The Mario Party series has been a popular party game choice for a good part of the previous decade. So popular, in fact, that the frequency of the games used to come near-annually since 1999, a rate surpassed only by licensed sports games. (To be precise, there were no Mario Party games in 2006, but if you include the handheld games, 2005 and 2007 each saw two games in this series.) But after 2007, we hadn't seen another Mario Party game...until now, with Mario Party 9. While a few years between games in a series is common, it seems odd here. But perhaps a break is what was needed.
In the meantime, the Wii has had more than its fair share of casual games to entertain party gamers. Among them is Wii Party, which happened to have been developed by Nintendo's own Nd Cube, who is the developer here, instead of Hudson Soft (which has very recently been absorbed by Konami). Instead of sticking to Hudson Soft's formula, this latest Mario Party has seen some changes while retaining much of the charm...and multiplayer mini-game mayhem.
The first half of Bob-Omb Factory. Taking turns captaining a shared vehicle, among other gameplay tweaks, makes this Mario Party game move along at a much better, quicker pace than its predecessors.
After an expectedly flimsy story - this time about Bowser sucking up all the "Mini Stars" in the sky - the heroes set off to retrieve them in typical Mario Party fashion, by moving across board-game-like areas and playing minigames. This is par for the series. But veterans of the series will soon see some differences. Instead of moving individually, characters will move across the board together, taking turns as "Captain" while riding the same vehicle. Rather than looped circuits, each board has a definite start and end, with boss battles taking place halfway and at the stage's conclusion. This is a welcome change of pace because each stage wraps up in about an hour. (Though past games could be short by setting the game to end after a low turn count, it feels more like you're making progress by moving through a stage instead of looping around.)
Also because of the simplified layout, there are no Stars to purchase at random locations, but rather Mini Stars at set locations which the current Captain will obtain as the vehicle passes through them. Conversely, there are "Mini Ztars", which are antimatter versions of Mini Stars, as they subtract from your total. There are also no Coins to be concerned with, and no items to buy, though special Dice Blocks are now given out at blue spaces.
Perhaps with Mini Stars being the sole ranking quantifier, it feels as though fortunes can change very quickly, more often and more dramatically than even this series is used to. Towards the end of each stage, Bowser turns a number of spaces into "Bowser Spaces", usually with devastating consequences. Players may have to battle for half their Mini Stars, or a player may be forced to give another player ten Mini Stars (which really means the gap between them is reduced by 20, a considerable amount), or there may be a "Bowser Revolution" that evens out everyone's Mini Star counts, negating much of what has happened up to that point. But even before the gauntlet of Bowser Spaces, various traps and challenges in each stage - such as outrunning Boos or lava - threaten to take away half of the Captain's Mini Stars, which make it very possible for someone with a huge lead to lose it at almost any time. If playing by oneself, a single player can also play Solo mode, similar to Party mode, but where a Magikoopa and/or a Shy Guy will play for Bowser, meaning that if they win, you don't progress and will have to play that stage over again.
The core of every Mario Party experience is, of course, the minigames. As usual, there are many fun and frantic challenges. There are the "Free-for-All" games, where every player plays for themselves against all others, and the "1-vs.-Rivals" games, where one player is against the other two or three. Gone are the "2-vs.-2" games, but now there are "Bowser Jr." games, where two players work together to defeat Bowser Jr., and "Boss Battle" games, where you compete as you battle large and challenging Mario enemies. Unlike Mario Party 8's heavy reliance on motion controls and pointing, Mario Party 9 seems to have a considerable number of games played with the controller held sideways, using the D-pad and buttons, like a standard controller. There are still some motion and pointing games, of course, but it at least doesn't feel like it's trying to prove the abilities of the Wii Remote. Most games are still fairly intuitive, so even the most casual gamers should have no problem with them, at least to control and understand. But just like with the events that happen on the board, there are a number of minigames that are based on luck, with little or no actual skill required. This even includes some of the Boss Battles, which is particularly frustrating when playing in Solo mode and the victory is handed to one of Bowser's minions. Sure, all board games are likely to have some degree of chance involved, but when there's so much of it, you don't feel like you're involved, or even playing at those points, really.
King Bob-Omb gets some Bob-Ombs to the face. The best new minigames include the Boss Battles, but even some of these are reliant on luck more than skill.
Unlike past games which required you to encounter the games in the main game before you can play them freely, this time they are all available from the start in "Free Play" in the "Minigames" section, with the only exceptions being the Boss Battle games. This minigame buffest from the get-go makes the game quite accessible for anyone wanting an instantly fun time with variety without having to feel like they have to earn it all first. Besides choosing minigames on a whim in Free Play, there are four other multiplayer minigame modes, ranging from five minutes to half an hour, such as winning a set number of minigames in "Step It Up", or winning minigames to have an advantage over other players as part of a larger game in "High Rollers". "Boss Rush" is available later, after encountering all the Boss Battle minigames in the Party/Solo modes.
Solo players can choose to play the above modes with computer opponents, as well as a mode called "Time Attack", where they attempt to beat their own time at ten minigames. In addition, there are a few more fleshed-out single-player distractions in the "Extras" section, including "Castle Clearout" (a puzzle game where you match coloured bubbles), "Goomba Bowling" (as its name implies, with a Koopa shell in place of a bowling ball, and is a longer version of a minigame) and the odd "Perspective Mode", which seems like it should have fit in the Minigames section, as it's just ten minigames played with a different, more challenging camera angle. You may experience frustration from playing (and replaying) the last game, "Mob Sleds", where you have to dodge the computer-controlled opponents for a whole thirty seconds while often being unable to see them until it's too late, so if this mode is memorable at all, it may be for the wrong reasons.
"Party Points" earned while playing can be used to purchase things in the "Museum" section, such as alternate vehicles for use in the main game, constellations in the shape of Mario characters and items created from Mini Stars, and music for the sound test. Since, as mentioned, most of the actual content is available from the start, there's not a lot of truly exciting stuff to unlock here, except perhaps the "DK's Jungle Ruins" board, obviously Donkey Kong-themed, featuring Bananas and creepy-looking "Z-Bananas" in place of the usual Mini Stars and Mini Ztars.
I can see this being booted up by casual/party gamers more often than, say, Wii Play or Wii Party, or even any of the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games games. Even Fortune Street, which came out recently and also features Mario, might not be for everyone. Mario Party 9's bright, colourful, accessible, and fun, and a solid entry in this long-running franchise, while distanced enough from the previous entry to not feel like we're being bombarded with more of the same. And the changes to the gameplay, such as streamlining the moving around on the boards, are favorable. I did comment on the luck element of this game earlier, but even so, when all is said and done, I did still enjoy this game. Considering that it's practically THE flagship party game series - I have heard many non-gamers mentioning Mario Party - and that the Wii is known for being a party-pleaser - one would think Nintendo would have milked this franchise more, or at least as much as they used to. However, I for one am glad they held off, and returned with a respectable game in the form of Mario Party 9, even despite the reliance on luck.
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