There are two words we’d use to describe Super Mario Party: hilarious and inconsistent. The 20-year-old franchise is out of its awkward teens and really keen to make something of itself, graduating from the missteps of the Wii U with a fresh confidence and drawing on the successes of its youth to present a new identity to a massive, 20-million strong Switch audience.
But, like many 20-year-olds, the series still doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Sure, it’s got some good ideas about what it thinks it is, but behind the bombast, Super Mario Party is occasionally awkward, often underwhelming – but still a total charmer. The series’ first outing on Switch is definitely the strongest entry in a decade, but there’s still room for improvement. And that’s frustrating because when it’s on a roll, it feels like it could be one of the best party games on the fledgling console.
Delete your Bowser History
When you first start the game, you’re introduced to a little cutscene that sets up the ludicrous events that follow. There’s something rotten in the Mushroom Kingdom, and Mario’s eclectic set of friends want to discover who’s ‘the best’. The story always feels fairly redundant in these games, but we get treated to an intro about it anyway.
Long story short – Mario and pals are having a tiff, and Bowser and his cronies interrupt proceedings, also keen on finding out who’s, um, ‘the best’. Luckily, Mario seems to have a surplus of party supplies and apparently unlimited energy, so instead of just sighing and leaving everyone to talk things through like adults, he suggests everyone ‘has a party’ to vent their grievances.
What this means, in gameplay terms, is that you can select from Mario and his goody-two-shoes crew, or big bad Bowser and his crew (lay off, pervs, there’s no Bowsette in this game… for now).
The appeal of seeing the big bads of the Mario universe engage in wholesome pastimes like cooking or, um, herding penguins never gets old, and we genuinely think it’s responsible for getting more serotonin floating around in our blood. There are four unlockable character slots, too, for players that want to grind coins and games to unlock some of the more peripheral Mario characters later down the line.
The setup – slowly – introduced the various game modes to you: from a perfectly functional but decidedly un-fun single player mode to the now-standard Mario Party board game mode, there’s a lot on offer.
The formula is expanded slightly from previous entries in the series with Partner Party (a co-op version of the main board game), River Survival (a lite-survival mode where mini-games buy you time), Sound Stage (a madcap, rhythm action haven) and Toad’s Rec Room (which features two Switches side-to-side – perhaps the game’s most creative addition). Each mode offers something different – but each has the same problem: inconsistent quality.
Hone your Raft
The rafting mini-game is a nice, co-operative jaunt through some of the title’s more collaborative mini-games, showing off the suite of utilitarian tasks that perhaps showcase the game’s more… wholesome… side. It’s unlikely you’ll ever fail a Raft Survival – it’s obscenely generous – but it’s certainly a nice way to ease you into the unbridled chaos the game is dubiously built around.
Moving on to Sound Stage, you might need a sit down first. This facet of the game needs you on your feet, dancing to the nonsense bleeps and boops of Mario’s staccato soundboard. It’s dumb, it’s hilarious, and it’s absolutely riveting watching your friends perform the commands the game asks to proceed. It summons memories of drunken Wii dorm parties – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
You’re best off ignoring the single-player portion of the game – honestly, these titles are not made for this. At least in the other modes, you have friends and conversation to paper over the cracks in sluggish loading, dodgy UI and nonsensical layout… when you strip all that back and you’re left face to face with the game’s more awkward traits, the social afterglow quickly fades and Super Mario Party becomes more of a chore than an adventure.
That’s remedied by getting everyone back in the room and cracking on with the game’s central feature: the Board Game. Things are a bit less random in the Switch iteration of Party – each character in the roster has their own die to roll, which comes with different traits (plus coins, better numbers, more risk/reward balance and so on).
We wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s an element of strategy to the game this time around, but there’s certainly more depth. Bowser’s die has a 33% chance of losing you cash but a 50% chance of making you move miles ahead. Mario’s die is balanced and boring (what a surprise!) Waluigi’s is just nonsensical (you may move 10 spaces! But you’re probably going to move one. Wahh!)
We can’t believe we’re typing this sentence, but the dice actually feel like they give personality to the characters. That’s what Super Mario Party makes you think, that’s how much it warps your sense of what is normal and OK to say. It’s a fascinating experience.
Toad to Perdition
The whole game is hosted by Mario mainstay Toad (and, to a lesser degree, Toadette). The enthusiastic little fungus constantly interrupts you to ram rules down your throat – constant cries of ‘Shut up, Toad!’ were heard in our review session – and it often feels like his input and the overall setup of the game’s efforts to communicate with you, in general, are inefficient and poorly thought-out.
Also, we’ve got huge issues with the rubber-banding in the main board game portion of the title. In one session, we were playing as Waluigi, and in keeping with his general aesthetic, he was in last place – by some distance. 70% of the way through a game, Toad summons Kamek to discuss who has the highest odds of winning… bizarrely, he tells us Waluigi has about 70/80% odds. OK, sure.
Next turn, magically, everyone loses coins, Stars, gets set back or gets messed up by the board. Waluigi makes a killer roll, gets his own Star, steals another, and ends on a massive high. This isn’t just rubber-banding, it’s carabinering. Being told the odds, then watching almost predetermined events play out like a rigged Fruit Machine left a bad taste in all our mouths, even the winner. It discarded any illusion of fairplay and true RNG and just made everything feel a bit… cheap.
Still, it’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the game’s most innovative feature — the multi Switch play. Hidden in a section called Toad’s Rec Room, these mini-games see those with two or more switch consoles playing a fun set of mini-games that let players duke it out across multiple screens. From epic tank battles to, er, match the bannana, these bizarre little mini games utilise the Switch’s hardware in a way that nothing has since launch title 1,2 Switch. Given the fact that you’ll need both two switches and two copies of the game to dive into these though, they’re not something that most owners will probably get to experience.
Is Super Mario Party any good?
Super Mario Party’s foibles are mitigated by its fun mini-games. Far be it for us to review every one individually, but from what we played, we’d say about 50% of them are great. The other half… not so much. The game seems to favour quantity over quality, and that’s fine… but considering this is a marquee Switch game for Nintendo, we’d have expected slightly tighter quality control.
Some of the boards on offer are retreads of previous games, and some of the mini-games are astonishingly bad (one game even admits this in its own title: Sort Of Fun, where you have to, slowly, sort balls into baskets…) It’s this imbalance and general wonkiness that ever stops Super Mario Party from being a must-buy – but we can’t stress enough that when it’s fun, it’s fun. It sometimes just takes a little bit of work (and maybe a little bit of booze) to get there.
Play it with friends, play it with family, don’t take it too seriously and for the love of God don’t play it alone. Stick with that ruleset, and Super Mario Party might just be the party game you’ve been waiting.