Mario Party was a fresh concept when it first arrived on the N64, a collection of mini-games that avoided any sense of linear storytelling or level-building objectives. It was all about grabbing a few buddies for some friendly or not-so-friendly (depending on the personalities and/or alcohol present in the room) competition. Nine entries into the series, essentially nothing has changed. That’s both a good and a bad thing. The simplicity is nice and it fits the needs of a certain target audience, but the series is starting to feel increasingly outdated. Despite all the mini-games and Nintendo references/in-jokes crammed onto the disc, there really isn’t much to this thing and aside from small children and fanatics of the franchise, I can’t see many people sticking with the title for very long. Still, for what it is, it works well and even though it defines the casual gaming focus that caused many gamers to abandon their Wiis, it is admittedly a fun little distraction.
Like all previous Mario Party titles, part 9 both rigidly sticks to the established formula and throws in a healthy amount of new additions. There’s no story…well, there is one in the “solo” mode, but it’s a deliberately inconsequential lark involving Bowser kidnapping mini-stars that only Mario universe characters can retrieve and more importantly you should never really have to try it anyways since only the saddest of sacks would waste their time playing Mario Party 9 alone. Basically the premise is to get a group of 1-4 characters and roll the dice to go around a set game path with hidden prizes, perils, mini-games, and bosses taking up squares along the way that add or subtract stars from your total. The person who has the most stars at the end wins. It’s a like a virtual board game with mini Nintendo game themed distractions.
The 80 mini-games themselves are of course the main draw and they are quite fun. Mario Party 8 came out in the first wave of Wii titles and all the mini-games were motion (or waggle) based, which got pretty old, pretty fast. There are still a few of those here, but the designers wisely planned fot most games to be played with the Wiimote held on its side like a NES controller, which is preferable for this type of thing. The games vary from side-scrolling New Super Mario Bros-style platforming challenges, point-n-shooters, motion control based racing a la the Wii Mario Kart title, memory games, puzzle games, and most irritatingly games of chance. The problem that has plagued many a Mario Party games is that most of the games essentially come down to a roll of the dice and that can either lead to pleasant surprises or controller-smashing frustrations. Too many times have I suddenly plummeted to last place from one goddamn dice roll and it can be irritating. The games that actually require a moderate amount of attention and skill are far more fun to play and satisfying to win. All of the games should have been like that, but Nintendo has never been known to shake up their established formulas too much, so I’m not holding my breath too much on that happening any time soon.
There are some other nice new additions as well. No longer will you be forced to bring along a computer-controlled player if you don’t have enough humans in the room. Now you can go through rounds with only two players, which is so much more gratifying. Similarly, you’re no longer required to play every mini-game on the board, although there are so many that would be impossible to make it through a round without them. Now you only stop for boss levels which are fairly fun and feature the usual suspects (aka Bowser, Bowser Jr. and super-sized versions of his accomplices). And if you just want to play a specific mini-game with some friends without the gameboard wraparounds, that’s possible too. There are enough changes to make this feel different from past Mario Party games and it certainly tops MP 8, even if I wouldn’t claim it’s the best game in the series.
With little disc space needed for complex game mechanics, the visuals look rather gorgeous by Wii standards. With this essentially being the final Wii edition of the franchise, character designs and worlds come lifted out of Wii games. One game map looks like the new Donkey Kong Country with all of it’s eccentricities, while the space setting takes most of the visual cues from the Mario Galaxy series, which are arguably the prettiest and finest games in the Wii library. The designs are zippy and loading times are non-existent. This is a very well designed and polished presentation, I just wish there was a little more depth and variation to the gameplay. All of the games fall into one of a handful of formulas and while the series thrives on single room party multiplayer, it is a bit ridiculous that there is no online support. Given how simple the game is, there’s no reason that this couldn’t be played over the net, but Nintendo never embraced online enhancement much on the Wii, so I suppose that was a predictable oversight.
Mario Party 9 is a perfectly serviceable game and probably about as good as we could have possibly expected it to be. Would it have been nice if this title had been overhauled to change up the decade-old gaming structure and designed to not merely rely on chance so much of the time? Well, yeah. But Nintendo is all about honoring gaming nostalgia and while I might not hold this series particularly close to my heart, there are many who do and I’m sure they’ll be thrilled by Mario Party 9, which admittedly tops its predecessor in every way. Personally, I’ve always preferred the WarioWare series when it comes to Nintendo mini-games for its more unpredictable gameplay and sheer batshit insanity. I would be dancing around my apartment giddy if a new edition of that franchise slipped onto the Wii this month instead of Mario Party, but that didn’t happen. Hopefully they’ll have one of those puppies ready to go for the Wii U launch. It’s been far too long since that wacky franchise was let loose on a Nintendo system, though I suppose for now Mario Party 9 is perfectly worthy time-wasting substitute.