Super Mario Party is the eleventh entry into Nintendo’s boardgame franchise and after several underwhelming attempts on previous consoles, the Switch game is tasked with not only breathing fresh life into an ageing series but also with reviving the glory days of Gamecube and N64 digital board-gaming in the Mushroom Kingdom. Happily, like so many of the franchise re-launches on the Nintendo Switch, Super Mario Party succeeds (at least partially) in both of these lofty goals.
Jovial pursuit for stars
After watching a short cinematic sequence, you are quickly thrown into the character selection screen (16 available at the start with 4 unlockable later) and then head into the overworld in a 4-character party with several game modes available to you. In the past, the various entries in the Mario Party series have often been judged as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on two main criteria: First, on how well the game balances randomness/luck and strategy/skill during the traditional board game play and, second, on the strength of the mini-games. Some games in the past faltered when winning relied too heavily on lucky dice throws to provide an engaging enough challenge for more experienced players. However, tilt it too much the other way and casual gamers feel alienated. Super Mario Party tackles this delicate balance by providing two slightly different flavours of the original dice-based board game mode – Mario Party and Partner Party.
Super Mario Party balances randomness/luck and strategy/skill by providing two flavours of the original dice-based board game: Mario Party and Partner Party – the former favouring luck, the latter strategy and effectively making sure there’s something there to keep everyone happy and engaged.
In Mario Party, each player travels along a predetermined course (with a few branching paths) aiming to collect the most Stars. In this edition of the game, strategy takes a back seat; it’s a fun, every-Goomba-for-himself mode that encourages mayhem and works really well for casual players of all ages. If, however, you prefer more strategy or skill in your boardgames, Partner Party will provide a good alternative. In this iteration, players are split into teams of two. Dice rolls, coins and stars are shared, and this time after each roll, players can choose their own path moving anywhere on the multi-spaced grid-like board. With this free movement and shared items, randomness is mitigated and strategy becomes more important.
As with most boardgames players need to avoid certain spaces (Bad Luck and Very Bad Luck), while doing their best to land on others (Good Luck, Ally and Event). The ‘Mario Party Series’ spin on the dice mechanic is that players can choose to use either a traditional hexagonal 1-6 scoring dice or their own character-specific dice. These character dice can include anything from Donkey Kong’s high-risk high-reward dice with two 10s and multiple 0 sides, to a more conservative but reliable Shy Guy’s ‘4-on-all-sides-but-one’ piece. In this way, choosing a character that matches your play-style, or the correct teammate, can really affect your game.
Along the various paths, players will also be able to pick up ‘Allies’ (NPCs that follow you around and provide an extra dice option) and items (power-ups that you can use to for a variety of actions from moving yourself close to stars or stealing coins from competitors) and the basic aim is to travel around the boards collecting coins in order to buy stars from a floating Toadette. After each round, all four players play a mini-game. These mini-games are randomly selected and can be either in 2v2, 1v3 or 4-player-VS formats, with the winners gaining extra coins to use along the main game. The last few rounds of every game are also ‘spiced up’ with multiple stars becoming available and bad luck spaces becoming even more damaging. In the end, the player (or team) with the most stars wins. A simple premise – but with enough little extras to keep everyone from newbies to experienced board gamers interested.
Both versions feature three distinct game boards to explore (with a fourth to be unlocked) and travelling across the board ‘worlds’ feels unique because each of them is brightly illustrated in traditional Mario style and each character has a small series of unique animations which adapt depending on what or who they interact with; Peach reacts rather differently when teaming up with Mario than when she does with Bowser. It is this attention to detail that Nintendo has become known for and makes even exploring a board game in Super Mario Party a special experience.
It is this attention to detail in the board game worlds and character-specific animations that… make even exploring a board game in Super Mario Party a special experience.
However, as a single-player experience, the game definitely lacks something. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nintendo’s take on difficulty settings. Once you begin a game with less than a full complement of 4, the needed amount of computer-controlled characters will be added to your group. You will then be asked to choose between three difficulty settings. Nope, not Easy, Medium and Hard, but rather Nintendo’s nonsensical version of these: Normal, Hard and Very Hard. Not only are these options needlessly odd, but they are also misleading. During my review, I started off with the Hard difficulty selected and found that I won every single mini-game (bar one) way too easily. Both Mario and Partner Party challenges posed no challenge at all. Multiplayer is really the way to go if possible, but if you have no friends on the couch with you be sure to go with the Very Hard setting. Another small opportunity that the board game modes missed was a shorter format. Board games in the real world can be several-hour-long affairs, however, the nature of the Switch and its portability really calls out for a shorter 3-5 turn game that could be completed in less than 30 minutes – a feature where Super Mario Party misses the mark. So you may be fooled into thinking that Super Mario Party will appeal only to hardcore board game fans. Happily, however, you’d be mistaken, and it is the addition of great mini-games that Super Mario Party really begins to shine as a ‘game for everyone’.
Jenga mini-game tower
As mentioned above, after every round of a Mario or Partner Party game all four players enter a mini-game challenge. By doing this, new mini-games are unlocked. However, this is not the only way players play mini-games. In fact, three modes in the overworld are solely focussed on mastering the over 75 mini-games. Cleverly, you also get a chance to practice each mini-game before competing in any mini-game challenge. Nintendo must’ve realised the how good these mini-games feel to play and chosen to do whatever possible to highlight them. And boy is this a good thing! What makes each of the games stand out is how they make excellent use of the Joy-Con’s capabilities. From games where the HD Rumble takes centre stage and you have to select a hidden character or object purely by feel and sound, to games that rely on the clever use of the gyroscope and manipulating objects in a 3D space, to more traditional Mario Party games based on simple platforming, quiz-taking and everything in between, each mini-game is a triumph not only in ingenuity but in enjoyability.
I played all the mini-games and loved all the mini-games. Well, I did find one to be virtually impossible – it has something to do with Russian doll – and one had a slight glitch – where my larger-than-life baseball swing caused a massive warning message to appear on the screen that I was not able to disable even though the mini-game continued in the background. However, even those didn’t bother me too much. My favourite mini-game was probably Slaparrazzi. All you have to do is run in front of a photographer as he is about to take the photo while pushing your opponents out the way. Sounds rather odd, but incredibly simple, right? It was, but it is also so wonderfully addictive that once you try it you’ll want to do it over and over again.
Thanks to the excellent use of the Joy-Con’s capabilities each mini-game is a triumph not only in ingenuity but in enjoyability.
The first of the four mini-game modes is a sort of catch-all that allows free play of any of the mini-games that you have already unlocked, Mariothon (5 mini-game cups where points are accumulated after every game and the winner is the player who finishes with the highest points tally) and Square Off. In this last TV-game-show-like challenge, each mini-game gives you a square on a four-by-four grid with the overall winner capturing the most grid territory. (Mariothon is also the mode where players can play online with people around the world – unfortunately, at the time of the review, this feature had not yet been enabled.)
The next mini-game mode is Sound Stage and all the mini-games that are rhythm-based take centre… well, stage. This feels very much may like a Nintendo version of Just Dance! and sort of forces you to get up off the couch and pull off some dance moves. And although it sounded rather gimmicky at first, after trying them I found that the beat-based challenges were some of my favourite mini-games and I enjoyed every weird dance move I had to perform.
…although it sounded rather gimmicky at first, after trying them I found that the beat and rythym-based challenges were some of my favourite mini-games and I enjoyed every weird dance move I had to perform.
River Survival is the next mini-game mode and honestly a bit of strange addition. Four players are tasked with making their way down a branching river using the Joy-Cons as paddles. Depending on which branch you take, different obstacles will need to be avoided by working as a team – from giant flying Cheep Cheep fish to whirlpools and waterfalls – and the goal is to reach the end of the river before the time runs out. Along the way, balloons appear that when popped throw the entire team into 4 player co-operative mini-games. Complete these well and you earn a priceless extra few seconds for the raft trip. The rafting is intuitive and more fun as a group, however, trying to complete all the branches can become a little repetitive and at times because there is only a handful of 4-player co-op specific mini-games a few came up more than once within the same trip downstream.
The final mode becomes available after you unlock all mini-games through the Mario and Partner Party modes. It took quite a while to access this mode and as this is the only truly hidden unlockable in the game – I won’t spoil it for you. However, the good news is that it is a fun little challenge to tackle at the end and brings the games very light narrative to a close.
Odd Uno out
Toad’s Rec Room is another unlockable game mode, however, as it has been shown on multiple Nintendo videos and becomes available very early in the game we can go into a few details here. Despite the fact that Toad’s Rec Room could be considered yet another mini-game specific mode, it somehow instead felt more like an oddly included tech demo. Four more mini-games are available here and the only reason they seem to be separated from the main modes is to highlighting that two Switches can be synced up to play them. The first three can be played on one Switch too but “Banana, Split” which has been shown at a various time prior to launch – is only playable with two Switches. Unfortunately, for the review, we were unable to try this mode using a second Switch that also had the game. The games, in general, are fun, and don’t get me wrong the technology is astounding, but the Rec Room just felt disconnected.
Along the way, the main story mode encourages players to earn Party Points and to collect 5 gems. Party points can be used to purchase ‘advice’ (basic game strategy tips), in-game music and stickers (here is where some amiibo functionality pops in) to be used in an unlockable mode which becomes available later in the game. Gems are collected by completing each of the 5 game modes: Partner Party, Mario Party, River Survival, Sound Stage and Challenge Road. Despite this game not being the best single-player experience, don’t be fooled into thinking this equates to a lack of content, because before you see any credits rolling you’ll likely be putting in around 10 hours of single-player gameplay.
Despite this game not being the best single-player experience, don’t be fooled into thinking this equates to a lack of content, because if you plan to see any credits rolling you’ll likely be putting in around 10 hours of single-player gameplay. Not bad for a mainly multiplayer-focussed game.
Scrabbling a summary
Super Mario Party like many of Nintendo’s recent franchise outings on the Switch is a welcome return to form. It offers multiple boards, game modes and with 80 surprisingly unique mini-games that make full use of the Joy-Con controller’s wonderful and varied features, it is sure to keep you entertained for hours. These mini-games really steal the show and amongst a lot of great ones, the rhythm-based ones are really fantastic.
As a multiplayer party game Super Mario Party has returned to its roots by providing a good balance of skill and luck in boardgames that are wonderfully bright and fun to complete. Sure, a few more boards and a shorter match option would’be been welcomed, and Toad’s Rec Room feels a little incongruent, however, these are small issues. When played with a bunch of friends, Super Mario Party does exactly what you want it to – it is challenging enough to keep players interested, but also accessible enough that everyone feels like they have a chance to win. It is another title to add to the growing list of great local multiplayer games now available on the Switch. Due to its trademark Nintendo first-party polish and technical finesse, it may even be a contender for the stealing the top spot in the genre. It may not be for everyone, but if you are looking for a fun multiplayer game this one will get you laughing and swaying your arms about near your friends, and when it comes down to it – that is what party games should be about.