Mario Party 9 review: A big improvement - but it can't live with Nintendo's best
17th Mar 2012 | 14:00
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.
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE
Thankfully, Nd Cube have done more than just add cars and hope for the best: they've built each stage around its vehicle guest star. The game's seven boards - comprising *deep breath* Toad Road, Bob-Omb Factory, Boo's Horror Castle, Blooper Beach, Magma Mine, Bowser Station and DK's Jungle Ruins *dies* - are reassuringly inventive and unique, rather than the flat, cardboardy backdrops fans may have been expecting. Toad Road, obviously, takes the form of a hilly road, while the explosives factory is all conveyor belts and steam. The mine, probably our favourite stage, has you ascending a deadly cave in a stop-start minecart, while outrunning a rising tide of... magma. As in previous games, crossroads promise alternative routes, but they're joined by more imaginative diversions, such as Toad Road's perilous chasm-leap, in which all four players have to build up power to make a shortcut over a missing bridge.
Each stage also features a bespoke scary enemy that will chase you to the end of the board and beyond. Well, not beyond. There's no such thing as life after board games. We already mentioned the magma, but we didn't talk about Blooper Beach's hungry tuna, or the Castle's spooky Boos, probably because we wanted to sleep tonight. If any of these catch up with you - or rather, with the person currently in charge of the vehicle - the poor sod will lose half their current Mini Star total. It's a steep, steep penalty that feels both utterly unfair and horribly tense, depending on whether the stalker has grabbed you yet.
The game's new bosses, meanwhile, offer fewer scares - well, none actually. Twice during each stage - halfway through and at the very end - you're prompted to fight one of Bowser's henchmen, and occasionally you get to pick which one. All these skirmishes take the form of minigames, albeit minigames where all players have to loosely work together to reduce an enemy's health bar. The player who deals the final blow gets a few extra Mini Stars, but everyone is rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Although it might seem disappointing to see the game break up the minigames with, er, yet more minigames, you can console yourself with the fact that these are some of the very best activities on offer.
As for the rest of them? They aren't bad. In fact, most are pretty good. We didn't notice any duffers in the pack whenever we initiated whatever black magic ritual was required to activate them. The best part is that this is unmistakeably a late-period Wii game - and by that, we mean that motion control is used sparingly. The majority of the minigames are played with the Wii remote on its side; imprecise tilt- or waggle-based activities are thankfully fairly rare. We don't really have any highlights to share with you, although we were quite fond of the simple wood-chopping game, if only because it reminded us of Monty Python's lumberjack sketch.
Elsewhere in the game you'll find the Museum, which houses a small collection of mostly duff unlockables, and an Extras menu that offers more fleshed-out versions of four minigames. But the most meaty alternative offering is Solo mode. It's a dedicated single-player version of the Party, replete with a story (sort of) in which Bowser wants all the Mini Stars and you have to get them first. We think it's based on Anna Karenina.
Sadly, Solo is worse than the standard Party mode in every conceivable way. If you're playing alone, start a Party game and fill it with three computer players instead - that way you can actually change some of the parameters, and you're not forced to start the entire stage again if Bowser's lackey Kamek pips you to the post.
On the whole, though, this is a polished return to form for a series Nintendo have farmed out for far too long. All it took was a fresh coat of paint, the addition of vehicles, and the thoughtful design of the remainder of the game around them, but Mario Party 9 is something worth turning up for