For me, Mario Party was getting a bit long in the tooth back when I added series entry eight to my fledgling Wii games collection. Reskin some mini-games, board concepts and play methods each year and slap a £39.99 price tag onto and Nintendo were golden. So was I really. Trivial were the ideas of annual regurgitation when I and some student friends became increasingly inebriated whilst rolling virtual dice before hitting the pubs and clubs in central Leeds. The game was FUN damn it! In hindsight the same effect could have been achieved with any other previous installment. It’s been near five years since all of that though and Mario Party 9 tinkers with the formula significantly, with the result being a refreshing breath of air to a series that, much like my hungover self on the day after, was looking tired, groggy and in need of a spark of energy, though not necessarily one that will be welcomed. How I’d love to know what the pre-club festivities with Mario Party 9 would have felt like.
In the intervening years between this entry and the last longtime developers Hudson have been dissolved and the reigns placed in the hands of Nintendo’s internal studio ND-Cube. What may or may not be a direct consequence is that the production values on offer here represent a peak for the series. Character animation is more lively and charming, textures are more detailed and loading times and the time spent waiting idly between menus and game choices have been cut drastically. Taking a few design cues from Wii Party, the game’s new interface is both slick and unfussy, easier on the eye and probably easier on the hardware; there’s less in the way of carnival tents, balloons and the like for thematic window dressing this time round. The fancy stuff is reserved for the board game and the minigames. As a longtime series fan I really appreciated these changes, and I feel Nintendo have done a better job here than Hudson ever did when looking at the game’ subtler nuances.
Naturally all this is for naught if the core gameplay doesn’t satisfy, and it is here where the title deviates from the well established norm. As opposed to traversing individually across a multipath board buying gold stars all the players travel together in a vehicle collecting star bits across paths leading from point A – the start – up to point B – the end. Star bits serve as the victory condition for each board playthrough and can be earned by earning them in minigames or passing them by in your turn on the board. Travelling together, each player’s turn designates them as ‘captain’ and they get to roll a dice to determine how many spaces the vehicle moves and precisely what happens to the captain when they stop or reach an important section.
The board game is playable both as a solo option with the AI and with your friends. Mario Party has always been about the multiplayer and is usually always more fun played this way, so I say take the unlockable characters you get for completing solo mode and never look back. To justify my view further the inherent luck of the game can sometimes make the mandatory progress requirements a chore to fulfill, forcing you to repeat the board again – the aforementioned Bowser incident once sapped thirty to forty five minutes of my progress in one attempt. Hurrah.
As a considerably more linear setup than previous series entries there are less tactical options here to manipulate the game in your favour and as such you have to rely on your minigame skill, luck, and savvy use of various different types dice block to succeed more than ever, and this will be divisive amongst long term fans. How you find this system is dependent on perspective: whereas there ARE not many tactical options available, by extension the limited number of choices and their potential consequences become more apparent to the player. You’re more likely to know where you stand at any given time and your overall performance can be more readily attributed to good luck and skill, or a lack of either. The game is therefore more accessible and more liable to garner appeal from a younger audience and semi-incapable drunks. It’s a smarter and more polished design by Nintendo, though not necessarily to everyone’s taste, as even a good performance can be shattered in seconds by Bowser having you surrender half of your star bits to last place right before the climatic final boss. Though I’d say the focus of Mario Party isn’t about winning, it’s about the ride, so try to avoid those salty tears when things go down the pan.
Boss battles can represent a fairly major determinant of your final ranking, with many star bits up for grabs if you attain first place, and even more so if you are captain. They’re pretty decent on the whole, requiring a mix of good reflexes, observation and outsmarting your opponents to succeed, with only one luck dependent minigame with Bowser Junior being a true clunker.
For the mingames as a whole, I’d say they’re pretty damn good. There’s a heck of a lot of variety on offer with around 80 minigames to discover, ranging from 3D Mario-esque platforming escapades to running from a hailstorm of bob-ombs, and are chock full of Nintendo game references. Control patterns are well thought out and make good contextual sense, and the games only rarely shoehorn in motion controls just because that option is available.I’m not a fan of the luck minigames where you have to pick a card of random value or hope the fishing reel you picked doesn’t reveal an urchin and ruin you, but it’s certainly more difficult to hate even the lesser games in this package simply because the stakes tend to be lower in the board game portion. No more losing 50 coins to a luck driven battle game that you can’t opt out of, thank the stars.
In what is a nice touch, minigame parameters adjust according to how many players are participating. What once would have been considered a 4-player free for all can now be played by just two people, and the minigame design accounts for this excellently. Mario Party 9 has many neat little details like this that will sadly go unnoticed by many, if only because they’re not a series stalwart like myself or are too busy hating on the linear board progression. Nevertheless, my hat goes off to Nintendo here.
Outside the board game lies the minigame and extras mode which are filled with content that should be familiar to series fans. You can play mingames individually or as part of differing competitions, such as earning the right to place varying shapes of blocks into a box grid before everyone else, tetris style, or simply being the first to reach a set number of game wins. You can also play unique stand alone affairs such as a variation on bejewelled. Some will have more appeal than others depending on your own tastes. Avoid the perspective mode though. It’s a fine example of an interesting idea woefully executed.
Finally you have the museum. Here you can use the star bits collected across the game modes to unlock new vehicles foe the board game, the soundtrack, a new AI difficulty level and star constellations of various characters in the Mario series, amongst other things. Most aren’t going to be especially interesting to many folks outside of the young or drunk, and you wouldn’t miss many of them if you never ventured here.
Mario Party 9 is a decent title all told. A focused design permeates most corners and crevices of the game’s presentation and content though long time fans may not enjoy the reduced autonomy that the modified board game provides. I doubt that the audience whom this title will garner the most appeal – the young and the inebriated – are likely to care as much. With the minigames alone there’s good fun to be had in this title anyway, and so it’s a decent choice for a party. Now that I think about it, I reckon this would have been a good one for me a few years ago.