So developer Hudson Soft is no more, swallowed up in the jaws of the white whale Konami, while their perpetual Mario Party is now being hosted by Nintendo - or more specifically, by Nintendo's subsidiary company Nd Cube. It's all change for one of the most change-resistant series around - and, as we're sure you'll agree, it's about damned time.
For too long this party has coasted along on reheated sausage rolls, recycled wrapping paper and bunting that's been up since last year. Mario Party 9 - or Mario Party 11, if you include the handheld games - has finally called in the decorators and given the carpet a thorough vacuum, and the result is a party you'd consider actually attending, rather than swanning in late to claim leftover booze.
The shindig's new compères have taken the game back to its roots, stripping out much of the convoluted baggage that has crept in over the years. The most immediate change is in the newly simple front-end, which ditches the previous game's offputting fun-requisition form for a single screen that can be sidestepped with one tap of the A button. Naturally, options persist, but the game has the confidence to take some of the responsibility off your hands.
Other changes are more obvious. Mario Party 8's terrifying MC Ballyhoo appears to have finished his community service, swapped out for a much less irritating Mushroom Kingdom fungi. Instead of collecting coins and candybars and stars and whatnot, you're now merely tasked with acquiring Mini Stars - and with avoiding their evil counterparts, the Mini Ztars. (And not, as we first thought, Mini Tsars, as small Bulgarians will doubtless be pleased to hear.)
NOT QUITE A JAGUAR
Mini Stars add to your points total, while Mini Ztars subtract from it. The player with the most Mini Stars at the close of the game is declared a Superstar, and all without having to demean themselves in front of Louis Walsh. It's a simple and mostly fair system - and even when it's not, it tends to be unfair across the board. Minigames and other diversions are of course thrown in too, usually just when you've become comfortable in your wicker chair. If it wasn't for the big, big, BIG change we're going to bring up in a moment, this would be little more than a refreshing re-imagining/remake of a franchise that's arguably skidded itself into irrelevance. It is still all that, but it's skidded out of irrelevance in a shiny new car.
If you're used to having your own little icon in board games, MP9's strictly environmentally unfriendly travel method might seem a little... odd. Instead of jogging around individually, as in the previous games, the two/three/four players now ride around in a Noddy-esque novelty car, taking turns to drive it on a road trip from one end of the board t'other. The feature was first (and until now, only) seen in 2005's Mario Party Advance, and we have no idea what caused Nd Cube to resurrect it here - save for radical new carpooling legislation in Japan. If it were implemented poorly, you could accuse them of gimmickry, but the truth is they've done a great job of structuring the game around it.
There are a few disadvantages to the approach, and we'll get those out of the way first. Because everybody's now cramped in the same vehicle, there's no chance of lagging behind or soaring ahead of your opponents, satisfyingly leaving your chums in the dirt. Said chums can even drag you down with them if their poor luck has them landing on the dreaded Back space, which pings the entire funcar back the way it came.
However, things are also improved by that very same token. There's now a very sure forward momentum to the game, and even a proper beginning, middle and end. The verveless winning condition of yore - the player with the most stars after a certain number of turns wins - has been replaced with the Bowser Gate, a portal guarded by a fearsome boss (read: minigame), whose defeat summons an amusing X Factor-style judging process. That's not to say these things couldn't have been implemented under the traditional 'get out the car, you're walking, mister' method, but the vehicle seems to have inspired these improvements into being, and for that we tip our hats as it slowly trundles past. No, wait, that's a hearse.