The Mario Party series has, believe it or not, had a relatively interesting history. Despite being a minigame series that most don't take too seriously, it prompted injuries and glove distributions on N64, was developed by Hudson Soft for a long time until that studio went out of business, and nowadays attracts criticism for its 'everyone wins' approach and shared vehicles around a board. We all know that Mario Party isn't supposed to be about kindness, familial love and forging friendships - it's actually about stuffing a rival in a hoverboat racing game and letting them know how much it hurts. Right?
To be fair, outside of university / college dorm rooms it is still about having a bit of fun, and regardless most students are now blowing each other's heads off in Call of Battlefield or competing in FIFA: Handful of New Skins Edition. Nintendo is gunning for families, kids and big kids with Mario Party: Star Rush, the second entry of the series on the portable, and believe it or not this is a game that seems to react to criticisms of recent entries. Let's chalk this up as a win - the big N's been listening to all of the valid complaints that have followed current-gen entries around. In the process, it's also created a Mario Party game that suits a portable well, even if the natural home for these games will always be on the TV.
Regardless of game mode the following is true - everyone rolls their dice and / or moves independently at the same time. For those that have been bemoaning vehicles in recent times that should come as a blessed relief, and the policy of everyone moving at the same time is simple but effective. When setting out your route you can't see what others are doing, so perhaps your roll of a 6 will be worth nothing if someone else beats you to the coins and items you were after, while players on the same space play an extremely short 'duel'. All of this gives games a nice flow, and you're not sitting idly waiting for your turn.
Another positive for those left a little worried after the initial E3 reveal is that Toad Scramble isn't the 'main' mode, as such; there are actually quite a few options early on, with more unlocking as you build up an equivalent of experience points. That said, Toad Scramble most definitely has its merits: teams of Toads work their way around increasingly complex boards - more are unlocked with playthroughs - while triggering minigames, trying to grab AI allies (giving you a choice of playable characters, each with their own buffs) and attempting to land on Boss Fight squares. Its these bosses that yield stars and coins - you need stars to win, accumulated coins also convert into stars - and serve up some rather enjoyable tussles. They mainly consist of throwing items, placing them or stealing them, with the only bust boss fight we've encountered so far being a card memorisation game.
Overall the minigames are entertaining in this mode, though most do seem to primarily use the Circle Pad and A button, lacking a little bit of variety. That said, the ally system is a smart one, and if you're playing solo you can tilt the odds in your favour by scanning in a compatible amiibo buddy right from the off, giving you extras on dice rolls and an able assistant in minigames. Our Yarn Yoshi was put to good use right away.
As you play you earn points based on performance, which accumulate in a 'Party Level'. This unlocks some extra playable characters, and more importantly it opens up other modes. We haven't got them all yet, and are limited in the number we're allowed to cover at this stage, but all told there's some good variety that also brings the rest of the playable cast into play - breath easy, Toad haters.
First there's Coinathlon, which is great for some quickfire sessions. Each round has a set of three minigames, and your task is to grab plenty of coins in order to run laps around the board as quickly as possible. You grab items to slow opponents down, and the games here suit the frantic action. It's a tough mode to fully 'beat' in single player too, even when using an amiibo as your character (which allows double item usage in the case of Yoshi). In later rounds Bowser shows up to kick off 'survival' games, reminiscent of Mario Party 10 to a degree, and losing knocks you back a handful of spaces. This is a fun time, ultimately, and tackling consecutive rounds could take 20-30 minutes, but if you want you can do a single round in under five minutes.
Then there's Balloon Bash, which is far longer and suited to an extended play session with friends. The maps have fixed paths (not the free-for-all of Toad Scramble) but you're free to go around in whatever direction you please. This is all about accumulating stars (and coins to buy stars), and targeting squares with balloons. If you pop a balloon you get the bonus and trigger minigames, either standard or 'Boss' games like those seen in Toad Scramble. We played a simple map which was 20 turns, and even with the nippy process of all players rolling the dice and moving at the same time it still took a little while to work through. It was enjoyable, and some of the minigames were undoubtedly charming, but it felt like it dragged on slightly while not quite having the best balancing. Still a solid option, nevertheless.
Finally - for this little round-up of modes we've tried out - we have Rhythm Recital, a simple rhythm game in which you tap the screen in time to beats on screen. The idea is that you 'play' classic Mario tunes with the AI or buddies in a mini orchestra, but in making the rhythms accessible this mode's sucked the dynamism out of the music. The parts you're playing are out-of-place add-ons to the core piece, so selecting the 'trumpet' for the Super Mario 3D Land theme had us playing dull beat notes, not the jazzy solo of the track. We have more to unlock in this mode, so hopefully there's a harder option with better arrangements, but so far it's a throwaway part of the overall game.
Thankfully we haven't been playing Star Rush on our own, which would be a rather sad party. We were given a code for the free 'Guest' download, which allows other players to experience the whole game as long as someone in the party has a full copy. It's a generous offering, and its implementation is very simple - the Guest download isn't much smaller than the full game, so rather than deal with the limitations of Download Play (which is still an option, regardless) Nintendo has evidently just put all of the key content in this free option. It locks away all but one minigame (a simple match-three offering) in single player, but everything is available when an owner of the full game is hosting a local multiplayer lobby, and the Guest pass even accumulates party points for unlockables and extra snippets of solo content.
It's a smart and generous solution that's perfect for families, helping this entry get around the issue of not being on a home console. It's extremely quick and easy to get into a lobby, and worked beautifully in our tests with no notable issues with lag or extended load times. While still lacking the living room dynamic of playing party games on the TV, it was fun sitting next to another player as we competed or worked together.
Taking the minigames as a whole across the various modes, we think it's shaping up to be a decent if not exemplary collection here. For a good while we wondered whether they'd all be Circle Pad + A button games, but gradually a few that utilise the stylus popped up, and Coinathlon in particular has some smarter additions. In our view - so far - there are a few standout minigames, occasionally clever boss fights, a whole load of 'ok' games and just one or two duds. That's pretty typical, in the end, though the overall collection feels a little short of the very best of Nintendo's efforts in the party game genre.
The test now will be how long Star Rush keeps the party going, as we have some levelling up and unlocking still to do. So far it's kept us interested, and the enjoyment is enhanced by the ease with which we can share it with a friend through the Guest download.
Hopefully the good vibes will last until late in the day, rather than fizzle out early like the worst kinds of parties.