“Who are you rooting for?” I asked my housemate, a non-player heckler watching a full-up game of Super Mario Party. Without missing a beat, he responded gleefully: “Chaos!”
Mario Party is a video board game series that’s all about swing. You get a star. You move a few spaces. You lose a star. You steal a star. Someone steals it back. You earn some coins. You win all the puzzle games, but you lose all the rhythm games. Then, somehow, thanks to the random roll of a die, you trigger a cartoon bomb with a gentlemanly gray mustache and all your coins vanish. A game of Mario Party is a grand swing from tragedy to triumph and back again, and the only reason why it’s so fun is because the whole emotional journey is told in the language of “weird Nintendo.”
This post originally appeared 10/3/18. We’ve bumped it today for the game’s release.
Some Mario Party games don’t strike that balance. Maybe they’re too cruel, or too infantile, or the mini-games aren’t preposterous enough. Super Mario Party, out October 5 for Switch, is one of the best entries in the long-running series because it harmonizes these competing elements of delight, catastrophe, and absurdity. Super Mario Party also takes advantage of the Switch’s versatility in surprising, if inconsistent, ways, shaking up the formula of the old-school multiplayer party game. Over the last weekend, my apartment was an open-door Super Mario Party party, and despite startling upsets between first and last place, and my once being referred to as a “stone cold Mario Party bitch,” we never once felt like quitting Super Mario Party, partly because of how well it harnessed human social interaction in the service of gameplay.
Let’s start with the basics: Super Mario Party is a four-player board game. Players choose a signature Nintendo character, roll some dice and move around the board collecting items and coins. Between each round, players are thrown into a three vs. one, two vs. two, or a free-for-all mini-game. Coins are awarded to winners. And with those coins, players can buy stars on the board if they pass by the star’s location. That location moves each time a player gets the star, which inspires some light strategizing. Overthinking ultimately doesn’t amount to much, because players can also win stars randomly from landing on certain spaces, or steal stars from each other. At the end of the game, Mario Party gifts extra stars to players who, say, landed on the most unlucky spaces, won the most mini-games, or traveled around the most. Whoever has the most stars wins.
It’s clear from the start that Super Mario Party is a heavyweight in the series because, in this version, traditionally evil Nintendo characters like Bowser and Bowser Jr. are playable. Moving around the map with the game’s trademark villains doesn’t stop feeling novel, if a little unnatural—but don’t worry, NPCs still treat them with fear and reverence, even when they’re stealing their stars. Also playable, aside from the obvious cast of well-worn Nintendo heroes, are Shy Guy, Boo, Koopa Troopa, Monty Mole, Goomba, a single Hammer Bro, and Dry Bones.
Super Mario Party’s starting boards include Megafruit Paradise (floating tropical islands made of fruit), King Bob-omb’s Powderkeg Mine (a risky, bomb-littered lava den) and a lackluster stage called Whomp’s Domino Ruins. After that, you can unlock another board with more exciting gimmicks. There are, from what I can tell, only four boards. This is a travesty. Especially because just one or two feel native to a 2018 Mario Party Game, and not high-res reskins of previous boards. It is impossible for me to fathom why this is the case for one of Nintendo’s biggest titles on its big new console.
The stages rely on a few tired Mario Party tropes, like landing on a space and getting warped or transported elsewhere, or paying a fee to move the big stone guy to another pathway, or landing on a certain space enough times to explode an area-of-effect bomb. They feel a little over-polished in places, lacking in idiosyncrasies. It’s cute to see sand squids on Megafruit Paradise, but there isn’t anything particularly fresh about the board design itself. A few quality-of life changes, like having a visual indicator of what number of spaces you’ll need to roll to hit a certain spot on the board, cut down on the silly, time-wasting stuff caused by previous games’ strange UI choices.
The action at the core of every Mario Party game, as with the board games that inspired them, is a fundamentally random one: Rolling a die. Super Mario Party takes a couple of steps towards making that a bit less random. While each character can always choose to roll a traditional six-sided die, they also each have their own custom dice block. For example, here are the six sides of Bowser’s die: -3 coins, -3 coins, 1, 8, 9, 10. So you have a 50 percent chance of moving a great many spaces, and a 33 percent chance of going nowhere and losing money. Other custom dice are less risky and more about stability, like Mario’s (1, 3, 3, 3, 5, 6).
This adds two layers of strategy: For one, picking your character is now more than a matter of pure aesthetics, since the custom dice are different. Two, you always have the choice of dice blocks, so you can pull out the best one for whatever situation you find yourself in.
The other addition to the die-rolling aspect of the game is allies. Super Mario Party lets players team up with NPCs by landing on ally spaces and finding ally items. These spaces give players an NPC (chosen from the roster of characters that aren’t currently being played in the game) who follows them around and might even help out during some mini-games. Players will also then have the option to use their ally’s custom dice block whenever they roll. The ally also rolls an extra die for every turn, though, adding more spaces to your roll, so you need to take that into account when strategizing as well. You could also just not strategize at all and plan to get lucky.
Now let’s get to what the people really care about: mini-games. Nintendo makes good use of its most multifaceted console in this updated take on the classic Mario Party formula. Super Mario Party’s mini-games draw on a frankly staggering array of genres and ideas, many of which take full advantage of the Joy-Con motion controls. There’s a mini-game in which the Joy-Con represents a pan handle and the player must cook each side of a cube of steak by flipping it over. It’s finicky, and requires a little swivel alongside a toss, but in a way that feels true-to-life. There’s a three vs. one mini-game in which the teams compete to see who can vacuum up the most dust bunnies. There’s a mini-game in which players must race each other in tricycles, which they pedal by whirling around a joy-con. There’s another in which a volcano explodes, exuding popcorn and rocks, and players must dodge the rocks to catch popcorn in a cup.
Then, there’s my favorite, Slaparazzi, in which players earn the most points by being the closest to a moving camera. They only have the option to run and to punch. That leads to hilarious photographs of Rosalina punching Shy Guy out of the way for her chance in the spotlight. There are also wacky, WarioWare-ish mini-games, like one that asks players to take turns petting a giant worm in a forest clearing. Whoever wakes the worm up loses. These games are when Super Mario Party is in its prime. The mini-games are in equal parts ludicrous, exhilarating, fun, and total bullshit, which, if you’ve ever played Mario Party, is an ideal combination of qualities.
This is a noob-friendly Super Mario Party, befitting a noob-friendly console that has sold 20 million units. That’s a lot of people to please. Super Mario Party will certainly please a lot of them, as well as the occasional parent or non-gamer Switch-owners will inevitably rope into a game. Most mini-games feel novel and a little challenging to master, even on Normal mode. For me, playing them any more than that in the span of a few days doesn’t feel tiresome. It made me excited to dig into them more. Nintendo is the master of the low-barrier-to-entry, high-skill-ceiling formula, and in most Super Mario Party mini-games, it feels like a guiding principle.
Mario Party has a reputation for ruining friendships and slash or causing divorces. My theory is that it’s partly because many iterations of it aren’t super fun on their own, so players feel the need to spice things up by backstabbing each other. It’s also partly because it’s fun to look someone in the eye and ruin their day with the excuse that it’s all part of the game. Few Super Mario Party minigames feel needlessly cruel, which shifts the onus on players to pour meaning and bias into their in-game behavior. I like that, but for me, it cut down on bribery, deals with the devil, and mutual back-scratching—social engineering dynamics I thrive off but that other players may find mean-spirited.
Super Mario Party makes some effort to mitigate friendship-ruining behavior. At various times during gameplay a motherly (and somewhat condescending) voice says, “Ready…….. Yeah!” as players are instructed to do air high-fives with the Joy-Cons. The reward: a few coins. Ironically, it inspired a few snipes between friends who weren’t coordinated enough to snag the extra coins.
There’s more to Super Mario Party than just the series’ bread-and-butter board game. There are other modes that vary on Mario Party themes, and they’re not throw-away filler. They’re charming, clever, and surprising. Players can navigate to them using a menu that Super Mario Party refers to as a “party pad”—perhaps a sad reminescence to Nintendo’s Wii U days—or wander aimlessly around a poorly-laid-out lobby, stopping at various stalls to participate in various modes. The lobby (called the Party Plaza) is not cute enough to make up for how inefficient it is, but it does make the game feel a little more experimental.
Preeminent among these modes is Partner Party, a co-op version of the classic mode in which players can move freely across the board and share dice rolls. Coordinating movements with another player, and strategizing over how to get stars or foil opponents, adds a very welcome—and somewhat adult—level of complexity to what’s often referred to as the boring half of the game. It’s the other half that suffers here, though. While Mario Party’s team minigames are excellent, and demand cross-couch instruction-screaming, they’re the only ones you can play in this mode, and having such a small portion of the minigames available is a big bummer.
Another mode, River Survival, has four players using their Joy-Cons to paddle on a raft down a tumultuous river. Between dodging rocks and aiming for speed boosts, players can hit bubbles that unlock co-op mini-games. Winning gives them more time to complete the multi-branching course. It is pure joy, although, again, the mini-games quickly recycle. And Sound Stage, probably the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in a Mario Party game, is a treasure trove of rhythm-based mini-games in which players stand—yes, stand up—and move their controllers in sync with some activity: pulling tablecloths from under stacked wine glasses, twirling batons like a color guard, and striking poses. Sound Stage works so well in great part because of the incredible music, which oscillates between honky-tonk and Nintendo remixes (with NPC fans clapping on-beat in the background.). There’s also an online multiplayer mode, which Kotaku was unable to test by review time because the service is not yet online.
In Super Mario Party’s first trailer, one detail intrigued me and my colleagues above all else: the minigames that used two side-by-side Switch tablets. Models in the glamorous, millennial-stacked trailer took two Nintendo Switches (that’s $600 worth of tech) with a tank game on each, and in the middle of a coffee shop, arranged them together and connected them with a finger swipe. Seamlessly, the tanks rolled from the first screen to the second and fired at each other. What? At E3, Nintendo would not talk to Kotaku about how that worked. I still think it is literal witchcraft. (It’s probably local wireless.)
IRL, these games are bonkers. Seriously bonkers. It turns out that the perfect setting for the tank game, Shell Shocked Deluxe, is actually something like a coffee shop: A place to while away a little social time with friends. There’s also a baseball game, Mini League Baseball, which elicits small screams and angry fist-pounding from me. Two players pitch and catch balls while two others bat and are on deck. This results in a cutely competitive team game, which, with two Switch consoles, lets one team have the batting perspective and the other the fielding one. Puzzle Hustle and Banana, Split are ruthlessly co-op, asking two plays to spatially reason in unison, and in the latter instance, twist two consoles around so parts of a puzzle line up.
Here’s the thing: Not everybody has access to two Switches. It’s a little presumptuous to assume that even the majority of Switch owners would. And that presumption isn’t limited to these mini-games: To even get four people playing a game of Mario Party, you need four Joy-Cons. In fact, every player must play the game with a single Joy-Con held horizontally. I hate this. I don’t know whether that’s rational. Perhaps some of Mario Party’s mini-games require Joy-Con enhanced motion controls and force feedback, but could they really not have been done with a Pro Controller?
You can’t play Super Mario Party any other way—not with a Pro Controller, not with dual Joy-Cons, not in handheld mode. To me, that last one is especially wild. Party games like Super Mario Party are the only occasions on which I’ll dock my Switch, and yet, it’s astoundingly strange that I can’t even navigate a menu in this game without detaching my Joy-Cons.
With these modes, Nintendo flirts with something new. Considering how few maps the game’s classic mode is offering, though, I can’t help but wonder what compromises were made.
Despite a few minor hiccups, Super Mario Party offers precisely what I wanted: a refreshed, ridiculous and majorly replayable virtual board game that won’t totally end my friendships, but might put a few at risk. It’s saturated with small (and large) touches that give the game character, but respectfully relies and improves on classic mechanics. Chaos still reigns, yet with more opportunities for strategy, Super Mario Party has aged at pace with its audience.