Super Mario Party (Nintendo Switch) review: Har Mario Superstar
Despite a checkered history with the series, Nintendo fights for its right to party.
For me, the Mario Party series almost completely lived and died on the Nintendo 64. I was happy to let it exist as a fond childhood memory while mostly passing go on the seven console releases and many handheld versions since the series' victory lap on 64. It was my go-to example of growing up and out of a genre. Simplified mechanics, pushover AI and random feedback loops that are engaging and wild as a youngster but grow tired and bland with age.
But a big part of the Nintendo Switch's success (or by virtue of it) is how the entertainment superstar has managed to reignite a lost love for Mushroom Kingdom mainstays like Mario Kart, Tennis and now, Party. Not just with the loyal subjects of Cult Kimishima but with the rest of the world too. People I know who haven't touched a video game console since the 64, much less the Wii or Wii U, are happy Switch owners all chain-chomping at the bit for Mario's next multiplayer outing.
All this is to say: I should never underestimate Nintendo. Because I've spent the last few weeks playing Super Mario Party on Nintendo Switch with friends and family, all who left with smiles spread from ear-to-ear, vowing to purchase the game on day one for some online partying.
Super Mario Party succeeds because the main mode (the titular Mario Party) starts back at square one: collect coins, fight tooth and nail for stars and win big with minigames. At times, this back-to-basics approach is the game's greatest strength but it also highlights some frustrations, old and new.
The Art of Wario
Mario Party's random elements have always been a source of frustration for those in the lead and a get out of jail free card for those at the bottom of the ladder. This negative feedback loop isn't exclusive the Mario Party series, Mario Kart is just as guilty for blue shelling skilled players. This isn't a huge problem itself, it moves to goalpost for the winning player to be "better than the best"; to put enough ground between themselves and the rest of the gang to ensure a victory.
The difference, I think, is that skilled karters can recover from a blue shell and reclaim the lead if they play their cards right. Super Mario Party (SMP), on the other hand, practically gives the losing players a loaded dice by dealing out random awards at the end of every match: a star for bad luck, a star for distance travelled, coins collected, allies gained. It's not often these are a threat for the leading player but they can shift the rest of the rankings quite significantly, mostly impacting the poor folks middling at second and third.
If these awards were more consistent or specific to each board, you could change up your tactics mid-match to gain the most coins, or team up with the most allies but they're random every single time so it really is a game of chance.
These participation awards aren't new to the series but they feel especially cheap-cheap this time around.
The requisites for winning these awards and, taken separately, serve for a force of good by adding more and more variables to the madcap multiplayer. There are two sides to every coin: fat stacks of coins secure you for star and items purchases and may even gain you a lucky star at the end of the match, but a fat wallet also draws the attention of the game's AI enemies and "bad luck" systems, gaining allies gives you more rolls, more dice variety and gives you a leg up in team-based mini-games, but they can also push you past your target landing space and having the most stars makes you the most likely target for your companions and their cloudy co-conspirator Lakitu (who will steal coins for free or stars at a price).
SMP's unrelentingly sunny disposition means that whichever way the chips fall, success and failure always come with cheers of support from your entourage. Despite being a "competitive" multiplayer game, it almost always feels like a co-op adventure. The game's upbeat attitude and helplessly random format make it impossible to feel cheated or treated unfairly.
Mini-games with massive potential
Let's move 10 spaces forward and discuss what everyone on the board came here for, the mini-games. SMP has some seriously memorable mini-games and the very best take advantage of the Switch's Joy-cons: Sizzling Stakes is a motion-controlled cooking contest where players sear each side of a steak cube by flipping it in a pan (which reminds me, when are we getting a new Cooking Mama on Switch?). There's Social Climbers, a real tricep workout that has you climbing a pole, mimicking a grab-and-pull motion, Slaparazzi, a slap-happy free-for-all where each player has to butt their way to the front of a photo-op and Net Worth, a co-op fishing game where each player has to yank their joy-con upwards at the ideal moment to net the largest schools of Cheap-Cheap (and a golden one for bonus points).
Many games take direct inspiration from Mario Party 64, like Hot-Bob-Omb and Bumper Balls, these too are some of Super Mario Party's best. They are fast-paced, frantic and scored by the sounds of your team shouting with joy and despair. Looking back at Mario Party 64's iconic lineup of mini-games (Hot Rope Jump, Grab Bag, Face Lift and Tipsy Tourney just to name a few) highlights just how forgettable many of SMP's own mini-games are.
I only have a couple of issues with SMP's mini-games. First, too many of the core mode (Mario Party) games are simply movement-based, where your only control is the joystick. Maybe there was some hesitation to overuse the Joy-con's motion, rumble and IR features? In any other game I would agree but SMP feels like the one time Nintendo could get away with going all in with its new tech. There also aren't as many that make you exert sheer physical force to win. Mario Party 64's Pedal Power had you manically twirling the 64's joystick in a feat of physical endurance video games have barely seen since. You would spin the stick until your palms were red raw. An epidemic so serious that Nintendo were forced to ship out protective gloves for Party players. In the school playground, it was a brand of honour, like a blood pact to the cult of Nintendo. In households, parents and siblings had a blast implying the blisters had been caused by... other forms of single-player entertainment. A joke that flew right over might head at the time.
There are few mini-games in SMP that muster the same kind of white-knuckled dedication. In fact, the game does away with single-player mini-games completely. Not a first for the series but it's part of a wider problem that comes with simplifying the game boards and segregating mini-games into modes.
The trimmings are mostly fat
SMP has 80 mini-games at launch (whether there will be DLC or not is yet to be seen), and while there are some zingers, the game does itself no favours by forcing you into different modes to experience them all. This is most notable when it comes to SMP's Rhythm games, which are accessed exclusively through the Sound Stage mode; a So You Think You Can Dance-style gauntlet where players complete a number of motion-controlled missions while keeping with the rhythm of remixed Mario tunes like Super Mario Bros. Underground theme.
Sound Stage offers a series of speedy physical activities, a welcome change of pace after the slow roll of Mario Party's traditional mode. While the motion-tracking in these games can be unreliable at times, you shouldn't have too much trouble if you've got a clear line of sight to the Switch and follow the on-screen instructions closely (random movement patterns will only get you so far).
Despite a relatively small selection, I'm yet to tire of the Rhythm games on offer. The most enjoyable that come to mind are a "follow the leader"/Game and Watch Flagman throwback that has the player mimicking Luigi's poses and another that has players hitting home runs in a batting cage in beat with the mode's accelerating soundtrack. The worst of them is no doubt another follow the leader game, where players march in synch under the guidance of a baton-bearing Toad.
There's another co-op based river run game peppered exclusively with team-based mini-games. Again, the mini-games here (like the previously mentioned Net Worth) are a delight but the core bland adventure wrapper they are presented in is a little underwhelming.
The point I'm slowly rolling towards is this: why aren't these games included in the core Mario Party mode? Rhythm games could be given their own space, ramping up the in pace and intensity in later rounds and team-based mini-games could easily replace the incredibly vanilla Bad Luck spaces, which rob the player of coins or stars at the hands of chance. Having team spaces where all four players ward off Kamek's wicked spells would bring SMP one step closer to what it wants to be deep down, a co-op multiplayer game.
The four boards available at launch create a much-needed change of scenery and a few gameplay twists. Kamek's Tantalising Tower, for example, has Toad (the goalpost for star-hungry players) stationary, dealing out multiple stars that can cost 5, 10 or 15 coins each. depending on the outcome of a Powerball lottery system.
However, the shakeups between boards aren't exactly game-changing and mostly feel like a tilting scale of inconvenience. Kamek's final act on any given board doubles the number of coins gained and lost from red and green spaces and make bad luck spaces deal out "extra bad luck" in the last three turns. This feels mostly inconsequential when you're so late in the game.
There are some board-specific features that work. One of the special event spaces in King Bob-omb's Powderkeg Mine that delivers you to the other side of the board via mine cart, potentially aiding or screwing over the unwitting passenger. Megafruit Paradise's collapsing bridges slowly degrade each time a player steps over them, eventually falling apart and forcing players to use the warp pipes on hand to transport between the board's four islands lest they face the wrath of a giant Blooper.
We reviewed Super Mario Party on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.
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