Ever since the 1998 release of Mario Party on the N64, my family has been a Mario Party family. Sounds a bit weird when you say it out loud, but it’s true. My sisters and I spent hours perfecting our techniques for each minigame for the sole purpose of defeating each other. Not just regular defeats, but soul-crushing, question-your-existence, all-consuming defeats.
This competitiveness didn’t stop when I went away to college either. In my absence, my sisters stole my volleyball skids (sort of like fingerless gloves that prevent you from getting friction burns on your hands when you dive on the gym floor) so that they could practice Mario Party at 100% effort without the joysticks tearing up their palms.
As the series progressed, we followed it to the GameCube (for the record, Mario Party 5, 6, & 7 are my favorites in the series) and kept doing what we do best: playing Mario Party as if we were competing in the Hunger Games. Even though we were now grown and living in our own houses, we still used Mario Party as an excuse for a family get-together. From time to time, our parents would also jump into the fun. Once my dad goaded my mom into playing Pushy Penguins (from Mario Party 5), and when she ended up winning, she slammed the controller down, yelled, “I told you so!” and stormed out of the room. That story is now family legend.
When Nintendo moved on from the GameCube to the Wii and then the WiiU, I stayed behind. I’ve never had any interest in those two particular consoles, which means that I’ve sadly never played Mario Party 8, 9, or 10. But I do have (and love) the Switch, and so it was with great excitement that I pre-ordered Super Mario Party, the culmination of 20 years’ worth of Nintendo’s Mario Party expertise.
Super Mario Party is the 11th installment in the franchise’s main series, and like those before it, the primary gameplay mode centers on virtual board games. Players select their characters and role a die to move around the board, competing to buy, win, and/or steal the most stars. After each player has a turn, everyone participates in a minigame. Whoever has the most stars at the end of the game is declared the winner.
Considering that this formula is what has propelled the series to such success over the years, Super Mario Party gives the game boards startling little regard. There are only four in the game, and they are quite small. So small in fact that players simply end up going in circles, and it’s not uncommon to get two or even three stars in a single turn.
And that leads me to my primary complaint about Super Mario Party: it’s been completely mellowed out. Cut-throat competition has been traded for everyone-wins blandness. There are almost no opportunities to screw over your fellow players (which is a sacred part of Mario Party canon in my opinion). Landing on the same space as an opponent no longer triggers a versus battle. You just knock into each other and keep playing. The bad luck spaces are not really that bad at all. And the event animations are extremely slow, dragging the pace of play to a crawl.
The whole experience is just kind of…numb.
I do realize that Mario Party is, at its heart, a family franchise, and that includes the youngest members of the family. But in buoying up the little ones with easy success, was there no way to also keep the adults engaged (easy and expert modes, perhaps)? I feel like if anyone could have navigated this conundrum to a satisfying end, it would have been Nintendo.
Sadly my family quickly tired of the boards, so we turned to the minigames. Super Mario Party boasts 80 brand new minigames, including the usual mix of free-for-all, 2-vs-2, 1-vs-3, and 4 player co-op. As in the other series entries, there will be some you hate, some you love, and most that are just gosh darn fun. A good portion of the games are played the traditional way (with joystick and buttons), but many, many others utilize the Joycons’ motion controls.
These minigames are the strength of Super Mario Party. Sometimes you’ll discover odd talents you didn’t know you had, like how I am unbeatable at Sizzling Stakes (where you use the motion controls to gently flip a cube-shaped steak until all six sides are cooked). Other times, you might get lucky and find a game that plays to your strengths. My dad, a drummer since childhood, absolutely and unsurprisingly crushed us all at every single rhythm game (where you must move the Joycon in time to musical cues).
The games aren’t perfect, of course. Some are just weird, like Don’t Wake Wiggler (where you have to caress Wiggler against his will while he sleeps). And some exhibit the same disregard for pacing seen in the game boards (such as Drop Quiz, which gives you ten seconds to decide your answer, but doesn’t let you push a button to skip the rest of the countdown once everyone has decided).
But overall, the minigames have always been the primary reason to buy Mario Party titles, and these are no exception. I give them a solid B+.
Perhaps the reason the game boards here are so anemic is because Nintendo stuffed Super Mario Party to the brim with extras. The best of this lot are…
Sound Stage: a rhythm game challenge
River Survival: a 4 player co-op trip down river rapids where you must win minigames to keep going
Mariothon: a minigame tournament
Even as fun as these additional modes are, there are still a few issues, particularly with River Survival. Super Mario Party includes only 10 four player co-op games, which is not nearly enough to get through the entirety of the river without repeating them several times. This seems like a MAJOR oversight on Nintendo’s part, unless they simply never expected that anyone would ever complete the challenge (admittedly it is fairly difficult when playing with computer characters, but with four moderately competent humans, it’s really easy).
But wait, there’s more! These extras are the ones I wish had been abandoned in favor of better game boards…
Sticker Mode lets you put any stickers you’ve earned onto still images from the game, presumably for posting to social media. This mode was fun for about four seconds, during which time I put a Goomba sticker into the frying pan from Sizzling Stakes. After that, I was bored.
Partner Play makes the game boards a 2-vs-2 experience, but this mode only exacerbates the smallness of the boards. Because teams combine both their die rolls into a shared number, they will just go in twice as many circles as they do when playing alone.
Challenge Road is a minigame series that becomes available once you’ve unlocked all the minigames, but it’s only for a single player (because reasons, I guess).
Toad’s Rec Room lets you play a few special minigames not elsewhere included in Super Mario Party, but you’ll need TWO copies of the game and TWO Switches (which are placed next to each other on a table to create one larger screen) in order to “get the full experience,” so good luck with that.
One issue we repeatedly ran into while playing Super Mario Party was something we eventually dubbed the “Nanny.” At seemingly random times, the game would give a full-screen pop-up scolding a player for swinging their Joycon too much.
On one hand, this was odd because no one was being excessive. We were all slumped on the couch, in fact. But the main reason this was odd was that there was no way we could ever find to dismiss the pop-up. Meanwhile, the minigame continued on in the background as if nothing was wrong, but no one could see what they were doing to play it. No matter what buttons the accused pushed or what flowery promises of good behavior they sang to the Nanny, the only way we ever found to get rid of the pop-up was when the minigame ended (and by then, we’d all lost miserably).
A Word About Joycons
Apparently I was the last person on earth to learn that Super Mario Party is only compatible with Joycon controllers. This annoys me to no end. Firstly, I hate playing with the Joycons; they’re too small and thus are uncomfortable to use. Aside from playing Super Mario Party, I never, ever touch mine.
Because I hate the Joycons, I purchased Pro controllers in order to comfortably play games. I have three, and the Joycons that came with the Switch pair up to make the fourth controller. This allows me to get full use out of multiplayer games like Mario Kart 8. But in order for people to play Super Mario Party as a party, Nintendo requires you to buy more Joycons instead of just allowing you to play with whatever controllers you already own.
Put simply, this feels like Nintendo is purposefully gouging its customers. The Super Mario Party page on the Nintendo website helpfully offers to sell you a rainbowed array of additional Joycons (FYI, they are $50 each or $80 for a pair). And I did it. I ponied up the money, even though I will never use these Joycons for anything else. I want to play Super Mario Party with my family, and I feel that Nintendo more or less held me hostage here.
Many people I’ve discussed this with have excused it. They say that having everyone use the Joycons is the only way to make it “fair,” or that the Joycons are necessary for the motion control games. But guess what? That “fair” comment is nonsense (they’re Pro controllers, not Game Genies), and the Pro controllers do have motion control. It’s not quite as good as the Joycons, but it is there.
Any youngsters reading this may not remember that the GameCube came with a mic, and the Mario Party games on that system included several mic games (which required speaking instructions or answers). But if you didn’t have the mic (or just didn’t want to use it), there was an option to turn the mic games off. Why not include something similar for Super Mario Party? Keep the games that are playable with buttons/analogue sticks and the simple tilting motion controls (such as Fuzzy Flight School, Barreling Along, and Look Hard). Include an option to turn off the rest. Is it really such an odd request?
Super Mario Party also includes an online mode, but it is not without controversy. In these online Mariothons, you compete in five randomly selected minigames, which means that at any given time, 75 minigames are left sitting on the bench. That’s it; there are no other online modes. Anecdotally, the feedback I’ve heard on this is mainly that of disappointment.
I wish I could tell you whether or not the online Mariothons are a worthy game mode, but every time I went online to play, I was apparently the only one there. This in and of itself is probably not the best of signs.
Fortunately, Super Mario Party does not skimp in the graphics and sound departments. Colors are vibrant, and the designs are fun. Everything has a satisfying sound effect, whether it’s the character voices or the sound of their shoes clacking as they move around the game board. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but trying playing a game where the sounds are missing, and you’ll see what I mean (looking at you, Nickelodeon Kart Racers).
In addition, there are cute, clever touches throughout the game. For example...
The music for the All Star Swingers rhythm game is a remix of the theme from the GameCube’s Mario Superstar Baseball.
The game Rhythm and Bruise requires you to bring mallets down on the heads of moles (whack-a-mole style), but if you play as Monty Mole, he is visibly distressed throughout the ordeal.
If Kamek is required to bring bad luck to Bowser or Bowser Jr., he falls all over himself to appease them.
If a minigame ends in a tie, all the characters look vaguely annoyed.
And few things are more fun than watching Waluigi play the diva in Time to Shine.
I wholeheartedly appreciate this attention to detail while simultaneously wishing it had carried over to every aspect of the game.
Final Grade: B-
Ultimately the job of every Mario Party is to facilitate fun with loved ones. And if you’re lucky, you’ll walk away with a few lasting memories (like my new favorite visual of my family sitting around with everyone’s Joycon pressed under their noses like a mustache because my little sister swears you can better distinguish the different patterns for the rumble minigames if you feel them with your face).
So does Super Mario Party deliver this fun? I have to say yes, just not as well or as seamlessly as previous entries. This one is too micromanage-y; it wants to dictate how you play (with Joycons, with two Switches, without swinging too much, etc.) instead of just letting you enjoy.
If it sounds like I’m being too picky with this game, it’s only because the previous entries were so good. Mario Party is a big name to live up to, and this is a series that is near and dear to my heart. So I will stick with you, Super Mario Party, and hope that your issues are simply growing pains that will be remedied in the next installment.