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Super Nintendo World is a milestone for gaming | Opinion

The world's first theme park based on a video game opens in Osaka, and it signals a major strategic shift for Nintendo

Earlier this week, with far less fanfare than most people might have hoped, a fairly important milestone for video games was established. After multiple delays and months of hype and expectation, the opening of the Super Nintendo World marks the first time that the industry has engaged with the theme park business (and vice versa) on a large scale. It is the opening salvo of a strategy on Nintendo's part that seems to establish parks and other real-world locations as a pillar of the company's future business.

The original plan for Super Nintendo World was to open it last summer as tourists flocked to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics -- one of those perfectly sensible and rational plans that now in hindsight sounds so completely insane that it might as well have floated into our dimension from a parallel universe. A couple of delays later, the park is open, forming a major new area within the sprawling Universal Studios Japan lot in Osaka, but any plans for major launch events had to be scaled down in the face of ongoing COVID restrictions.

The disappointment of the quiet launch is likely to evaporate once the restrictions are lifted and tourism to Japan resumes, whenever that may be. I've yet to find anyone who doesn't view the park's success as a foregone conclusion.

Nintendo joins a pretty elite set of IP owners with this move, and in doing so enters a highly lucrative market

As well they might. The importance of this launch from the perspective of the industry and the medium isn't just that Nintendo has taken it into its mind to dip its toe into this side-business. If that were the case, we could view this as just a logical progression of the occasional appearances of video game IP on theme park rides over the years -- or the more recent trend of VR-centric arcades that, at their most ambitious, sometimes start to border on the scale of parks.

The key thing about Nintendo's move here isn't the size of what's being executed -- it's actually fairly compact -- it's the ambition of creating a whole theme park area around their franchises. Not just a ride or interactive experience of some kind, but a whole park area where the selling point is that visitors will be deeply immersed in Nintendo's creations from the moment they enter the park to the moment they leave.

Doing that and making it work at scale takes cultural clout on a level that very few companies can claim. Disney's parks are the prototype for the idea and remain its finest execution, including its recent extension of the concept to its Star Wars IP with the Galaxy's Edge park area. Nintendo's partner, Universal Studios, has good form with making this work on a smaller scale with individual IPs -- the most notable of recent years being Harry Potter, whose zone in the Osaka park sits alongside the new Super Nintendo World lot. Nintendo joins a pretty elite set of IP owners with this move, in other words, and in doing so, enters what is potentially a highly lucrative market.

Putting itself into the position where success in theme parks was possible has been the work of decades for Nintendo

Theme parks, and all the various aspects of franchising, merchandising, concession sales, memberships and so on that are associated with them, are an enormous business. Just look at Disney's results over the past year or so; the enormous success of Disney+ may have papered over the cracks to some extent, but the impact of COVID on the company's parks around the world has taken a vast chunk out of the company's revenue, even more so than the closing of cinemas in which it could show its movies. The scale of the impact on Disney's bottom line only serves to highlight how important and lucrative the parks are to the company.

It will be a long time, of course, before parks could ever form such a key part of Nintendo's business -- and note that, for now at least, Super Nintendo World is a partnership with Universal Studios, so the upside for Nintendo itself remains limited. This is a vital first step, though, and steady progress is already mapped out to some degree, with the next Nintendo park already planned to open in Florida in a few years' time.

Other key steps will come with time, and Super Nintendo World is actually quite a conservative first move; only a short train ride from Nintendo's own Kyoto headquarters -- all the better to maintain strict creative control and learn the ropes of this new business at an accelerated pace -- and relatively limited in scope, with only two actual rides contained within the lovingly themed area. The company knows, no doubt, that the learning curve to go from video game creator to pulling off feats comparable to Disney's "Imagineers" is going to be steep. It will be informative to watch and see how quickly it is able to move to expand and develop Super Nintendo World from its current form, and how effective the company is at keeping the park relevant and appealing for repeat visitors.

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As Nintendo's parks start to expand and roll out elsewhere -- and crucially, as they start to have an impact on the firm's bottom line -- plenty of other companies will no doubt start to wonder if their IP might also have what it takes to follow in Mario's footsteps. However, it's tough to imagine any other firm in the industry being able to pull off something like this right now.

Putting itself into the position where success in the theme park field was possible has been the work of decades for Nintendo. It didn't start with the defined objective of opening theme parks, of course, but the firm's laser focus on positioning itself as a family entertainment brand -- not in the sense of "family-friendly" that's come to simply mean "inoffensive to cultural conservatives", but rather in the sense of genuinely designing games to be played and enjoyed across generations -- had the enormous side-benefit of making it into about the only games company that shares Disney's core USP of tapping both parents' nostalgia and kids' excitement all at once.

That's what's truly crucial here. For something to really have the level of cultural recognition and cachet required to make a theme park work -- for consumers to really want to go and spend such an amount of time and money, on an ongoing basis, on a franchise that's been transformed into a destination -- takes a very special kind of IP, one that has an appeal that's both broad and deep, and that's truly multi-generational in its reach. There's a decent business in making something that appeals to traditional "gamer" demographics, and that has been the focus for the kinds of "VR arcade" efforts we've seen in recent years. But there's a fantastic business in something that taps parents' nostalgia and makes them excited both to visit themselves and to have a chance to introduce their own children to a beloved part of their childhood.

Super Nintendo World and the overall push into parks and other venues will be a slow burn -- it's not going to transform Nintendo's business overnight, but I suspect that in decades to come we'll look back at this opening as a turning point. Notably, it's not just the park that signals this new approach from the company; there's a broader strategy on Nintendo's part to extend its presence into bricks and mortar, which is also visible in the opening of Nintendo Stores in high-profile locations, joining the long-running Pokémon Store retail locations. These have proved enormously successful thanks to a very well executed and smart merchandising approach that keeps the firm's offerings fresh, encourages repeat visits, transforms the stores into tourist destinations, and ultimately taps into exactly the same cross-generational nostalgia that will fuel footfall in the theme parks.

Nintendo knows the goldmine its sitting on, and slowly, carefully, it's transforming itself into a company that can leverage that to the fullest. Disney doesn't need to start looking in the rear-view mirror -- this is more respectful homage than challenge, especially given that Disney itself is barely scraping the surface of the potential of Star Wars and Marvel in this area of its business. But the rest of the industry may be a little unprepared for just how much Nintendo's mainstream cultural presence and importance will soar in the coming decade or so should these initiatives really come to fruition.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.