In the walkable menu/hub area of “Super Mario Party,” Birdo, the pink, egg-spewing dinosaur of “Super Mario Bros. 2” fame, asks if you can believe that this is the eleventh Mario Party game. Well, Birdo, yes and no.
“Super Mario Party,” developed by Nd Cube, is indeed the latest in Nintendo’s bafflingly long line of virtual board games that is the Mario Party series. In a largely non-narrative franchise with so many entries, some redundancy is inevitable, but “Super Mario Party” does iterate on the formula in some novel ways and, more importantly, offers imaginative options outside of its usual every-player-for-themselves Parcheesi with plumbers.
The core of “Super Mario Party” returns to the overall structure of the first eight titles in the series: players roll dice to move Nintendo licensed characters the corresponding number of places around the linear, looping map, collecting and losing coins as they go, in hopes of reaching a space where a star can be bought. Between turns, minigames are played that reward victors with additional coins. The star location moves after each purchase and the player with the most stars at the end of the set number of turns (10, 15, or 20) wins the game.
As a board game, Mario Party has always been competent, if a bit underwhelming, and the same is true in “Super Mario Party.” Minigames aside, it often feels less like you are playing with strategy so much as buttoning through prompts to keep the ride going. And thanks to the needlessly pedantic host characters and incessant, unskippable transitional animations, that “ride” is more like a bus commute that makes all the stops. The new character-specific dice do add an extra layer of tension to rolls since many replace the standard one-to-six possibilities with more extreme risk/reward scenarios where, in one turn, you could end up either staying put and losing coins or launching forward 10 spaces, depending on your luck. It’s too bad the game doesn’t reveal who has what dice at the character select screen where that information would be handy. Still, all the items, special dice, and recruitable allies are either so reliant on random chance or are so clearly the best path forward that most decisions can be made on autopilot.
Nowhere is this randomness more deflating than when bonus stars are awarded at the end of a game, often determining which player ultimately wins. A player could have the most stars, coins, and allies going into this post-game sequence, but another player could be awarded stars from randomly assigned categories such as “most unlucky” or by chance teaming up with “the right ally.” What makes one ally the “right” one, you ask. Well, that’s random too. Adding further insult to injury, the final screen you see at the end of a game displays charts and graphs that smugly attempt to justify the preceding randomness through “Moneyball” levels of statistics.
There seems to be an expectation that “Super Mario Party’”s randomness is meant to cancel out more skillful minigame players and maintain a balanced, if rubberbanded, playing field, but the reality is that these mechanics talk past one another and undercut the overall value of player actions. The aggressive aspects of “Super Mario Party,” such as stealing stars from competitors, will appeal to some players more than others, but it’s one thing to be cruelly sniped by your friend, and another to subject yourself to a system that trolls by design.
Thankfully, the latest crop of minigames help make “Super Mario Party’s” core board game far more entertaining. There’s variation in quality across the 80+ minigames here, but there are some real standouts like “Sizzling Stakes” where you hold the Joy-Con vertically as if it was the handle of a skillet and use motion controls to flip a cube of beef in a pan until it’s cooked on all 6 sides. In “Slaparazzi” you must shove other players out of the way as you try to get front and center for a photo op. In “Tow the Line” you must work with a teammate who is tethered to you with string to make specific shapes together by weaving around a grid of pegs.
In fact, “Super Mario Party” works much better as a four-human-player team and/or cooperative experience than a purely individual competitive one (don’t play any mode of “Super Mario Party” solo, if you can help it). The clearest examples of this lie outside of the traditional board game, in the Partner Party and River Survival modes. Partner Party is an altered version of the regular Party Mode boards where the paths are wider, both members of a team roll at once, and players can choose to move in whatever direction they want instead of heading down a single, prescribed path. This makes basic actions such as moving avatars X number of spaces something you actually have to think about and strategize. Plus, since your dice rolls add together, one player’s unlucky roll can be mitigated by their teammate. Partner Party isn’t the same old Mario Party game, and the result shows a path forward for an otherwise stagnant template.
River Survival is all about four-player team cooperation as you perform goofy paddling motions to steer a raft down a branching path of rapids and waterfalls, completing minigames to add time your journey’s countdown clock. There’s limited replay value for this mode as the same minigames will more or less repeat each time, but for those initial go-rounds, it’s fast-paced, astoundingly silly, and pleasantly disarming. River Survival sees “Super Mario Party” actually make good on the “party” aspect of its title, inviting camaraderie and not overstaying its welcome.
With so many modes, plus additional extras and distractions, categorizing “Super Mario Party” as merely more of the same is definitely true, but it’s also not the whole story. Where “Party Mode” may feel a bit on-rails, players’ choices for how to play “Super Mario Party” clearly are wide open. Whether or not you’ll get a kick out of what “Super Mario Party” has to offer will largely depend on what kind of party you’re looking to throw. Treated like another board game on the shelf to break out on occasion when friends come over, “Partner Party” and “River Survival” modes are like to be big hits. But as a videogame to try and collectively “beat” with friends or, bless your heart, alone, “Super Mario Party” quickly devolves into a grind. In other words, you can get the most out of “Super Mario Party” without playing conventional Mario Party–a statement that may be as damning as it is refreshing.
Hopefully, this answers your question, Birdo.