The originator of the 'party game' isn't the best, but still fun with a group
Mario Party is the game that not only kickstarted one of Nintendo's most successful franchises, but also the entire 'party game' genre. For good or bad, it's often forgotten that it was actually a seminal release. Of course, it was by no means a perfect game but it still has some merit even playing it two decades later.
The original Mario Party was an acclaimed release for the Japanese company in 1999 and was an absolute blast as a multiplayer game. As we now know it was the first in what would become one of Nintendo’s safe-bet semi-annual releases over the next two decades. But the formula didn’t change too much from developer Hudson Soft’s original instalment so theoretically it should still be a fun experience replaying it under lockdown. Sure the multiplayer is not possible so I must admit to being sceptical if there is a compelling single-player experience 21 years later - does it hold up? Let's find out!
The name says it all; Mario PARTY. This was designed to be a casual party game with your friends which relied on one of the main selling points of the Nintendo 64; four-player couch co-op. I have plenty memories of playing this and the first sequel with friends and no matter how unfamiliar some were with N64 games, due to the simplicity of the controls it was still easy for them to pick it up and play it without issue. This was a feat considering it was around the time when 3-D polygonal graphics had changed the accessibility of games for some who were not used to that analogue stick in the middle of the N64 controller. However, replaying it now with CPU opponents does not adequately mimic the one-upmanship of stealing a star from your buddy and turning the momentum of a game while they are dolling out unprintable obscenities. Clearly, this is not that same experience.
So, similar to my Mario Kart 64 review previously I have slightly factored in the great memories of multiplayer whilst reviewing this as playing it as a single-player in lockdown is definitely not the best way to play this game.
Before you begin you are greeted with a subtitled cut-scene. To settle a vague argument about who is the 'superstar' of the group, Mario and friends decide the best course of action is for Toad to host a life-size board game which will crown the winner as the Superstar. And that's your plot, folks!
Essentially, this is Nintendo's wackier videogame version of Monopoly with an equal reliance on skill in mini-games and pure luck. There are an initial six main boards themed for each of the playable characters (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Peach, DK and Wario) and some of these work better thematically than others (DK's Jungle Adventure makes a lot of sense but Wario's Battle Canyon seems more contrived). There are also two unlockable maps which ultimately require you to play an excessive, if not unhealthy, amount of Mario Party.
The main goal of each board is to earn the most stars and these are purchased from Toad who appears on the map (however his position may vary throughout the play-through depending on the board). Coins are won predominantly in mini-games which take place after everyone has had their turn and they can also be used to steal a star from an opponent (or when at the end they may determine the winner if both players have equal stars.)
Players take turns with a dice roll which determines the space their character will land on; blue spaces are the standard which earn a few coins and red spaces deduct coins. Then after each player has rolled a mini-game ensues with the participating teams decided via the colour of their space. Of course if all are the same then it's a four-player one which involve all competing against each other or occasionally working together. There are also green spaces which trigger an event on the board that can change the location of your character or static characters like Toad or Bowser (whom essentially finds ways to take coins from you or pits you in tough min-games, the rascal).
Each map has its own personality and gimmick, with the ‘easy’ rated ones offering a more basic structure of clockwise-round-the-board to reach Toad and then the more complex maps involve branching paths, alternating Star locations and all manner of traps. This adds decent variety and the branching paths can either be strategically taken or blind luck via dice roll will determine your route. Although on Wario's aforementioned level there are five different islands and each turn sees you being fired from a cannon to another island which is not only difficult to predict where you will be sent but it also slows the pace of the game each time. The unpredictability though is a core facet of the game in that you will never have full control over your performance which is admittedly great for casual players as it is easy to feel competitive but for a one-player completionist mindset it can be maddening.
There are over 50 mini-games and are split between one-player through to four-player games. For the most part they are fun and the best of these would be reused in subsequent games. I found the one-versus-three player games to be the most uninteresting as the natural imbalance of the teams either skewed one way or the other to the point they were lacking in excitement. The four-player competitive ones or two-versus-two games tended to be enjoyable and everyone will have their favourites but, overall, they are simple little games that are made so much more entertaining with friends. In Shy Guy Says, for example, you have to press the correct button prompt in time or your character is cast adrift at sea; Hot Bobomb sees you passing the bomb between you until it blows up and whoever has it then loses. Simple, for sure, but fun and there are a great variety of different types from races, platform jumping, basic rhythm games and memory games.
However, whilst most are enjoyable naturally there will be some which are less fun especially on repeated playthroughs. Yet, going a step further this game contains some of the most agonising mini-games in the entire series. Infamously, there are at least five which require you to rotate the analogue stick rapidly. One example is a tug-of-war game which has you doing this as a three-versus-one and the loser character(s) is the one who spins it slowest and falls into the cactus plant below. On paper this was likely a novel use of the main control stick however in practice this will require you to palm it and rotate so fast that you could break the stick or have a blister on your hand. It's irritating (at best) when these games are chosen and (at worst) literally painful. In fact, back in 1999 this was highlighted to Nintendo with many complaints of broken controllers and palm blistering that they had to compensate with a free glove and, naturally, these games were dropped from the sequel released the following year.
Each board game will end after the designated amount of turns; I always select Lite Play which is 20 turns and takes roughly an hour to play. This seems like a nice amount of time however the Standard game is actually 35 turns and by my calculation would take roughly an hour and 45 minutes. The ludicrous Full Play mode is a staggering 50 turns which would take around two and a half hours which seems on the excessive side.
Once turns have ended, there are also a few final awards which are doled out to whoever collected most coins at one time, won the most mini-games or landed on the Green Spaces triggering an event. These really can shift the tide as you may have theoretically the most stars by the end of the turns only to lose out to an opponent that won the three star rewards. My experience playing this with CPU opponents was nerve-wracking on the harder difficulty as it was here they tended to usurp me and less fun to curse them as you would a friend sitting next to you.
There is a feeling with this game that it is always trying to keep things balanced. Very rarely will you have all of the luck (good or bad) and it is similar to Mario Kart 64’s notorious ‘rubber banding’ that the AI wants the momentum to constantly shift. The unpredictability of the game will be its charm for many players but equally its main turn-off. Each match is never guaranteed when there is the dreaded Chance Time space. This has the person who landed on this spot select a series of roulette boxes which essentially can force players to give coins to another or even stars, theoretically changing the entire outcome of the game. On playing this on the harder difficulty on my own against the CPU characters I became convinced they were working together to take me down and the Chance Time was a nerve-wracking experience every time. Of course, when I was losing badly they were sometimes a delight.
Defeating the main boards and earning enough coins or 100 stars respectively over many games will eventually unlock the last two boards however this in reality took much longer than it should have. I must have played around 30 different games on my own before I finally unlocked the last board and by this point my patience was wearing thin having to replay those mini-games. As fun as most of them are their appeal can only last so long and the novelty dissipated.
But there are a decent amount of other modes which I did appreciate to break up the monotony. Using coins earned throughout your playthroughs you can buy items from the Mushroom Shop, such as random dice blocks which can appear in the main games to doll out extra coins, reduce coins, add more chance of a higher dice roll, switch character positions and all manner of things. There is a Mini-game Stadium which is basically a simpler board with the goal of earning the most coins purely in mini-games so it was a brisker affair which I appreciated. You can also buy every single mini-game for use in custom games against friends which, again, is a neat option although will take a considerable amount of time based on how slow it takes to earn coins.
The main optional mode I really appreciated was the Mini Game Island. This took the form of a top-down single-player mini-game campaign which essentially requires you to playthrough each one to progress to the next. This was surprisingly difficult because some games’ objectives were tougher than usual and if you fail you lose lives which (when ran out) puts you back to the last save spot. It feels like a simplified Super Mario over-world and the mini-games are the levels to beat which for an optional mode is actually pretty engaging.
Visually, it’s a bright and colourful experience which fits well considering the game is arguably aimed at the younger age group and the pre-rendered boards have their detractors but I feel they work to make the maps look busy. The actual character models have aged less gracefully as they do appear typically jaggy and lacking in detail. However, the music is nicely varied for each of the boards and some will definitely stick in your head even after playing the game. Combined with the writing and the silly voice-overs for the characters there is definitely a playfulness which I appreciate even as a grown adult. In fact, it’s partly because of its sense of mischievous humour meshed with the family-friendly tone that adds to its charm.
Ultimately, Mario Party was always a fantastic multiplayer game and that is unquestionably still the best way to enjoy it. Sure, there is some great fun to be had as a single-player experience and Hudson Soft packed in enough variety, modes and unlockable items to justify repeat playthroughs. However, the eventual repetition and frustrating analogue-spin mini-games do dampen slightly what is otherwise another stellar offering from Nintendo.