Mario Party’s one of those series that nearly everyone has some fond memories of. It says a lot, though, that despite the series having continued through each of Nintendo’s platforms, most people would still look at the first three games on the N64 as the definitive Mario Party releases. Things gradually rolled downhill for the series, with each title feeling less special than the last until Nintendo decided to take things a bit more seriously after Mario Party 8. Taking the series out of Hudson Soft’s hands, Nintendo started developing Mario Party internally with Mario Party 9, and the shift is unmissable. Mario Party 9’s bubbly, colourful environments are a far cry from 8’s drab, realistic look, and the minigames were the most interesting and entertaining the series had seen for years. Mario Party 9 marked a tremendously important turning point in the series; it made it look, feel and play like a Mario game again.
The problem, however, is Nintendo had other ideas for rejuvenating the franchise too. Ever since, the traditional board game mode has been replaced by less strategic, less competitive and less engaging alternatives, only ever hinting at the systems that made classic Mario Party games so much fun. So what better platform than the Switch to set things right? Super Mario Party brings back the classic mode, making it the first title since Nintendo took control to do things the old-fashioned way.
There are a bunch of ways to play Super Mario Party, but each is structured around the 80 all-new minigames. I’m a big fan of the minigames in the last few Mario Party games, which tend to lean more heavily on strategy and thoughtfulness than the mashing and spinning that was more prevalent back in the 64 days. SMP’s collection lies somewhere in-between. Everything fits the Mario aesthetic, which I am very grateful for, and feels responsive and fluid.
Most minigames feel like a race to solve a puzzle or complete a challenge, and those that put players in more direct competition feel a little more complicated than Mario Party games of old. Instead of, say, pushing each other off a ledge, players will shoot water-guns at one another to launch them out of a fountain, taking cover behind spraying water and refilling from the fountain when their shots are depleted. They’re very simple games all the same, but the couple of extra wrinkles help to define each as individual and keep things from feeling like re-skins of the same old stuff. Of the 80 minigames, there are only maybe two or three exceptions, and these feel like throwbacks to the olden days, which, as an exception to the collection, feels appropriate.
The central way to play this time is Mario Party, the classic board game structure wherein earning coins can buy you stars, with the most stars winning the game. Not only did Nintendo finally return to the system that used to work so well here, but they’ve modernised it with some of the components from more recent games that don’t get in the way of the traditional structure. Most notably, the character specific Dice Blocks and ally components from Star Rush are integrated here. Rather than the standard 1-6 die, players can vouch to roll their own Dice Block with unique odds for each character. Some characters like Mario will have safe Blocks, giving good odds of rolling 3s, where characters like Donkey Kong can land you a 10 if you’re lucky, but you risk rolling a 0 to get it. It means choosing a character isn’t just an aesthetic component, but a considerable point of strategy to landing where you want to be. Landing on an Ally Space or using the Ally Phone item will bring down an extra character to help you out, giving you access to their special Dice Block and adding a little boost to your rolls. It’s a layer that can add so much to the game, without negating the roots of the mode people love so dearly.
The only problem are the boards themselves. The branching paths and intersecting loops of Mario Party boards are what makes for the most exciting matches. Planning a route through these paths based on your opponents’ placement, the star’s placement, your coins, your items, and any special spots worth visiting is the entire purpose of the mode, yet the options feel disappointingly slim here. There are only four boards available, and each of them is much smaller and simpler than I would have liked. Three of the four are really just circuits with a couple optional pit-stops, while the other is a couple of loops to alternate between via pipes. They’re totally fine and function as they’re meant to, but they certainly don’t create the moments I loved in older MP games. The huge pay-offs and crazy upsets really aren’t feasible. Boards can be played in 10, 20 or 30 turns, and the size of them is certainly most conducive to 10. The pace of the game, though, is such that things really start heating up around turn eight or nine. It feels like it’d be so much more fun to play for longer and keep the tension building as the race for stars really gets going, but the simple, small maps are a grind to travel through for so long.
Mario Party mode isn’t the only way to play, thankfully. Partner Party is an adaptation of Star Rush’s grid-based systems. This time it’s specifically a 2v2 affair, which seems like an unnecessary limitation on the mode, but it’s still a cool twist on Mario Party formulae. Movement must be a lot more intentional here, where just rolling high isn’t going to do much for you a lot of the time. Unfortunately, the same maps are repeated here, though they’re slightly altered to facilitate the grid-based movement. Like Mario Party, Partner Party always feels a little too quick and doesn’t reach the tense point it hints at, but having an alternative mode is certainly a pleasure.
Sound Stage is a rhythm-based mode that falls somewhere between Rhythm Heaven and WarioWare. It’s a quick, high-energy mode that really nails the joy of the aforementioned series’, though the limited selection of minigames mean it’s only fun for a few rounds. What suffers more greatly from the same issue is the River Survival mode. This sees players rafting through obstacles, choosing which path to take, and completing minigames to increase the time limit in an attempt to reach the finish line. Having a 4-player cooperative mode makes a lot of sense, and the concept for this one is perfect. Like Sound Stage, however, there just aren’t enough cooperative minigames included to keep the mode fun for repeat attempts. The game tracks which paths you have and haven’t taken in an attempt to incite return visits, but after reaching each of the exits, I’d wasted my time repeating much of the same stuff many times.
The minigames are all playable in a couple of more stripped back scenarios for those who’d rather avoid the more drawn out sessions, and once they’re all unlocked, so too is Challenge Road, a singleplayer mode. Like much of Super Mario Party, this is a great concept that is presented wonderfully, but it ends up feeling a little shallow and repetitive. The game presents a challenge for each minigame – stuff like beating them in a certain time or with a certain score. Because the mode is only unlocked after having played enough to see every minigame, though, I felt like I was just redoing things I was already pretty familiar with. The idea of a single-player mode akin to Mario Tennis Aces’ story mode is extremely appealing to me, but just having the same minigames fill the map again wasn’t really worth the time to work through.
Linking all of this together is a nice little hub world, which makes for super streamlined set-up. Instead of choosing all your characters, CPU difficulties and such upon starting a game, you just choose it all when you start the game and carry it on however you play. There’s something of a progression system, too. I’m a huge fan of incentivising players to try everything with unlocks – Smash Bros is one of my favourite examples – and Super Mario Party does something similar. Each of the five main modes rewards a Gem upon completion of every board/map/route/challenge, with the game’s objective being to earn all five and become the Super Star. It’s superfluous, and the game’s limited substance doesn’t always do a great job of holding up the system, but I’m a big fan of this pseudo-progression, and I hope something similar comes back next time.
Super Mario Party is a wonderfully presented game packed full of excellent minigames; it’s just that the means to play them are disappointingly uncomplex. Mario Party mode is finally a step back to what fans have been yearning for, but the boards are small and straightforward. Partner Party, River Survival and Sound Stage are superb new additions, but having them limited to certain types of minigames means they get repetitive fairly quickly. Challenge Road is a great attempt at some single player stuff, but it feels a little undercooked too. Everything in Super Mario Party is good; it just consistently restricts itself in ways that keep it from being the great game it could have been.