much of the entire experience, we will say that one of the highlights for us was racing through King Boo’s haunted mansion, with its swinging lights, and that there’s nothing quite like having to dodge real-life Thwomps and Piranha Plants. (Oh, yeah – the legendary Rainbow Road really does serve as an appropriate sort of grand finale, bringing all of the disparate technological mediums together nicely in a fun mad dash to the finish line.)

At the very end of the race, a winner is declared, and all the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom who are sitting in the stands – mainly Koopa Troopas, Shy Guys, and Hammer Bros. – cheer the victorious team on, regardless of whether it’s Mario or Koopa.

Mario Kart: The gift shop

Mario Motors, Mario Kart's gift shop
Mario Motors, Mario Kart’s gift shop

Much like any self-respecting theme-park attraction, guests will exit (either triumphantly or dejectedly, depending upon their performances) through a gift shop. Called Mario Motors, it is a store that is filled with all sorts of goodies, both of the merchandise and theming kind – the perfect complement to the entire Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge experience.

The centerpiece is none other than Mario himself, revving up a kart that’s in hang-glider configuration (a staple from the source material, in case you’re unfamiliar). Above him is a vividly painted sky that encompasses the entire ceiling, with other members of Team Mario gliding through it. On the lip of the wall, right before the checkerboard border that separates the shop from the Mushroom Kingdom sky, is a ring of more raceway-esque signs and advertisements that we first started seeing in the queue – there is quite the collection here, in fact, with some of the more notable ones being Red Shell Strike Equipment, Yoshi’s Egg Market, and (the best of the best) BaNaNaBoy, whose slogan encourages you to, “Let one slip!” There’s also a pit stop-esque area when you first walk in, detailing the “kart services” that are available for your racer, and a mural that dominates the back wall, showing a winding race track with lots of Toads and “Mario Motors” signs populating the road.

Mario Motors, Mario Kart's gift shop
Some of Mario Motors’s exclusive merch

The most eye-catching items available for purchase – mostly because they’re arrayed all around that central Mario-in-flight statue – are plush versions of the various Mario Kart items, like bananas and the famed (or reviled) blue Spiny Shell. Other items include apparel, pens, cookies, puzzles, and keychains, among many other, smaller items (including some repeats from the 1-Up Factory located elsewhere in the land).

What do you think of Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge? Are you willing to ride it here in America? Share your thoughts with 110,000+ other die-hard Universal fanatics in our Orlando Informer Community on Facebook.

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(Photo credit to @Bee_my_honeyyy.)


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About Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz is the former editor of Orlando Informer.