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What to expect from Nintendo at Universal


Did you miss the news that Nintendo is coming to Universal Orlando? That’s okay – word only broke this morning, literally with no warning whatsoever (even our inside sources only intimated something big was happening just a few scant hours before the press release was sent out).


The development holds a great deal of potentiality to be a game changer (no pun intended), bringing yet another major (non-Universal) brand to a resort that is already filled with the likes of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, The Simpsons, and, of course, Marvel Comics. But there are also several potential pitfalls, including the possibility of Universal transforming itself into a vivid approximation of Disney, its biggest – and incredibly slow-moving – rival.

There’s a lot to tackle with this surprise announcement, so let’s just dive right in.

It’s a-me, Mario!

Nintendo is a household name for many families around the globe, but just what, exactly, the Japanese corporation is and where it’s currently looking to go may be something of an unknown for most, particularly in the theme park community. A brief history lesson is, therefore, very salient.

Nintendo was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi on September 23, 1889, to produce handmade hanafuda playing cards. By the time Hiroshi Yamauchi took the company over in 1949, it had already made a name for itself, but it was nothing compared to what the new young leader had in mind: first he signed a deal with Disney (ironically enough now) to print cards bearing its many famous characters, and then he looked to expand to different businesses, including “light gun alleys” and, incredibly, love hotels.

It wasn’t until the ‘70s that Hiroshi settled on videogames, and, soon thereafter, he hired a young college graduate by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto, who would quickly establish himself as the foremost designer in gaming history, creating such seminal series as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, and, my wife’s personal favorite, Pikmin (hey – it’s not for nothing that Miyamoto-san is widely called the Steven Spielberg of videogames).

After Nintendo expanded its empire to America in 1985, single-handedly reviving the gaming industry here after the Great Depression of ’83 (it was so bad, Atari had to bulldoze and then bury stockpiles of leftover cartridges), it dominated the global market – until its great success invited great rivals. Sony arrived on the scene in 1994 with its PlayStation, and Microsoft and its Xbox followed in 2001, almost instantly pushing the big N to an ever-distant second- and then third-place. Matters were only made worse by the company’s refusal to adopt modern advances, such as disc-based media (over cartridges) or that little thing known as online gaming.

The company, however, rallied in the mid-2000s with twin systems: the DS handheld and the Wii console, which successfully expanded the way that consumers interacted with software by including such non-traditional control inputs as touch and motion. Soon, everyone from toddlers to seniors at nursing homes were playing Nintendo, making it the king of the world again… until they all got bored by the gimmicky controls and threw their Wiis in the closest, never to be touched again.

Nintendo hoped to capture lightning in a bottle for a third time with its newest machine, the Wii U (which released on November 18, 2012), but it has instead gone down as one of, if not the, worst-selling systems in history – as of May 1, 2015, only nine million units have been sold around the world. That’s nothing compared to the Xbox One’s 10 million sales and the PlayStation 4’s 20 million install base, and they both shipped a full year after Nintendo’s latest.

This is easily the most tenuous position the company has been in for at least 50 years, since it first decided to enter the electronics business, and its recent actions show it: in the last two months, the big N has embarked on something of a last-ditch rebranding operation, announcing that it’s already replacing the Wii U next year and boldly proclaiming that it’s finally entering the mobile arena, producing a series of exclusive titles – the kids nowadays call them “apps” – for smart phones and tablets.

And – oh, yeah – there’s now this little theme park thingy, too.

Nintendo in the parks, part I: individual attractions

That Universal’s nascent deal with Nintendo can be tremendously successful still goes without saying; Universal can mine one of the largest caches of family-friendly (not to mention, strictly within the gaming industry, longest-lived) intellectual properties in the entire world, while Nintendo, for its part, can extend its name recognition to those very markets that it will soon be making games for – soccer moms, vacationing dads, and all those purchase-crazy kids.

What is unknown is just how, exactly, Universal is planning to bring “the world of Nintendo to life,” as its press release says, at its parks. There are, essentially, two tacks that the company can take.

First up: individual attractions. There are almost literally countless ways that the gaming giant’s many characters and franchises can pop up in a theme park setting, ranging from rides to shows to meet-‘n-greets. This is more than likely exactly what Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Singapore will be getting, thanks to their limited space and bigger reliance on family-friendly appeal – expect something along the lines of a Super Smash Bros. (a fighting game which pits all of Nintendo’s characters against one another) stage show or a Luigi’s Mansion (in which Luigi has to fight off ghosts in a kid-friendly haunted house) street performance, particularly during the parks’ version of Halloween Horror Nights (which has already featured the likes of fellow videogame alumnus Resident Evil).

But it’s also possible that Universal Orlando Resort will be getting much of this same treatment, depending upon the amount of resources that Universal wants to devote to the enterprise and how quickly Nintendo wants to see the turnaround. Having the cast of The Legend of Zelda or any of the several thousand Pokemon pop up in the Superstar Parade is almost a foregone conclusion, as is seeing Mario, Princess Peach, and Bowser walk the streets for pictures and autographs – and, of course, appear at the on-site hotels in the form of character breakfasts and kids’ rooms.

And that’s just the tip of the theming iceberg. The carnival games that recently got cut from The Lost Continent and moved over to Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure might have been lambasted for being forced into and otherwise incongruous with their new home, so why not relocate move them once again to, say, Toon Lagoon, and give them entirely over to Mario Party, which pits the Mario Bros. cast against one another in an endless series of mini-games (or, even better, theme them as WarioWare, which brings a whole new meaning to wacky)? Universal could even go the route of directly incorporating the Wii’s motion controller into these games, much like it already does with the Xbox’s Kinect cameras for its interactive wand experiences at the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter – although this, obviously, would be a decidedly anticlimactic use of its new IPs.

But why stop there? Given Nintendo’s slow embrace of more mature gaming experiences and its brand-new desire to reinvent itself, why not have Nintendo-infused experiences show up at Orlando’s version of HHN? A Metroid Prime haunted house – in which guests get caught in the middle of the bounty hunter battling against hordes of space pirates and intimidating extraterrestrial creatures – would more than fit right in, and an Eternal Darkness scare zone could easily be the most mind-blowing street experience ever devised at any theme park around the globe.

(Not familiar with the 2001 classic horror game? Go look it up right now – seriously. Especially considering that the original developers are currently in the midst of getting a sequel – and television show and, possibly, feature film – off the ground).

Nintendo in the parks, part II: Themed lands

The real potential of incorporating Nintendo’s manifold IPs into the resort, of course, lies in an entire theme park land. Interestingly enough, Nintendo itself envisioned just what this might be like two-and-a-half years ago when it released Nintendo Land as a launch title for the Wii U. A dozen mini-games doubled as “attractions” in the fictitious amusement park, based off of such storied franchises as Animal Crossing, Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong, F-Zero, Legend of Zelda, Luigi’s Mansion, Metroid, Pikmin, Super Mario Bros., and Yoshi’s Island. Not only has Nintendo helped Universal Creative in showing it just what an entire themed land might look and feel like, it’s also given guests a pretty good idea of which properties just might populate the land.

A dedicated land would also allow for more in-depth or bigger-scale attractions, such as an actual Mario Kart go-kart race track or a sprawling Pikmin playground, replete with larger-than-life obstacles, animatronic critters, and, naturally, splash zones. But even more than this is, of course, the possibility of actually theming giant swaths of real estate to one particular property; imagining Hyrule, the fantastical setting of Zelda, realized with as much loving detail as Diagon Alley is should be more than enough to send shivers down the spine of any themed entertainment fan. (Come to think of it, The Legend of Zelda just might be one of the few franchises that has an even bigger and more diverse collection of settings than does Harry Potter. Minds should now be blown all across the themed entertainment world.)


But where would such a dedicated area go? Given the sheer variety that Nintendo’s lineup offers, attempting to squeeze a mini-land into a corner of one of the parks – which is exactly what is happening with next year’s Skull Island: Reign of Kong – seems impractical, at best, and woefully short-sighted, at most. That just leaves replacing one of the pre-existing areas as the most logical option.

And goodness knows that Universal has more than enough candidates already lined up. Perhaps the most obvious contender would be Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure, given its increasingly-outdated source material and exclusive focus on water rides, but the park’s Lost Continent and Universal Studios Florida’s San Francisco (with its falling-apart Disaster! reportedly next on the chopping block, anyway) are also viable candidates. None, however, would fit as perfectly as Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone, a land that is not only the most desperately in need of an entire renovation – most of its IPs are so old, many children going to frolic there have no idea who they’re supposed to be interacting with – but one which has been heavily rumored to get such a complete redo for the past few years. (The only problem here? Spielberg’s baby, E.T. Adventure, which he’s been protecting from the theme park grim reaper with all his might over these past 25 years.)

The possibilities only increase when one starts to think outside the traditional theme park box. With Volcano Bay, Universal’s upcoming, built-from-the-ground-up water park, already being rumored to be laid out in several different themed sections, adding Nintendo as one of them would be an instant grand-slam – not only does the company have many characters and properties that would be a natural fit for an aquatic setting, including the venerable Wave Racer, it could potentially help inspire some rather revolutionary water attractions. Indeed, it’s easy to see how an entire water park could be filled by the big N’s library by itself.

And that, of course, is the final – not to mention the biggest – possibility in all of this: the long-rumored and still-on-the-drawing-board third theme park, which would be built at a second site down the road from Universal Orlando (supposedly replete with its own CityWalk and host of on-site hotels), has long been in search of a property that would instantly justify its existence while simultaneously differentiating itself from both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Nintendo could do all that, and possibly more, in just one stroke.

The past, the future, the aquatic – Universal absolutely knew what it was getting in its new partnership.

The dark side of the future

Despite the sheer amount of potentiality that the Universal-Nintendo partnership almost instantly creates, there’s actually quite a bit to be worried about with such an arrangement, and it revolves almost exclusively around how its announcement was made.

There are a whole score of absolutely crucial details missing from Universal’s press release this morning, which makes it look suspiciously like Disney’s announcement regarding the arrival of Avatar to its Animal Kingdom park. That should raise more than just a few eyebrows; after being proudly proclaimed on September 20, 2011 – just three days after inking the deal with James Cameron – Disney went dark for some two years, with construction finally commencing on January 10, 2014. Pandora: The World of Avatar isn’t even expected to open until sometime in 2017 – and that’s just for the land’s first phase. Given the relatively young age of Universal’s agreement with Nintendo, the company is very much following in this scenario’s footsteps thus far.

Could we really be in a six-year wait for Nintendo Land to open at Universal Orlando? The odds are that it won’t be quite that long, given Uni’s extremely aggressive approach to development and construction both, but it’s still more than likely going to be a long while – which makes this announcement, when taken in conjunction with yesterday’s Reign of Kong bombshell, look more like an attempt to cover up the fact that no major attraction is opening this year at the resort than an honest attempt at firing up the hype machine (particularly considering that the company doesn’t normally issue such press releases until well after construction walls have gone up).

Will the wait be worth it? Almost without question, yes. Should enthusiasts, however, strike the thought from their minds for the foreseeable future?

All signs point to yes…

How would you like to see Nintendo’s many IPs instituted in the parks? Tell the world in the comments below.

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Nintendo is coming to Universal Orlando

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About Marc N. Kleinhenz

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

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