11th March 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
Board Gaming Goodness
Over time, Mario Party has presented a variety of interesting mash-ups in the way of varied themes and executions playing on differing mechanics that involve luck of the draw, strategic wagering, memory, and item management. Instead of experimenting with other mechanics involving, say, drop-off points, the previously mentioned mechanics make up the system used across the board, with changes especially seen in the layouts of the boards themselves. While some may gravitate more to the mini-games and stick with those more, it's commendable that most of what the series is comprised of isn't an afterthought. From the very start, Mario Party proved to be a great digital board gaming experience, and an engaging one at that.
From this foundation, a flock of boards fell into this mold, which involved collecting 20 Coins and getting to the temporary Star Space to make an exchange. Even with these, though, you occasionally had some interesting board elements to make up for the adherence to a set template with the core gameplay. For instance, on the Space Land board from Mario Party 2, players had to constantly guard against a powerful satellite called the Bowser Beam that would result in a complete loss of coins for anyone caught in its path. Plus, you could also employ the police patrol system to divert rivals from getting too close to the Star path. Also, in Goomba's Greedy Gala from Mario Party 4, players were able to pitch coins and influence the results of a spinning roulette to better their chances of getting to go where they wanted to.
Admittedly, the creativity in the methodology of Star-collecting became less and less evident with each new entry, which is something that can be hard to accept given the number of chances the development team had to take risks. As evidenced by the fact that the Mario Party 4 boards felt so samey in terms of overall structure, it took a while for them to feel comfortable doing anything that would stray away from what they had built up from the beginning. Faire Square from Mario Party 6 mixed things up quite a bit, allowing you to purchase multiple Stars at the same time, with the fees decreasing during the Nighttime segments.
Later, in Mario Party 7, we saw how the Star collection component became a more managerial directive where players would deposit coins into windmills to claim them as their own, and thereby get the Stars in their name. And finally, King Boo's Haunted Hideaway from Mario Party 8 had a previously unexplored theme of suspense and unpredictability where you weren't sure if the room you were going into next would send you back to the Start. This randomly-generated layout meant that the race to collect Stars felt fresh despite what some may describe as an uncomfortable amount of randomness, and it made it so that the person trailing at the back could have an advantage over the leading players.
It's boards like these that afforded more strategy than the norm, becoming key points of growth in the run of the franchise. While the board exploration may come across as a bit boring to some, special layouts do add considerable life to the party, sometimes in ways that go beyond what a tabletop board game can accomplish. It's only natural that board game enthusiasts (like myself) take such a strong liking to Mario Party's core setup, and I know I always relish the opportunity to share my experiences with those who have also come to appreciate this treasured franchise.
Why Am I Spending My Time Here?
For every good board we've seen, the developers also left us with a couple poor ones that, over time, have left players feeling drained and unsatisfied. Going back to the original Mario Party again for examples, Wario's Battle Canyon always sticks in my mind as a bad example of what a Mario Party board should be. The layout is set up in such a way that you have five different islands where the Star could possibly be, only accessible by getting shot out of a cannon. Where you'll end up is anybody's guess due to the random space selection that takes place prior to landing. My issues with this board mostly stem from movement and the high luck factor that goes along with that, so just by that token, you can infer that the design isn't actually terrible. However, I know many have a big gripe about luck being an overriding push at times, and this particular board could easily be used as a valid point of reference.
As far as the traditional stages where gimmicks are minimal, it's fair to assume some of these would be considered some of the "worst" in the series. Just an example of this, compared to boards like Toad's Midway Madness (Mario Party 4) and the Italy-themed Grand Canal (Mario Party 7), Towering Treetop and Shy Guy's Jungle Jam (Mario Party 4 and Mario Party 6 respectively) were pretty uninteresting. And speaking of Shy Guy, the Perplex Express from Mario Party 8 wasn't that great either. It actually reminded me of the much superior Riot Train board from Sonic Shuffle (also developed by Hudson; one of my favourite party games) so I thought it was more plain than unique.
I'd also argue that some of the Bowser levels were actually surprisingly boring for what could probably be considered a climax for any title where such a level was present. Bowser's Warped Orbit, for example, managed to push me away from it over time, even though I originally kind of liked the Star-stealing aspect borrowed from previous iterations. I give it points for not being a lava level, but little beyond that. So yes, there's been a fair share of these over the course of the series, but thankfully the boards seen throughout are, for the most part, much more interesting than the ones described above.
What Defines a Mario Party?
Through and through, it's widely understood that the mini-games are the principal component that have defined the Mario Party titles. Creatively sound ideas for these short thrills have become legacies in and of themselves, and this is where many of the memories are created. So on that note, let's discuss a few!
Moving on to the Gamecube releases, it was memorable mini-games like Booksquirm, Trace Race, Avalanche! and Mr. Blizzard's Brigade that made Mario Party 4 more enjoyable than it actually was as a whole. Added to that, too, are the Extra Room games, which included fun diversions like Mushroom Medic and Beach Volley Folley. I found Mario Party 5 and 7 had fewer mini-games that could be described as unique, but I myself quite enjoyed the likes of Hotel Goomba, Squared Away, and Mario Mechs with the former; as well as Take Me Ohm, Track and Yield, Picture This, Fun Run, Pogo-a-Go-Go, and Spinner Cell in the case of the latter.
In contrast, the number of solid mini-games featured in Mario Party 6 was outstanding. Some of these were made fun because they worked so nicely in a flipped setting due to the Day vs. Night system -- Snow Brawl with its variations of snowball-throwing helpers, and What Goes Up... because of its clever Nighttime version -- while others were just intrinsically fun because they actually had an interesting concept behind them. Control Shtick, for example, had you using the Analog and the C Stick to manipulate two large fingers as a response to the flashing arrows. I was surprised at how fun even the simpler games were because, in their own way, they actually resembled the approach taken with the classic titles just with more substance to them. Highlights include Note to Self (a surprisingly amount of fun given that all you're doing is bumping musical balls around), Insectiride (which is kind of like A Day at the Races but with actual control), Snow Whirled (repeatedly press the four buttons in order to pull off aerial spins on a snowboard), Asteroad Rage (dodge meteors across multiple lanes), and Catch You Letter (deliver mail to a panic-stricken mail carrier).
Coming to Mario Party 8, the creativity definitely suffered, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a healthy share of stand-out mini-games from this package as well. I really enjoyed the tight competition in games like Loco Motives, where you're constantly moving back and forth; and Frozen Assets, which is just pure fun. I also quite enjoyed Lava or Leave 'Em, Grabby Gridiron, Most-Pit Playroom, and Glacial Meltdown, even though they all adhered to a simple premise. A couple 1-vs-3 mini-games also took to the top of the pile, but I think I mostly liked them because I would always win whenever I was the solo player.
In summary, because there are tons of mini-games to discover and even discuss, I'm sure I haven't mentioned all of your personal favourites. However, reminiscing on the good times had with these self-contained experiences is what makes Mario Party such a socially-driven game; more than that, they're ultimately the main crux behind a comprehensive opinion you form on a specific title.
Chores Have No Place at a Party
Anyone who has followed this series knows full well that there have been a considerable number of stinkers along the way; mini-games that demonstrated the development team was scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for pretty much any kind of idea to bump up the quantity of selectable games. Other times, the control schemes, commonly-used elements, or a notable presence of boredom was to blame. Notorious for inducing pain by requiring raid spins of the Analog Stick, Mario Party sure knew how to quickly put people in a bad place, with games like Tug o' War being way too much of a hassle. Handcar Havoc was also more trouble than it was worth, even if it didn't involve such a physically painful process. A couple odd ones aside, you could make the case that mini-games got better as we got further and further away from the original.
By the same token, you could also say that in the most recent iterations, the mini-game quality suffered comparatively. Mario Party 6 had that Rare mini-game, Seer Terror, which was probably the most stupid unlockable extra I encountered in any of the games. Additionally, I found every single one of the DK mini-games in this release was boring. Mario Party 7 was much worse, making multiple offenses in the name of boredom and a lack of originality. Spray Anything had to have been one of the lamest 1-vs-3 mini-games in the Gamecube releases. Plus, a number of the Mic games were gimmicky and not nearly as fun as what was featured in the previous title.
If you look back at the "concepts" used for some of these mini-games, you may notice a couple common threads as well, and as it turns out, these actually became pet peeves for me. First, why did Hudson think that strictly ground pounding was any kind of fun? It started with the simply-named Ground Pound where butterflies would conceal stakes from stumps, and from there, we got block towers, flashing panels, and more of these shallow antics as the series went on. The original also got the series started on the idea of jumping to hit coin blocks, which later spawned the awful Cointagious mini-game from Mario Party 7. And don't even get me started on all those card- and farming-themed games. The above examples were boring, frustrating, or a complete waste of time.
Is Luck Always Bad?
Continuing on the subject of poor mini-games, many feel the luck-based are about some of the worst the series has to offer. However, while there are some awful ones -- in the sense that you experience nothing but frustration -- there are also a few that disprove the unstated claim that all luck-based games are terrible. In Bowser's Big Blast, for example, the luck factor is made up for by the fact that it's just so hilarious to watch your rivals fly off the screen after triggering an explosion. A Day at the Races is another example of a mini-game that can be fun in spite of the luck factor.
With other mini-games, the luck factor doesn't dominate to the point of depleting any requirement of skill, making it a much more bearable affair. In Trash Landing from Mario Party DS, luck is involved in the choosing of the ropes and what item you'll get at the other end of the garage, but once you get a glimpse of the items that await you, you do have the ability to change your approach and time your jump properly -- provided you have enough reflexes. With the explosive Strawberry Shortfuse -- one of my personal favourites -- there is some skill involved in memorizing multiple platters as they are revealed to you and tracking them as they get mixed up, even though the randomized order can have a bearing on your result. Then there's Cardiators, which some see as one of the best of its kind because of the cameo appearances of certain characters from the Mario universe. I personally didn't care for it though. So as the above examples show, although they're typically hated like crazy, luck-based mini-games shouldn't always be viewed as bad.
Closing Up Shop
They're easy to ignore and maybe I'm just easily amused, but these silly little touches would often make me snicker in ways that the mini-game itself wouldn't. Though you're much more likely to see the team break out into ceremonial victory poses, when these endings are employed, they are often fun to watch and can be the subject of much jokes and laughter beyond the core of the mini-game itself. In the original Mario Party, both of the two mini-games where you were contending with one or more ghosts featured brief little endings for failed attempts. Sometimes I would lose on purpose in Ghost Guess just to see the ghosts swarm my character and disappear into nothingness. It was also pretty funny whenever you got taken away by Boo in Pedal Power, but I imagine that if you strained your palm all the time with this one, then you probably didn't find it that funny. Mario Party 2 up to 7 barely had any of these humorous little touches present, although there were a few odd ones here and there, like in Apes of Wrath when the monkeys would take the loser away (for dinner?).
Going With the Flow
Returning to the discussion about how things haven't always fit into a set mold, there are some who claim that the Mario Party franchise has barely had any innovation whatsoever, to the point that the very fact that it's gone on for so long is a shock. However, through tweaks both big and small, the development team has made considerable changes over the years that demonstrate Nintendo's commitment to making each new Mario Party more about the experience quality than the quantity of mini-games (although you could suggest otherwise by they way they positioned each new title).
In more general terms, other things that came into the picture as the series progressed include the ability to set up tag team matches, purchase multiple items from the Item Shop, have special bonuses during the last five turns (which at one point included having coins above every space), go on routes that were completely isolated from the main path (via Lucky Spaces), vote on Battle mini-games, participate in lottery-centric activities, and engage in boss battles. Plus, along with all of the above changes came a fluctuating item system that was originally kept to the usual Mario affair of Mushrooms, but later expanded to Capsules, Orbs and Candy. I personally really liked the whole deal of placing a trap on a space that someone had to land on or pass by to trigger, or the idea of transforming into sprites and other things in Mario Party 8. But of course, some contend that the standard item approach was always the best way to go.
Despite the fact that Mario Party 2 is sometimes referenced as the first and only title that changed the formula significantly, I find many disregard the innovation that existed in the later titles, which is a shame since many of these changes often resulted in experiences that, in some ways, exceeded what was seen in the classic titles.
A Grab Bag of Tunes
Another thing that tends to get overlooked is just how much the music in Mario Party changed over the years. If you were to stop and really look at how these tracks were chosen to define certain boards and mini-games, it's interesting to see just how fitting and memorable these actually were. Originally it started off as being just innocent, lovely and cheerful, as in the case of the original themes for the mini-game introductions. Moreover, songs would often fit right in with the kind of sound you expected from other mainstream Mario titles, with references to Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 64 being seen as the series took its course. In their own way, the soundtracks had their own sense of personality, comprised of blissful melodies, the occasional jazzy feel, casino-like backdrops, in addition to the use of soft trumpets and drums. Great musical themes were explored moving forward that made for a vibrant-sounding atmosphere, grounded by xylophones, twinkling sound effects, and the like.
Marketing & Advertising
Between having Mario characters dressed up in suits to presidential posters, Nintendo has used different methods over the years to try and push each new entry and generate interest. Just in looking at two specific examples, the print ad for Mario Party Advance -- as part of the Who Are You? campaign -- got the on-the-go aspect down, but made it look more exciting than it actually was. With body copy like "Traveling. Party. Animal", why would you expect anything less than a portable, conventional Mario Party title. Then there was Mario Party 8, which had a pretty good TV spot. Three different types of parties with three different audiences, aiming to highlight how accessible Mario Party 8's gameplay was. I remember seeing it air a large number of times, and each time I still wanted to watch it because of how badly I wanted to get the game. That and the new Chump Rope mini-game gave me hope that this one would turn out great. In actuality, what the advertising was saying wasn't off from how the game actually played. It's just a shame that it didn't turn out better. All in all, the different approaches they've taken over the years has been interesting to see, with each one demonstrating how valuable the franchise is to them from a financial standpoint.
The One That Didn't Quite Belong
In case you didn't get the memo, Mario Party DS wasn't the only entry in the franchise that appeared on a handheld. Several years before, Mario Party Advance surfaced with a very different structure to it. Some consider this title to be so terrible, that they don't even consider it to be in the same league as the others. After having played quite a bit of it myself, I'm somewhat inclined to agree.
While the overall approach of doing quests for characters in need is interesting, the way it's presented overpowers what should've been the focus and leaves Mario Party Advance with a slight identity crisis. Plus, some of the things they had you doing were very childish. Solving the odd mystery or two wasn't bad, but between the lack of substance seen in the other quests, and especially in the simplistic mini-games, it all comes back to how off the mechanics were from the rest of the pack. Had this been branded as "Mario Quest" or something similar, perhaps it wouldn't have received the reaction that it did. That's not to say it doesn't have its fans, but most will concur that this really didn't have much place in a series that could already be considered a spin-off-- a spin-off of a spin-off, as it were.
The Biggest Point of Controversy
As much as Mario Party Advance gets criticized, Mario Party 8 has a more controversial label attached to it that denotes a great sense of displeasure from long-time fans. Let me be the first to say that I enjoyed Mario Party 8. I didn't think it was nearly as horrendous as people made it out to be, and I distinctly remember that my great enthusiasm for the game leading up to its release faded into the background because of the reality of the critical reception. I had seen a number of written and video reviews at the time that painted the latest entry as being riddled with flaws. Thankfully, my fears didn't get the better of me and I was able to derive enjoyment from the game after all.
There's no doubting that an alarming number of Mario Party fans really disliked what was presented in the 8th iteration, to the point of hatred in some cases. On the other hand, you have some who really enjoyed themselves with the game and were able to look past the flaws and find a mildly fun experience. Either way, I'm sure you're as glad as I am that Nintendo chose not to end off the series on such a weak note.
How Can You Possibly Pick Just One?
Asking what someone thinks is the best Mario Party is really a matter of opinion. I don't think anyone is "wrong" by choosing a favourite that differs from the one that the majority view as superior. But I think you'll find that it really depends on what you look for in your ideal Mario Party game. If you care more about the experience as a whole, there are certain entries that do a much better job at capturing a feeling of quality in all areas than those that may only be good to consider if you only care about the mini-games.
I know for myself, there's always been a bit of a struggle when it comes to pinpointing a single Mario Party as my all-time favourite, or which one I'd consider to the best of the whole lot. However, in preparing for this feature, I've been able to narrow it down a lot better than I ever have. In case you're interested in my process, you can continue reading to find out my two cents on the matter. Please note, however, that Mario Party 3 is the only game in the franchise I have yet to experience, so I unfortunately can't comment on that (thus the limited mentions on this particular title throughout).
Personally, I don't find the original Mario Party to be such an unfailing source of entertainment that the level of enjoyment exceeds most of the future iterations. Nearly all other versions surpass it in every conceivable way, so that already rules out the original for me. And you should probably have a good idea of how I feel about Mario Party Advance, so that's out of the question too. Moving to the Gamecube releases, Mario Party 5 had a couple interesting boards, I found, and I did enjoy the vehicle component as well as the positive little changes they made here and there. However, I wasn't a big fan of the mini-games as I found them to be largely uneventful compared to the mini-games seen in the entries that preceded this one.
Moving on, I thought Mario Party 7 was a decent effort at the base of the game, but my dislike for it kept building over time, to the point that the redeeming qualities -- namely, good boards -- just weren't enough to bring me back. The mini-games were just too easy for my tastes, and I think that ultimately left me feeling sour after playing it so many times. In actuality, I think this was one of the main reasons why I was in a good position to warm up to Mario Party 8. I touched on this already, but I quite enjoyed the boards in this one, and the competitive Duel mini-games were a highlight for me. Everything else felt lacking in one way or another; either because I was dealing with irritating controls, slow pacing, unoriginal gameplay, or the fact that the game felt like it drags more than it ever did (and, sadly, it still does). And as far as Mario Party DS goes, the boards didn't hold my attention for very long, but I really enjoyed the implementation of the overall theme and the quirky mini-games that sprung from that.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
Ultimately, each Mario Party has its own set of highlights that will resonate with some people, but be viewed as the complete opposite by others. In either case, at the root of the situation, Mario Party is one of the best friendship-breaking, memory-forming, digital board gaming experiences around. Try as they might, other developers have attempted to capture the same level of magic, often to no avail. I for one am thrilled that Nintendo decided to revisit it after the lengthy hiatus, and after going through this lengthy consideration of how far Mario Party has come, we can only hope that things get better from here on out and Nintendo doesn't waste this opportunity of reviving a franchise that's near and dear to dozens of gamers.