Mario Party 9

Mario Party 9

The first couple of installments of the Mario Party series were something both unexpected and polarizing. As a game based largely on luck (it’s modeled after a board game after all), the focus was clearly on the casual crowd, but there was just enough variety and cleverness baked into the plethora of mini-games to align the budding franchise with the likes of other such action/party mainstays as Mario Kart. Production values were surprisingly high, too, with none other than Yasunori Mitsuda contributing (excellent) music for the first two titles.

Just chill here while I see what's at the top of this vine.
Just chill here while I see what’s at the top of this vine.

After that, however, the yearly reappearance of the series rendered it harder to appreciate. Production values dropped, the sense of balance suffered, creativity waned, and with each installment came a collective sigh from industry critics, even as the franchise continued to rake in the cash from the unsuspecting (and undiscerning) masses. It seemed likely that this trend would continue indefinitely as long as the money flowed, but Nintendo surprisingly hit the brakes on the series after its eighth installment in 2007—nearly five years ago today.

With the introduction of Mario Party 9, Nintendo and developer Nd Cube have set out to prove that they still have some ideas to consider. While it follows all of the critical guidelines for a successful party catalyst, it dispenses with many of the tired mechanics which have plagued the series since the early installments introduced them.

The biggest change in 9 is the flow of the actual game. In previous Mario Party games, players rolled the dice to advance around the game board in pursuit of stationary stars, coins, and various items. Each player travelled independently, largely at the mercy of luck arising from each roll. While novel at first (and simultaneously logical and familiar to anyone who appreciates board games), the biggest problem with this approach is that it’s common for players to lose interest in a lengthy game while the other players take their turns. How in the world can you solve a problem like that, though, when we’re talking about a turn-based experience?

The boards are really more like paths this time around, with everyone traveling together.
The boards are really more like paths this time around, with everyone traveling together.

Mario Party 9 has a great solution. For the first time, players travel the board (which is most often a single, lengthy path from A to B) together in a vehicle. Each player takes turns being the vehicle’s “captain”, who rolls the dice to move the players and reaps the benefits/risks of their position. The vehicle might pass a cache of mini-stars, which are the game’s new score-keeping currency (and which the captain collects). It might land on a Dice Block space, where she’ll score a special Dice Block for later use.

Finally, it could lead you to any number of different types of minigame spaces, each of which, predictably, invokes a certain type of minigame. The usual Free-For-All and 1 vs. 3 games are still available, but there are no more 2-vs-2 team minigames apart from the Bowser Jr. assortment, which randomly choose a teammate to accompany the current captain in an effort to win 5 mini-stars (or lose 5 if they should fail the trial).

The bottom line is that this approach keeps each player actively interested in the action. No one’s stranded in one corner of the game board, repeatedly plagued by bad luck as the rest of the players duke it out. Instead, everyone’s engaged, as minigames can happen at any time, unpredictably, and everyone sticks together. The cooperative overtones also encourage a different sort of attitude while the game’s taking place. And since each round only lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, it isn’t as much of an investment as previous Mario Party titles demanded.

There are additional complicating factors which spice up the action without shifting too much of the focus to the mercy of luck. The various types of minigames coupled with the captain system provide for an interesting variance of mini-star awards throughout each match. The “special” Dice Blocks you read about earlier allow players to choose which range of numbers will apply during the next roll for more strategic movement (once they’ve been awarded the blocks, that is). And the performance-based mini-star awards which result from boss battles during each match are a great opportunity for any player to jump back into the competition regardless of their current standing.

Boss battles are a series first, and they're well-implemented, too.
Boss battles are a series first, and they’re well-implemented, too.

Having said this, the oft-maligned luck factor hasn’t been removed from the equation in any sense. Anyone who’s expecting some degree of reward for their efforts will resent the fact that the title is always up for grabs for literally any of the four players, right up until the final moment. Of course, this has never been a series meant to crown the player with the highest level of skill. Instead, it’s positioned as a game of little consequence, decorated along the way by memorable minigame competitions which, in many respects, are more engaging than the interstitial board game action anyway. In other words, disregard any meaning you might have assigned to the board game competition and absorb the experience as a collection of amusing mini-challenges and you’ll find a lot more to love. Everyone playing knows it’s about luck, so as long as you approach it from that angle, you might find that Mario Party 9 does a much better job at the rest of the experience than its recent brethren.

There’s still the handful of minigames where no skill whatsoever is required (such as a Russian Roulette-style fishing rod game that I hate), and those are as frustrating and vapid as ever; really, they simply shouldn’t be included at all. But looking beyond these usual disappointments, Mario Party 9 is ultimately a small step back in the right direction for the series… and if you pair it with some adult beverages, it might even be the center of your party for a while.