Back in 1999, Mario and his crew could have taught Prince a thing or two about how to celebrate the coming of a new millennium. Establishing itself as a mainstay on the Nintendo 64, the Mario Party series showed up three times to blister hands and bring friends and family together to yell at each other at the top of their lungs. However, in the years since then, we’ve experienced a roller-coaster of quality as Mario's party mode has struggled to recapture its glory days. Things became too silly and convoluted, with winning being based largely on chance and luck. Mario Party: Island Tour probably won’t do anything to change your opinion of the series — nor will it win over those lost by the shortcomings of recent instalments — but it may still provide enough enjoyment for you to want a place on the guest list.
When jumping in, you have the typical option to get a party started with computer players or take advantage of the Download Play functionality of the 3DS to invite up to 3 other people – sadly there is no online play, so this is local fun only. Once you’ve got your participants in tow, the first stop for most is going to be Party Mode, where you can check out all the new game boards designed specifically for this handheld outing. There are five boards available from the get-go, regardless of settings, and another that can only be played with at least 3 human players in attendance, all with different rules and quirks — it's not about stars any more.
The boards are tagged with ratings that denote the level of skill, luck, and amount of mini-games involved. Luck is the one that may annoy many players, and outside of a couple of boards, fate factors heavily into the equation. Inexperienced players will love that they’re able to shine brighter than others at a game, but everyone else will be somewhat annoyed. Why not just flip a coin, declare a winner, and forgo the proceedings altogether? Probably because even when the boards don’t quite deliver on their potential, Nintendo usually knows how to produce a fantastic collection of mini-games, and the boards are the adhesive that give those games substance. Unfortunately, this is the area in which we have serious issues with Mario Party: Island Tour.
For instance, on Rocket Road – which visually mixes elements of Mario Galaxy with Rainbow Road from Mario Kart – players race around a track on rocket cars trying to accumulate boosters to blast their way to the goal. In the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to complete this board, you’ll be lucky to squeeze in more than a single mini-game. Because of this, it feels completely throwaway in the end, and even the less-experienced players that joined us never wanted to revisit it. Unfortunately, a couple other boards follow the same recipe as well, lowering the number of boards with any real substance down to two or three – depending on your tastes. Without a doubt, the brevity of these excursions — in conjunction with the often ridiculous rules defining each board — makes them the weakest component of Island Tour.
Thank god then for the mini-games. The last thing you want to be doing in a 4-player game is reading a lot and waiting for everyone to comprehend instructions – even less so on a handheld console that gets played on the go. With the 80 mini-games shuffled into the mix, that’s not a problem. Simplicity is the name of the game, and thankfully in this case that doesn’t mean skill is sacrificed. There are still games revolving solely around luck as usual, but they seem to be peppered in loosely enough that they won’t annoy those veteran players looking to flex their skills.
One thing that may cause a bit of moaning is the lack of asymmetrical mini-games – there are no 3 vs. 1 or 2 vs. 2 matches, only free-for-all. You’d think this would present a problem, but it doesn't. Keeping things easy to understand and streamlining directions does wonders for the rate of play. No longer did we have to sit and wait for the newcomer to read through their individual directions or play with the buttons on the controller in preparation. Often, a single sentence is all that’s needed to instantaneously comprehend the agenda, and it pays off in a big way.
Not only are traditional control methods used to participate in the mini-games, but there’s also a nice mix of activities that utilize the gyroscopic and touchscreen capabilities of the 3DS. In a mini-game called “Point ‘n’ Shoot”, players move the system around them to find characters hiding in the virtual environment on-screen. In “Starring Artist”, the stylus is used on the touchscreen to copy the pattern of constellations portrayed on the upper display. Beyond that, there are a few puzzle games tucked away in Free Play that are fun to kill time with — a game that uses the microphone to capture your best impressions of popular Nintendo characters, and even a couple that use AR Cards. For our money, this is one of the tightest collections of mini-games to be featured in the Mario Party series, optimized perfectly for pick-up-and-play sessions.
One issue, however, is how inconsequential winning mini-games is becoming in the grand scheme of things. In the most traditional board, called Perilous Palace Path (the longest that lasts 45-60 minutes), players will compete in mini-games for additional dice blocks instead of stars or anything else, allowing them to get an extra step on the competition when running for the finish line. However, getting ahead of the pack isn’t necessarily a good thing, as there are the occasional roadblocks that need to be overcame in order to advance. For example, guessing from one of three buttons to lower a bridge, or knocking health bars off of a Whomp by rolling the dice, thus clearing the way to the goal. Often, lingering behind and being the 2nd or 3rd person to reach these points is more ideal than getting there first. A player can win every single mini-game and still lose at the board – that happened to us several times.
Thankfully, pushing through Party Mode isn't the only way you can get down with the mini-games. Hot-Air Hijinks puts four players, CPU or human, into hot-air balloons and has them competing to be the first to reach 3, 5, or 7 wins. If you simply want to play game-after-game while duking it out for top honours, this is the way to go. And for the rest of you who only have time to squeeze in a couple of matches — or want to play only your favourite mini-games — there's always Free Play.
Bowser’s Tower, a single-player focused mode, is mostly fluff in its repetitive and lengthy design, but it still offers a bit of purpose to those playing alone. One floor at a time, one of two mini-games will be randomly selected, requiring you to win if you want to advance. Every five floors or so are boss battles that deviate slightly from standard mini-game design, providing players with just enough reason to keep climbing all the way to the top – there you’ll face off with Bowser himself, in a scene similar to the final face-off in Super Mario World. We can’t help but feel that Bowser's Tower was almost effortlessly constructed in an attempt to bulk up the package for those playing alone, but there is at least a little fun to be had here – even if only for the boss battles.
Another single player mode, Time Attack, will have you replaying the same 10 mini-games time and time again to set record times. This makes for a solid way to spend 10 minutes, but the life-expectancy of this mode is questionable. There's also a StreetPass mini-game mode, which we sadly weren't able to enjoy at the time of writing as no one else we knew had the game prior to release. According to Nintendo's website this mode is "your invitation to win some matches against other people playing Mario Party: Island Tour, unlock special collectables, and more." For now, we'll just consider this a potential bonus.
Participating in any of the modes earns Mario Party Points which can be used to purchase collectables that grant access to character voice clips and the music featured throughout the game. We imagine most people won’t spend time listening to these audio tracks, but unlocking them instils a feeling of progression, and that can only be considered a good thing in a party game. There are other unlockables as well, but we're not sure exactly how far they go. In the 15 or more hours we spent partying with Mario, we unlocked a hidden playable character and an extra board - making for 10 characters and 7 game boards.
The visuals in Island Tour are satisfactory, getting the job done without doing anything to wow. The majority of our review was played on a 3DS XL and there seemed to be more rough, pixelated edges than in other games that we've played recently. It looks slightly better on a standard model 3DS, yet those edges are still apparent. The use of stereoscopic 3D doesn't add much to the antics, and is never used to enhance any games or puzzles — but it also doesn't get in the way. When involved in games that instruct the 3DS to be titled all over the place, the 3D is either automatically subdued or completely inactive.
The Mario Party series isn't changing much, and when it does, it doesn't seem to be for the better. The pieces of Island Tour that work the best are the ones sticking to the form established early in the series — fun, accessible mini-games that don't over-complicate things. It's the game boards that need better ideas, and the "less is more" approach would suit future instalments better. The focus on luck, swapping places at random, and — specific to this instalment — the short length all conspire to hamper what could easily have been a much more enjoyable experience. There's still a ton of rowdy multiplayer fun to be had, but it's unfortunate that a whole portion of the game is so hit-or-miss.
Even with the misfires and shortcomings plaguing the game boards, we believe Mario Party: Island Tour may still be a sound purchase for kids, families or anyone looking to play with friends. Those seeking a long-lasting single-player experience may want to steer clear though, as there isn't enough depth to the solo-focused modes to keep you engaged for very long. Island Tour doesn't do much different from it predecessors, and the throwaway boards — coupled with some forgettable game modes — definitely hurt the overall experience in a big way. Thankfully, the great collection of mini-games ensures that there may be enough reason for many people to roll the dice.