When he’s not trying to save the Mushroom Kingdom or taking part in any number of sports, Mario is either found smashing or partying. In 2018 he’s partying first, smashing later, but can Super Mario Party be the fresh start that the series has needed for far too long?
The biggest thing that Super Mario Party gets right is in returning to the classic form of this digital board game. It’s the main mode here, and should be instantly familiar to any Mario Party fan. Four players take turns to roll a die, move round the interactive board, trying to collect coins and items by landing on their space, as you race to reach Toadette and buy a star from her.
Mixing things up is that each of the twenty characters has their own personal die, as first seen in Mario Party: Star Rush, though you now play as these characters from the off. Instead of simply rolling 1-6 and boosting with items, Daisy has a die with predominantly 3s and 4s, while DK can risk it all with four 0s and two 10s, and so on. Some characters are clearly better than others – Boo’s loaded die with two 0s, two 5s and two 7s is my favourite – but there’s always an element of risk that it can backfire. Mid-game, you can land on ally spaces that gives you one of the other characters’ dies as well as has them boost your move by one or two spaces each turn.
At the end of each turn, it’s minigame time, with Super Mario Party featuring 80 new minigames of all sorts. Some are individual, others pair players together, or put you 3v1, there’s reaction tests, mental challenges, and on and on. It keeps changing the variables, and while many of these kinds of minigames will have been seen before, they’re not straight up ports from older games.
At the heart of them is the Joy-Con and it’s blend of stick, buttons, motion and vibration, making it an absolute blessing that you can now practice on the pre-game instructions. When playing as a team, you’re often asked to give a digital high five to your buddies, but there’s flipping, pumping, winding, and so much more. Some of the most inventive minigames are all about the sensitivity of the HD Rumble, which is also used to magically play a quiet little tune when it’s your turn.
Standard Mario Party isn’t the only way to play you’ll find in the Party Plaza, and we see some of the other experiments from Mario Party history coming through in other modes. Partner Party features free movement across a grid, instead of following set routes. It’s similar to Toad Scramble from Mario Party: Star Rush on 3DS, but the pairs combine dice rolls and are able to strategise over item usage. River Survival is a co-op mode with an arcade-like timer counting down as you paddle down branching river rapids and try to hit minigame balloons, while Sound Stage is a rhythm game showdown.
You’ve also got several ways to get straight at the minigames, whether solo, in a group or playing online – a first for Mario Party games. Toad’s Rec Room is much more interesting than that, making use of having multiple consoles connected in tabletop mode to do dual screen baseball showdowns, tank battles where you can drive from one screen to another, and more. Only one game requires multiple screens – Banana Split – with the others augmented by the feature. They won’t keep your attention for too long, but they’re fun little experiments nonetheless.
While it all looks rosy on paper, not all is at peace in the Mushroom Kingdom and little niggles of game design crop up after literally five seconds of playing. The fact that the Joy-Con is constantly required frustratingly also precludes playing the game in handheld mode. Even if you’re playing solo or just want to quickly set it up, you have to detach a Joy-Con and either play in tabletop or TV mode. You also can’t use a Pro Controller. It’s a real disappointment that Nintendo couldn’t have a fallback mode which either excludes motion control minigames or features non-motion version where that’s simple to do (and in most cases, it would be).
More fundamentally, the content in the game is spread wide, but it’s not very deep. There’s only four boards in Mario Party, when most games have six, and these themes and overall layouts are then adapted for Partner Party. They’re also not really the most engaging boards, with the unlockable finale too much of a straight up sprint without much strategy, and AI that can be dumber than a sack of bricks at crucial moments. River Survival and Sound Stage, meanwhile, can only pick from their individual selection of co-op and rhythm games with ten of each, limiting their longevity. That in turn reduces the pool for Mario party to choose from to sixty minigames.
With the dawn of Nintendo Switch Online, it’s also particularly disappointing that you can’t just play Mario Party’s board game online. The only option here is Online Mariothon, which strings together minigames, and while it makes sense for that to be the main online mode when a ten turn Mario Party takes around an hour, it’s a wasted opportunity. That’s especially true when getting the best out of Super Mario Party wants you to have three or four players together.
Super Mario Party is just a very safe game. It brings back the classic Mario Party board game form, marrying it with some of the better ideas from Mario Party: Star Rush, but it’s light on the number of boards to play, lacks depth in other game modes, and misses opportunities for solo handheld and online multiplayer. It’s Mario Party, but it’s not particularly super.