Mario Party Star Rush was one of only a few new Nintendo announcements out of E3, with Ever Oasis by Grezzo (due in 2017) being the other major reveal. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was arguably a reveal too, but that was perhaps more of an unveiling, as it's a game we'd known about for around two years before it was finally shown in detail.
In any case, the initial reveal of Star Rush was barely such a thing, dropped at the end of a press release before being shown, a day later, by the Treehouse team. Nintendo knows full well that its enthusiast audience, ie those watching E3, aren't necessarily the main target for this franchise, at least not any more. Mario Party has become emblematic of family friendly titles that don't set the charts alight, but evidently sell well enough - or are considered strategically important - that they get regular outings.
In a switch from past precedent, no doubt due to their contrasting commercial fortunes, it's the 3DS that's had more titles than Wii U, bucking the trend of home console dominance for the series. Mario Party 10 took a while to arrive, and Star Rush is the second in the series on 3DS after Mario Party: Island Tour. It seems like clever filler, though, arriving later this year to no doubt be pitched as a festive stocking filler, the kind of game kids and big kids alike sit around and play in groups during the Holidays. Of course that's a reason the series typically thrives on home consoles - it's most fun in multiplayer.
During a recent visit to Nintendo UK we had a brief opportunity to play Star Rush, notably the same build and map as seen in the Treehouse showcase below.
Toad Scramble immediately irritates those fed up of the steady proliferation of the character, but as an idea does highlight the key focus of this title. It was emphasized to us prior to playing that as one of the main modes it demonstrates how this entry addresses some key complaints. A vocal group of long term series fans have been bemoaning recent trends to lump players together into vehicles, stripping away their freedom and potential for mischief. There's also been a sense that recent entries have left players sitting around with little action for too long, which is the equivalent of the party where the host asks kids to wait for 10 minutes while they do the wrapping for pass-the-parcel.
In any case, we jumped into a local multiplayer match (four players) in the mode, each with a different colour Toad. The key factor is that everyone rolls the dice and moves at the same time, entirely independent of each other. As always there's a downside to stop it being too easy, so you have to move the exact number of spaces you roll, even if it's too many and you miss a square that you're targeting. Right from the off it's a race to get to Question Block spaces, coins, bonuses and boss battles, with the key being that you're not twiddling your thumbs waiting for your turn. The touchscreen has a handy map, too, if you want to be strategic about the direction you take.
Also thrown in, as shown by the Treehouse team, are ally characters that have improved abilities over Toad, so they're another target; we asked whether the amiibo range (which will include a glow in the dark Boo and Waluigi among others when the game launches) would also unlock these, and the enquiry was dodged with the "we're not talking about amiibo features yet". It seems logical, though, and it wouldn't surprise us if they also have their own mode rather like Mario Party 10; time will tell.
The focal points, certainly, are boss encounters. If you reach them first you essentially get a head start in the battle, with the others frantically tapping A to move their characters to that spot on the board to join in. Like in the E3 demonstration we stole apples from a sleeping Goomba and its children, proof that Toad truly is a cynical monster with no regards for the well-being of other creatures. Moral conundrums aside, it was a fun minigame and, like the broader game, surprisingly easy on the eyes. This is certainly one of those games where you can easily appreciate the comparison between 3DS and GameCube levels of graphical power - the designs are simple but pop nicely, especially with 3D enabled.
After this writer placed last in the apple stealing game - due to ethical concerns around theft distracting from performance - the board then popped up a second boss fight. These spawn at random points in the map, and as a result it's down to chance whether you'll be close or far away, depending on where you've moved previously. Considering the minigames in this mode seem to be largely skill-based, this and the randomised nature of pick-ups and buffs no doubt help to balance the playing field.
We got a look at a non-boss minigame shortly after, 'Acornucopia'. This one was a dash upwards while trying to avoid collisions with critters rolling down the screen, all in aid of preserving the acorns being carried on your head. As is typical of a series intent on destroying friendships you can get in each other's way and cause mishaps, and we ended up in last place again due to a desire to play fair. OK, the truth is we just played badly. What's important, beyond the fact this writer was a bit rubbish in the minigames, is that they popped up frequently, nicely complementing the rapid dice rolls and board trekking.
At that point the party ended, with our hands on time cut short because we were supposed to be playing Breath of the Wild - Link, what a party pooper.
In any case, our brief impressions of Star Rush were positive. This is a title that gives players their freedom back and also throws in large maps, a twist on the more linear boards of past generations. It also looks nice, is undeniably charming and has minigames with a careful blend of harmless fun and rampant cynicism. Which is how Mario Party should be, it must be said.
In fact, our only negative at this point is that this is a portable game, so for multiplayer shenanigans you'll need to gather a group of four people with their own systems. That's why the series is perhaps at its best on home consoles, but that aside we're looking forward to see what other tricks Star Rush has up its sleeve before its release later this year.