Super Mario Party Review — A Masterful Return to Form
Super Mario Party triumphantly combines the aspirations of a Wii game with the well-rounded craftsmanship of a Switch title.
Super Mario Party, the latest offering in the Mario Party franchise from developer NDcube, is less of a sequel and more of a soft-reboot. In addition to abandoning Mario Party’s titular number scheme, Super Mario Party ditches the convoluted and often disappointing gameplay mechanics of some of the franchise’s previous titles. Folks that moaned and groaned about being forced to travel around in a car with their opponents in Mario Party 10 for Wii U or not being able to play a minigame after each turn in Mario Party 9 for Wii can breathe a sigh of relief—Super Mario Party offers a vibrant, much-desired return to the franchise’s origins.
Super Mario Party’s main mode (aptly titled “Mario Party”) leads the charge in trimming the excess fat off of the franchise’s past missteps and getting to the heart of what made past Mario Party games so enjoyable. Following the formulaic, evergreen outline of a classic game of Mario Party, Super Mario Party offers a gameplay loop that will seem familiar to veterans of the series—roll a die, travel around the board, play a minigame after each turn, collect coins by winning those minigames, and use those coins to buy stars. Whoever has the most stars at the end of the game is declared the winner.
Underneath Super Mario Party’s colorful board game veneer is a tense metagame that is surprisingly intricate. While movement in Super Mario Party (like many popular board games) is left to the roll of a die, the game includes a garden variety of gameplay mechanics that can skillfully (or accidentally) be employed to give players an advantage over their opponents or sabotage them outright. The newest (and most welcome) of these mechanics is the game’s inclusion of character dies. While previous Mario Party titles have included a myriad of different dice blocks, Super Mario Party gives each character their own personal six-sided die that can be used an infinite number of times. Each character’s die is different; for example, Shy Guy’s die contains one zero and five fours while Wario’s die contains four sixes and two chances to lose two coins. Character dies usually follow this metric, either offering high-risk, high-reward outcomes or allowing safer, more consistent outcomes.
The inclusion of these dice blocks makes character choice relevant in Super Mario Party. Instead of arbitrarily choosing a character based on their appearance, players have the opportunity to incorporate their character into their strategy. Planning to cover a lot of ground? Choose a high-risk, high-reward character like Bowser. Pining for the opportunity to give yourself a specific number so you can land on event spaces? Choose a character like Shy Guy who has an extremely high chance of rolling a four. Seeing as each of the game’s four “Mario Party” mode maps have branching pathways, using different dice to reach different spaces becomes a core part of any Super Mario Party strategy.
The importance of character dies doesn’t end after you choose your character. Super Mario Party introduces a new concept called allies—characters that help you in select minigames, add one or two to your die rolls, and most importantly, allow you unrestricted access to their character dies. Obtained by landing on ally spaces on the board or using certain items, allies offer an integral advantage to players looking to beef-up their dice rolls or diversify their dice portfolios. The benefits of collecting allies are immeasurable in Super Mario Party and any player looking to edge out the competition should do everything in their power to try and collect as many of them as possible.
Just as Super Mario Party includes features for competitive players, it also includes a slew of small quality-of-life features that work to balance the game for less-skillful players. Coin distribution for minigames is graduated, meaning, players that place in second, and third receive a consolatory amount of coins despite not winning. Similarly, keeping with a long-standing Mario Party tradition, Toad comes out of the woodwork to give a losing player an item near the end of each game. While these mechanics ultimately reward luck rather than skill, they don’t actively dampen Super Mario Party’s competitive nature. Part of Mario Party’s stopping power comes from the fact that the franchise has historically been able to craft a gaming experience for gamers and non-gamers alike. By quietly tipping the scales in a few areas, Super Mario Party manages to keep games lively and interesting without punishing competent players. In turn, these mechanics become a part of the game that more competitive players must account for similar to item distribution in a series like Mario Kart.
Perhaps one of Super Mario Party’s biggest accomplishments is the way it seamlessly allows players to play competitively or for fun without altering its core gameplay experience. While reviewing Super Mario Party I played the game with several different groups, in several different social settings, and was able to find something to enjoy about each and every experience. I casually played a game with some childhood friends over drinks one night, following a tough, more serious match with another friend the next afternoon. No matter which group I played with, capital G gamers and casual players alike, Super Mario Party always left a positive taste behind.
Of course, in true Mario Party fashion, all of these games were absolute bloodbaths—cutthroat matches where alliances and friendships could be made, broken, or altered through gameplay. Super Mario Party’s litany of gameplay mechanics and map-specific oddities can be utilized to hinder the success of other players and secure victory. Whether it’s using Lakitu to steal coins or a star from another player, purposefully exploding King Bom-omb in King Bob-omb’s Powder Mine, making the sand bridge disappear in Megafruit Paradise, or devilishly changing the cost of a star in Kamek’s Tantalizing Tower, the ways to purposefully or skillfully undercut your opponents in Super Mario Party are seemingly endless. In fact, one of my proudest moments in Super Mario Party came from a climactic last turn when I managed to buy a star, steal an opponent’s star, and seal the lead at the eleventh hour. Like all good competitive board games, Super Mario Party understands that keeping emotions high and the stakes even higher can make even the most friendly bouts feel ultra competitive.
While villainously playing Super Mario Party with your friends is a surefire recipe for a good time, playing the game alone is entertaining, but ultimately not fulfilling. This is something that isn’t a flaw in Super Mario Party’s game design as much as it is a fact of any board game. Speaking as a tabletop gamer that regularly plays games like Tyrants of the Underdark and Catan, the prospect of playing Super Mario Party alone strikes me the same way as playing a regular tabletop game alone would. While I used to frequent the now-extinct, free-to-play Catan website back in the day, I ultimately stopped playing because the experience wasn’t close enough to the wheeling and dealing experience I got from sitting around a table with my friends. Really, if you’re not sitting around a television screaming at your friends, are you even playing a Mario Party game?
This comparison isn’t the most accurate; after all, conventional board games don’t contain Super Mario Party’s smorgasbord of colorful, creative, and innovative minigames. Like most previous installments of the franchise, minigames prove to be the bright, candy-flavored center of Super Mario Party’s gameplay loop. Not only do minigames break the monotony of the game’s metagame, they genuinely provide the most fun experiences you’ll have during any Mario Party session.
When compared to minigames from previous Mario Party titles, Super Mario Party’s minigames hit a magnificent stride—they’re innovative without being gimmicky, cute without relying on Nintendo’s intellectual properties, and simple without feeling mindless. Each minigame is accompanied by a short opening cinematic, each more detailed than the last. The inevitability of a minigame at the end of each turn keeps Super Mario Party exciting, and more importantly, creates a solid framework that allows its board game aspects to flourish. While a blowout game of Monopoly often leads to a table surrounded with disinterested, dissatisfied players, minigames keep even the most lopsided game of Super Mario Party exciting for anyone in the room.
In a way, Super Mario Party’s minigames feel like the spiritual successor to 1-2 Switch, the forgotten, ill-fated Nintendo Switch launch title. While 1-2 Switch was more of a hardware demonstration than anything, Super Mario Party capitalizes on the Joy-Con’s unique capabilities while simultaneously being unafraid to shy away from traditional control schemes. For every minigame that utilizes the Joy-Con’s motion controls or HD rumble, there’s another that simply asks the player to hold the Joy-Con horizontally and control their character using the control stick. These different control schemes work to make each of the game’s eighty minigames feel fresh. Super Mario Party’s minigames have players swinging baseball bats, calculating the weight of treasure chests, cranking levers, and much more.
Super Mario Party‘s eighty minigames are just one of the ways that the game is filled with content. While I was initially disappointed that the game launched with only four maps for its Mario Party mode, these frustrations were palliated once I explored all of the game’s other modes. Walking around Party Plaza, the game’s central hub world, I kept stumbling on different things to do and different ways to play. As someone that previously thought of himself as a Mario Party purist, Super Mario Party‘s expansive pallet of different game types opened my eyes to the the benefits of spicing up the traditional formula.
In addition to including the game’s titular Mario Party mode, Super Mario Party includes modes titled River Survival, Sound Stage, Partner Party, and Challenge Mode. Partner Party is the closest to the traditional Mario Party mode, featuring two teams of two players each competing on a modified version of a traditional-style Mario Party board. Interestingly, in this mode all movement is made on a grid , similar to movement in strategy games like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Keeping with this mode’s two on two nature, all minigames in this mode have both teams facing-off against one another.
River Survival and Sound Stage take the board game aspect of Super Mario Party and discard it entirely. River Survival is a wholly cooperative game mode where players must row down a branching river together in a finite amount of time. Along the way, players can row into power-ups that make them move faster, give them more time, or trigger a cooperative minigame. Completing these minigames will give players more time to make it to the end of the river with the amount of time rewarded dependent on the gorup’s performance in each minigame.
Sound Stage, on the other hand, is a series of high-octane competitive rhythm games that make great use of the Joy-Con’s motion controls. I was not expecting much out of Sound Stage, but it slowly became one of my favorite things about Super Mario Party. Pretending to march around, dancing with Waluigi, and fist pumping with Mario all proved to be effortlessly fun and the quickest way to fill a room with genuine laughter.
Incredibly, the game manages to squeeze in more content outside of these modes. Even while just playing loose minigames the game allows you to choose between modes like Free Play, Mariothon, and Square Off. Additionally, wandering around Party Plaza will eventually lead you into Toad’s Rec Room, yet another place to find new minigames.
While Super Mario Party contains a lot of content, it’s not content that will last a single player long. If you’re the type of person that will buy Super Mario Party to play alone, you’ll find that you can burn through everything the game has to offer in a short amount of time. Of course, this should be expected. Mario Party has always been about its ambulatory moments– like all party games, it’s less about running up the time on a stopwatch and more about making each moment more joyful and colorful than the last.
I used to make a joke that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wasn’t Nintendo’s last Wii U game; that it was actually 1-2 Switch. After the release of Super Mario Party, this joke doesn’t really work anymore. In some ways, Nintendo’s first-party design philosophy has very palpably shifted its emphasis from motion-centric, dual-screen endeavors, to presenting solid gameplay experiences in fresh ways. If anything Super Mario Party is Nintendo’s last Wii U game, or at least, everything that Mario Party 8 through Mario Party 10 should have been. In some ways this analogy feels overwrought—never, at any point, does Super Mario Party feel like it rests on the Joy-Con’s laurels. Maybe the last few years of the original Wii’s lifespan has left a bad taste in my mouth, or maybe the Wiimote technology was genuinely not capable of crafting a hearty Mario Party title. After all, Super Mario Party‘s minigames singehandedly sold me on the concept of HD rumble. While I used to think of the Joy-Con’s HD rumble as nothing more than a toothless PR buzzword, I now appreciate the nuance they can add to any given experience.
Super Mario Party combines the aspirations of a Wii game with the well-rounded craftsmanship of a Switch title; it utilizes all of the Switch’s unique capabilities without relying on any of them. It signals a return to the franchises’ origins while adding layers of new content and intricacy to the original Mario Party formula.