It must be hard to be Nintendo. Fans can't decide if they want wild innovation or simple nostalgia. Pokémon players ask for the series to be more adult and sophisticated. The Smash Bros. community has been clinging to Melee for almost 20 years. And who knows if Metroid fans will ever be happy with anything?
While Mario Party might not have a rabid following, fans do complain that the series has fallen from its glory days. What's a developer to do? Go back to basics or experiment?
Super Mario Party errs on the side of safety, throwing an old school party with a few Switch innovations. The result is a fast, fun, but somewhat bare-bones experience.
The story of Super Mario Party, if you can call it that, is simple. Mario and friends are arguing in an open field about who's the Super Star. You'd think Mario would win simply by having his name on the game. I'm sorry Waluigi, but being a meme means nothing when you've never had a starring role or done anything of worth. Still the debate persists, and of course the only way to settle it is with a giant board game extravaganza!
...Or a modest board game event, in Super Mario Party's case. The nonspecific grassy field from earlier becomes the staging ground, only now there are big screens manned by Toads. The boards are generic locales like tropical islands, or a Bob-omb cave. It's not an ugly presentation by any means. The characters still have quirky animations and charm to spare. I just thought that the Super version of Mario Party would look more... well, super.
But like I said, we're here for the games. There's good news on that front: they got rid of the stupid car! The most infamous change of more recent Mario Partys forced players to move around the board together in a car. Super Mario Party smartly ditches that concept and brings back the simple setup of four players taking turns rolling dice.
At first it feels like playing a Nintendo 64 Mario Party game again.
The boards are smaller in this one, hearkening back to a time when video games didn't feel a need to go bigger, when a single play session was wrapped up in an hour or less. It also appeals to short attention spans. Today's gamer is an impatient person. We hate waiting for our turn. That's why Fortnite lets you jump into a new match as soon as you get eliminated. Everything in Super Mario Party feels similarly tuned towards making turns, and therefore games, shorter. A normal dice block gives six spaces at most, not ten like they used to. Stars cost ten coins, not twenty. With only five possible spaces where the Star could show up, you'll find you have the locations memorized by the end of your first game.
Despite the nostalgic feel, there are new elements that attempt to add more strategy to the well-worn formula. Each character now has their own unique dice block in addition to the normal one. Wario has a better chance of rolling a six but at the risk of losing coins. Yoshi, meanwhile, rolls pretty consistent threes but can also get zero. You can also get characters to join you as allies mid-game. They'll lend you their dice block and even help with certain mini-games. The selection of dice blocks makes character choice matter, but it doesn't stop Super Mario Party from being the game of chance you remember.
Then there are the mini-games. These bursts of competitive frenzy have managed to be a consistent bright spot for the series, their simplicity rendering them mostly immune to gimmicks of each new game. There have been times when mini-games were weakened by Nintendo's love of wacky controllers. Mario Party 8, the first Wii outing, was plagued by "waggle the Wiimote!" mini-games. Fortunately, Switch-era Nintendo shows more restraint. Super Mario Party does have you swinging your Joy-Con, but these mini-games are evenly balanced with standard activities like timed button presses and guessing games.
That's not to say that the Switch doesn't get a chance to show off. That experimentation is just shoved off to the side modes. Partner Party is Party Mode but in 2v2 format with a few other small twists. River Survival has four players working together to paddle and play cooperative mini-games. Cooperative modes are always nice but it's too easy. Sound Stage is a workout of a game where you pump and pose your Joy-Con to the beat. My group of friends loved Sound Stage, but motion-controlled rhythm games aren't exactly a revelation.
The best of the bunch is Toad's Rec Room. This has you putting two Switches together, meaning you have two movable screens. You can hide information from your opponent or literally change the shape of a tank battlefield. It might be the most creative use of the Switch in all of 2018. Unfortunately, it requires two Switches and two copies of Super Mario Party.
Overall, these side modes never fail to entertain. But I also don't foresee them getting picked over Party Mode. Oh, and there's also an online mode. You play mini-games against people. That's it.
Super Mario Party does what it needs to do. It brings the old board game formula back, and fond memories of being ten and playing N64 along with it. It even manages to pack in some creative uses of the Switch hardware. But there's a gnawing emptiness to it. You can feel it as you look at the grassy field of nothingness that stretches into the distance. There should be more there. Maybe DLC will put something there. But for now, it's just a set of small game boards with some fun side modes attached. It's neat, but it's not super.
A copy of the game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. Super Mario Party is now available for Nintendo Switch.
3.5 out of 5 stars.