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Theme Parks Are Turning Into Real-Life Video Games, And Minion Land At Universal Studios Is The Next Step

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Universal Orlando Resort bets it can turn guests into gamers with new rides.

With the opening of Minions Land, Universal Studios Orlando has also introduced a brand-new ride experience themed around the Illumination animated franchise. And while that attraction--Villain-Con: Minion Blast--may be primarily appealing to younger visitors and families, it's also a clear indicator of what Universal believes is the future of its theme parks. It's not enough to simply have an arsenal of rides that cast visitors into the role of passive passengers. Now, Universal wants guests to become the star of their own story.

It all started when Universal Studios launched its first Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion at Universal's Islands of Adventure in 2010. Instead of traveling through the land en route to a ride or gift shop, Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade brought the Wizarding World franchise to life in a new way, as in-character performers dotted the beautifully crafted recreation of the small town where Harry and his friends went to school.

Disney followed suit with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in 2019, letting guests go on their own adventures on a newly revealed planet in the Star Wars galaxy. However, in the lead-up to the debut of that land at both Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World, the company shared big and bold ideas of a themed land that was alive and thriving. Unfortunately, many of those ideas never made it past that initial stage. The land wasn't humming with excitement or filled with familiar Star Wars characters. What's more, the promise of your reputation following you around the land based on how well you scored in the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run ride simply never happened.

That's not to say Galaxy's Edge doesn't remain an impressive feat--it does. Still, while it was Disney's biggest step forward in terms of immersion, it is severely lacking compared to Universal's latest advancements.

When Super Nintendo World was introduced at Universal Studios (first in Japan in 2021, then in California in 2023), it brought with it a type of interactivity not seen before at a theme park. The land was filled with minigames and interactive elements that allowed guests to earn points and attempt to top the leaderboards. Even their performance on Mario Kart: Bowser's Revenge was taken into account, with scores, achievements, and any other relevant information able to be tracked in the Universal Studios app.

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Of course, having Universal Studios Hollywood be the first domestic park with a Super Nintendo World seemed like a calculated decision. While theme parks in Florida are known to attract tourists from all over the world, theme parks in Southern California are known for their large audiences of local visitors. The gamification of Super Nintendo World is there to make visitors want to come back, which is a lot easier to do when you live down the street. And that new way of experiencing a theme park attraction brought with it new challenges for guests to strive for. Can they unlock more achievements or land a personal best high score? That's something you'll only know on repeat visits.

Soon enough, Florida will also have its own Super Nintendo World in the upcoming Epic Universe park at Universal Studios, which is currently under construction. What that means is the same kind of repeat playability will exist in a park that is traditionally a tourist-heavy location.

Universal won't have to wait to see how that type of gamification and replayability works on its Florida properties, though. The newest addition to Universal Studios' ride portfolio is Villain-Con: Minion Blast, which includes that same type of interactivity that Super Nintendo World boasts--and more.

"Starting with Nintendo and now bringing the Villain-Con here, we want to create a new kind of play pattern in parks," director of immersive experiences Victor Lugo told GameSpot. "We've done the ride, we've done the immersive experiences, we've done the shows. [Now] we want to create players in this space and we want people to come back over and over again to be further immersed. Part of it is creating attractions that change the way you play every single time."

What makes Villain-Con stand out as a ride is that it isn't actually a ride. Instead, guests stand on a moving walkway that takes them through the attraction while firing a blaster at villains and items on a series of massive screens. The blasters can be synced to the Universal Studios app on your phone, allowing for score and progression tracking, unlockable achievements and stamps, as well as earnable customizations to your blaster. And yes, in typical Minions fashion, one of those customizations is a fart gun.

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While the unlockables don't physically change anything about your blaster, the new types of unlockables and attachments you earn in the app will make the on-screen experience different and will likely impact your score.

The closest comparison is Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure at Disney California Adventure in Southern California. On that ride, you work with Spider-Man to take out a bunch of out-of-control robots. On the default setting, you sling webs at them. However, guests can also purchase wearable upgrades that alter the weapons they use in the ride, offering powers similar to those of Iron Man and other Marvel superheroes. Similarly, Super Nintendo World utilizes purchasable "power-up bands" that track your progress.

Villain-Con is basically taking this mechanic and making it free within the Universal Studios app. Sure, you don't have a plastic Iron Man gauntlet to take home at the end of the day, but this will cut down on any pay-to-play concerns you might have--and if you're going with your family, that's a lot less money to spend. It goes hand-in-hand with Universal's drive to turn visitors into repeat customers.

"We want to make sure that we're embracing play in a way that nobody else is doing," Lugo said. "I think this is really the first step in Orlando, but globally we want to make sure that we bring players to the park now so that they can experience adventures and kind of be the hero of their own adventure."

And if Villain-Con: Minion Blast, along with an expanding Super Nintendo World franchise, are signs of what's to come with the Universal Studios theme parks around the world, the company is poised to stand out from the rest of the pack in a way it never has before. If you're a theme park fan or a gamer with a passing interest in more immersive experiences, that's a pretty exciting thing.

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Chris E. Hayner

Chris E. Hayner is Senior Editor at GameSpot, responsible for the site's entertainment content. Previously, he contributed to a number of outlets including The Hollywood Report, IGN, Mashable, CBS Interactive, Tribune Media, and Nerdist. Chris loves all movies, but especially Jaws and Paddington 2.

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