Mario Party returns this Sunday after an unanticipated five year hiatus.
Why so long between games? Judging by the series' steadily declining metacritic scores, Nintendo likely figured fans were getting a little tired of the same old formula. One also imagines the Japanese company's gamesmiths may have been suffering from designers' block, having dreamt up dozens of themed game boards and hundreds of mini-games while adhering to a tough one-game-per-year schedule from 1998 through 2007.
It should come as no surprise, then, that changes abound in Mario Party 9, a game that my nearly seven-year-old daughter and I have been playing just about non-stop after school the last few days.
Mario Party games of the past were essentially gussied up board games. Each player had his or her own token in the form of an iconic Nintendo avatar. We circled a game board several times via rolls of a die, passing and being passed by our opponents while landing on spaces that either improved or worsened our fortunes.
In contrast, the new game has players riding in a vehicle together, each taking the helm as captain during their turn. If you're captain of the car when you reach an event space – which might see you, say, salvaging loot from the bottom of the ocean by rolling three dice of different values to raise the treasure – you have the ability to orchestrate the event to your advantage by selecting player and die order.
The changes don't stop there. The board is no longer circular, but instead a long, linear path with several set events, like a cliff that players must jump together on the Toad Road board, and haunted paintings that release car-chasing ghosts on the Boo's Horror Castle board.
Plus, we no longer collect both the stars once necessary to the game and the coins used to purchase them, but instead a new currency dubbed "mini-stars." The player with the most mini-stars at the end of the game wins.
The upshot of all these changes is that much of the (sometimes frustrating and often unfair) chaos that marked previous Mario Party games is gone. It used to be that players commonly jumped from first to last and back again in the space of a single round of turns. That can still happen, but it's far less likely. There's no surprise switching of spots with other players just as they were about to collect a star, and no pilfering of stars already earned – or at least not quite on the same scale.
And the board's linearity means all players can anticipate which spaces and events are coming up next and attempt to plan accordingly. For example, special dice of varying values earned by landing on certain spaces can be used to make the vehicle hang back (so as to avoid detrimental spaces like purple ztars, which deduct from your mini-star total) or zoom ahead to get to beneficial spaces, such as a captain event, boss battle, or a cloud of mini-stars.
Unfortunately, this style of play also introduces a new problem. The only opponent you can properly imperil is the player immediately following your turn, which is a bummer if he or she is not the one with the most mini-stars. Still, the order of play is frequently altered, and you can bet that other players will do their best to sabotage the leader for you, given the opportunity.
The mini-games have a slightly different flavour, too. Boss battles are a particularly nice twist. They have players working together while simultaneously competing against each other. One battle has all players shooting cannon balls at a blooper boss to damage it while redirecting incoming fire toward fellow players.
There are also fewer of the franchise's overused last-man-standing-on-a-dangerous-platform games. These have been replaced with more original challenges, like tugging on vines to collect fruit and racing to find doors that lead to the bottom of a five-story haunted mansion.
But even with its many modifications Mario Party 9 is still very much a Mario Party game, all the way down to the way it clevery levels the playing field for players of varying abilities. We can still handicap better gamers by giving less experienced players some extra mini-stars at the start of the game, and random bonuses awarded at the end of a match help keep hope alive for trailing players even after the final boss battle has concluded.
Most important, though, is that most of the mini-games are still of a kind that ensures younger children have a chance to perform as well as older family members. My daughter knows if I let her win a game, and the genuine glee she experiences when she takes first place fair and square is a delight to behold.
I don't think Mario Party 9 shakes things up enough to win back folks still exhausted by previous entries, and it isn't essential in the way many games headlined by Nintendo's red-capped superstar tend to be. However, it's a fine entertainment for families who want to play together.
It's also likely the final Wii game in which Mario and friends will appear (remember: the Wii U arrives this fall). That alone may be enough to send the Japanese company's loyalists flocking to their local game shop this Sunday.
Mario Party 9
Developer: ND Cube
Release: March 11, 2012