In this opinion piece, Arjun bemoans what he feels is the deterioration of the Mario Party series, and shares his hopes for its future.
Mario Party, the game where players once sacrificed the skin of their palms in order to be crowned as the almighty Superstar. Yep, it was that competitive, and I for one loved it. For me, the Mario Party franchise was part of my "big five" for every new Nintendo home console - the rest being the next Mario 'main' platformer, Legend of Zelda adventure, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Bros. Yes, believe it or not, a new Mario Party always felt as exciting as the next Mario Kart to me. Unfortunately, though, this began to change over the years of the Nintendo GameCube, and even more so with the arrival of the Nintendo Wii. Something happened to that certain edge Mario Party once possessed. I then began thinking - why has the series arguably plummeted so far downhill, that it could be considered a mere shadow of its once former glory? What happened to it? Let's explore below.
Mario Party 1, 2, and 3 were magic. And no, this isn't pure nostalgia talking - I could go back and play them today with a group of friends and still have the same level of fun (if not more) as I did over a decade ago. What was so great about these games was the fact that while each player was working towards a collective goal (defeating Bowser in some way, shape or form), the competition between the four participants was still as fierce as ever. These games were not forgiving - the element of handholding certainly didn't make its presence felt - and it almost felt like a "survival of the fittest" kind of challenge. If you got lost in the fold, you had to grind your way back up, unless some miracle resurrected your chances of winning - which did indeed happen more often than not.
The trilogy had some of the best mini-games to date (Mushroom Mix-Up/Hexagon Heat, Skateboard Scamper, and Running of the Bulb were some of my favourites), and each win/loss really felt important due to the rewards and consequences that followed. Yes, you used to actually lose coins for losing mini-games, or win nothing at all if the result was a draw! Sure, you had your arguably controversial mini-games (such as the aforementioned palm-skin-peelers), but what the Nintendo 64 Mario Party titles lacked in sound and motion-control gimmicks, they more than made up for with wacky ideas.
As the series progressed it introduced some cool concepts that helped keep the games fresh, such as Mario Party 5's Capsule system. This removed the mechanic of purchasing items in shops, and instead allowed the player to place capsules up to ten spaces in-front of them, or pay a small fee to use capsules' effects on themselves. I welcomed small changes such as these, as I didn't feel it took too much away from what I initially loved about the series in general. However, sooner or later, the games began to change a little too much for my liking. It seemed as though, slowly but surely, the games started to lose their competitive edge. In-board events that allowed players to purchase items/liaise with characters to steal coins and stars from opponents appeared to dwindle, and it started to feel that the games ushered in more luck-based events instead of players having more control in each decision they made.
Events such as the notorious "Chance Time" spot and the post-board awards became more luck-based, and that coupled with more sprint-based boards made it more difficult and less fun in working towards a strategy to secure the win. I remember always thinking (with the earlier games) in advance of my next few turns, along the lines of "I have six turns left, I'm in third place, and I'm in this position of the board map. If I can roll at least a four, acquire this item, use it on my next turn, and reach the Star before then, I should be able to finish 1st place!". For me, that's what grabbed me about the franchise. Sure, it's a casual game at the end of the day, but casual games still need some level of spirit! I can't pinpoint the precise moment as to when I began to feel this way (as the GameCube's Mario Party titles are a bit of a collective blur to me), but it certainly came after the N64's original trio.
I almost want to say that Mario Party started to feel more "PG" with successive entries, as for me it seemed to progressively discourage the notion of being frustrated at your friends for their actions, and instead take an "Ah well, that's my luck!" sort of approach. And that wasn't cool to me! I don't know about you, but the underlying fear of never being safe throughout a Mario Party board was one of the most addictive things that the series had going for it. I could be more than five stars up from 2nd place, but still feel unsafe and anxious due to Boos, Magic Lamps, and the aforementioned "Chance Time" spot that could strike at any given moment. Ingredients such as these made the game feel that much more fierce and rewarding for holding onto a win, and it's arguably what gave the franchise its unofficial slogan of "the game that ruins your friendships".
The "PG" sensation really came into play in Mario Party 9 and most recently Mario Party 10, and I think you've already guessed why I say this. Players now traverse the board together! Don't get me wrong, I initially scoffed at the idea when it was first presented in Mario Party 9, but I've slightly grown to enjoy it in my recent play-throughs of Mario Party 10. However, although it can be quite entertaining to setup your opponents for misery, I'm constantly reminded about how little control I really do have in manipulating the board's events. My point is, while I've grown to somewhat appreciate the mechanic, I do believe going alone is the way to go. The board just felt like more of an adventure to each player in the older games, and it made for some awesome moments such as Mario Party 2's Duel mini-games (if two people land on the same spot). Navigating the board together just makes everything seem more of a team game and less of a spirited competition.
When the announcement of Mario Party 10 was made, I was super excited. I thought to myself, "it's the franchise's 10th anniversary, so surely we're going to have an entry that ticks all of the boxes". Thankfully, I didn't hold my breath. Sure, Mario Party 10's visuals are glorious to look at, the mini-games are fun, and the boards are quite clever, but the lack of game modes and customisable flexibility let the title down on the whole. Yes, amiibo Party has marginal merit (it's reminiscent of the old Mario Party formula), and Bowser Party can be quite a blast with a group of five players, but overall we were given the same old casual treatment with some extra (and arguably unnecessary) amiibo functionality. The Mario Party games of yesteryear had great single-player modes, encouraging the player to play each board to unlock characters, boards, mini-games and in-game items. Mario Party 1's Mini-Game Island is an excellent example of extra single-player content, something that recent entries have failed to achieve since. It's reasons such as these as to why I'd never play a recent Mario Party title on my own.
The way mini-games appear in Mario Party 10 is also a little frustrating, as mini-games are only triggered upon landing on mini-game spaces or if a mini-game hasn't appeared for quite some time. Of course, this either leads to a board filled to the brim with mini-games, or hardly any mini-games at all. I actually recently played the Mushroom Park board with my friends, and we got to the end while barely scratching the surface of playing ten mini-games - excluding boss battles. And speaking of which, boss battle mini-games are a bit 50:50 to me. They're fun and intense, but having two of them as a staple on every board can become quite mundane. Perhaps each board should have only ended with a boss respective to that board, and that's it. But this isn't a Mario Party 10 review, so to stay on track, my point is that the series has become an overly-casual game about teamwork. I mean, you even get rewarded for coming 4th in a mini-game, whereas you used to actually lose coins for coming last in some of the early Mario Party games, as mentioned before.
So, with all that said, what do I think Nintendo should do to make the series' inevitable NX sequel great? Here's a few places to start in my humble opinion:
- Revert back to separating players (although you could add the mechanic of travelling together with certain triggered events).
- Bring back items that are easily accessible (whether this be via an Item Shop, Capsule system, or something of the sort).
- Provide the option of choosing from a mix of boards that possess both the classic turn-based system and the more recent sprint-based system (Mario Party 8 sort-of did this).
- Keep amiibo functionality in, but don't take away from the game without them. They could perhaps allow amiibo to offer customisable functionalities (such as how Mario Party 2 had Mario and friends dress-up in certain costumes depending on the board chosen), instead of offering a game that requires mandatory use of the figures.
I'd say that just about does it. What do you think of the evolution of the Mario Party franchise? Are you happy that its latest entrants have arguably gone a bit more casual than their predecessors, or are you a fan of the old formula?