More than any other console, the Wii has become defined by its mini-game collections, so it’s kind of surprising we’re only up to our second Mario Party game on the console. Mario Party 9 has been five years coming, and while I’m not sure people have been waiting with baited breath for the series’ return, it nonetheless makes for a very enjoyable party title.
The core gameplay of Mario Party 9 is found in the mini-games, most of which are actually surprisingly decent. Many of the games don’t really rely on the motion control of the Wii Remote at all, unlike so many other Wii mini-game collections out there, which is welcome. You’ll frequently be using the more traditional controls on the Wii Remote with Mario-style platforming challenges, where players race against each other on ice blocks or platforms in the sky, as well simpler games that require timed button presses or just plain old button mashing. The design of these mini-games is deceptively simple, with many simply requiring the use of the ‘A’ button and nothing else, but they’re still fun and genuinely good examples of how to do mini-games well. The smattering of games that do rely totally on motion control become highlights during game sessions, with some including cool spins on past Wii games such as a fun Wii Bowling knock-off that involves destroying a line of Bob-ombs.
Alongside the more regular free-for-all mini-games are 1 on 3 (or 1 on 2) matches, as well as boss battles that pit all four players against Bowser Jr. or one of Bowser’s many minions. Some of these boss battles are pulled off really well, such as one that sees players scramble for more powerful weapons to use against the boss to score more points. Some boil down to luck of the draw – a fight against a Whomp sees players spinning a carousel to avoid getting crushed by the behemoth, gambling by guessing how many turns it will take. These can frustrate when playing alone, as you’ll soon become certain the computer’s colluding against you, but can be great fun in multiplayer (which is how these games are meant to be played, after all).
All of these mini-games are wrapped up in a new over-world system, which brings about a bevvy of changes Mario Party veterans will notice immediately. To start with, players all move together along the board-game like over-world in a car, taking turns (and becoming ‘captain’) to roll the die. The ultimate goal in each of the boards is to collect the most ‘mini stars’, which are won in mini-games, as well as on various square around the board. Also littering the board are purple stars that rob you of mini stars, which are obviously important to avoid. However, since everyone is moving along in the same car, the dynamic of how you play changes. If purple stars are three squares away, you start hoping that you’ll roll a lower number not only so you can avoid the penalty, but you can inflict it on whoever’s turn is next.
The only real frustration comes with how quickly the tables can turn in some matches, with Bowser squares. Landing on any of these will incur the wrath of Mario’s old arch-nemesis, picking his mischief from a board of options, and can often upset the entire balance of the game. His effects include halving the amount of mini stars a player has, to penalising all players and forcing them to compete to get their mini stars back. Extremely rarely, he’ll apparently deal out a game-winning 10,000 mini stars, although I’m not entirely convinced that option isn’t just on the board to troll players.
In terms of game options, Mario Party 9 features the requisite local multi-player for up to four players, as well as a solo story mode that (loosely) fits a story and the several boards included in the game as Mario and his friends journey to stop Bowser from hoarding all the mini-stars. Each match, one of the AI players will be working for Bowser, so you don’t have to come first place in order to technically win in single player, as long as you prevent Bowser’s minion from winning. There’s also the ability to play any of the mini-games at any time, and a museum for some unlockable special items. There is no online multiplayer in Mario Party 9, which seems to be a great missed opportunity as even the recent Boom Street featured it, and would seem to have a narrower potential audience than the Mario Party series.
Mario Party 9 looks and sounds great, with colourful pleasing characters and locations, that isn’t quite on par with, say, Super Mario Galaxy 2, but it comes pretty close. All of the animation has as much personality as you’d expect from a Mario title, and it feels like a cohesive, vibrant experience rather than a slapped-together copy of the last game with a different number tacked on the end.
If you’ve been following the Mario Party series throughout its now nine incarnations, then I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with Mario Party 9, as it makes some fundamental changes to the over-world gameplay that help it stand out from its predecessors, and the majority of its mini-games are pretty solid. It’s not going to be the first game you’d reach for if you’ve got the mates around for a bit of drunken motion control fun (Wii Sports, somehow, still holds up for that) but it plays more like a really good board game, enhanced with new elements of strategy and constant events happening on-screen. If you’re holding a party that would appreciate that kind of action, then Mario Party 9 is actually pretty great, although as a solitary experience it gets pretty lonely, especially with the lack of online. So get some friends together and give this a shot, especially if you’re Mario fans, as that’s the audience that will enjoy the game the most.