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It says Mario Party 9 on the box, but that's not including several portable versions of the game over the last thirteen(!) years that this series has been going. That's a lot of entries for any series, and the saturation has been more than noticeable for this one. Mario Party got less interesting with each passing year, each recycling the same ideas, structures, graphics and music from its forebear. For the first time in years, I felt like someone at Nintendo legitimately cares about the present and future of Mario Party. Some major changes to the formula and basic structure really go a long way to making number nine feel like the best one yet.
If you've somehow managed to live a Mario Party-free existence up until this point, here's the news: two to four players choose a character and head out onto a large, living game board. Everyone rolls dice to move forward and search for sums of stars, which can be gained by special spaces on the board or by doing well in the smattering of minigames that pop up throughout the game. In Mario Party 9, you might be shooting paint on a giant canvas, trying to get more coverage than your buddies before time runs out. Or maybe you'll be chasing a Wiggler around an area, trying to butt-stomp it for the most points while you hobble the competition at the same time. At the end of a board, everyone's score is culminated and bonuses are given for certain feats, like winning the most minigames or having the most stars taken from you during a match. It's a fun, light game that combines a bit of skill, luck, and calculated risks. That doesn't change much in this latest entry, but a number of key refinements to such a well-worn formula pay huge dividends to its fun and longevity.
For starters, movement across the board is fundamentally changed. Players still roll dice blocks and move across spaces, landing on a variety of different good and bad omens that tip the balance around between all the players. But now everyone moves together in a vehicle, taking turns rolling blocks and pushing everyone forward. Boards are also linear this time around - only one of six is a closed circuit that you loop around in. The others have definite ends, punctuated with boss minigames in the middle and right at the end of a game. No more having to select a number of turns or anything like that; because of the finite length of the boards, games are usually about 20 to 40 minutes long. I never had a match last more than an hour. This alleviates one of Mario Party's biggest problems: overstaying its welcome. Now that games are guaranteed to be relatively snappy, you feel like you're ready for more instead of exhausted when you finish a board. You also don't play a minigame each and every round, which ends up being another huge boon to the pacing of the game. The movement across the board feels like a bigger piece of the game, and it's gratifying to actually make some headway across the geography of a board without constantly having the game stop and start to shift between its different moving parts.
These are great concessions that let everybody progress together, and keep everyone's attention focused on the same spot. It feels much more like a cohesive experience when players aren't divided all over the board, and travelling together and tackling the boss fights and other special events feels almost like a narrative. I really dig the new directions Mario Party 9 explores.
Even collecting stars gets a bit of a change up with ministars, which seems like an effort to stabilize the luck-heavy, table-turning modality this series is known for. Instead of hoarding valuable, single stars -only to have them tragically taken from you - ministars are plentiful. You'll collect them for winning minigames and simply by moving around the board, racking up dozens of them as you go. Ztars are like anti-stars, and picking up any of those knocks a few stars off of your total. Although rotten luck is still a very big part of the Mario Party plan, losing a handful of ministars feels a lot less frustrating, and the balance between luck and skill feels far more finely tuned than ever before. Usually, a few setbacks won't mean the end of a winning streak. And perhaps more importantly, someone who's been lagging behind for the entire game won't magically shoot into first place right at the end.
Make no mistake, though: this is definitely the same old Mario Party at heart. You will, through no influence of your own, make significant gains and take heavy losses at times. You'll play a bunch of different minigames that do a good job at differentiating themselves in presentation, even if they fall into a few basic categories (run and avoid incoming threats, track a fast-moving object being shuffled around the screen, mash a button faster than your foes, and so on). If you're expecting major changes to the complexity or overall philosophy of the franchise, you definitely won't find it here. That is the beauty of Mario Party, after all - that it's not a game you need to heavily invest yourself in or take seriously, but instead roll with the punches and experience the moment-to-moment fun of its many joys and pitfalls. If you're looking for a party game, look no further - this is the best one to come along in some time.