To say that the Mario Party series has had a turbulent history would be an understatement; what started out as the palm-breaking king of all party video games has lost a great deal of its reputation in recent years due to a number of less-than-stellar design decisions. Super Mario Party presents itself as a return to the good old days of proper, competitive party action, rather than a weak pseudo-co-op road trip to the end of a board where you don’t even play very many minigames - but does it really turn around the fortunes of the entire franchise? That's what we're about to find out.

Straight away, you can tell there’s something different about this game. As you boot it up you’re asked how many systems and players will be joining in, with a maximum of four players across two consoles. Of course, you can still have four players on one console as well, or that’d be total rubbish. Rather than the oh-so-familiar dredge through menus seen in the recent outings, you’re instead thrust into a small but charming hub world filled with characters from the Mario series, most of whom you can chat to if you like, and we do like. There’s no real need for this hub-world to be a part of the game, but it’s just one item on a decent list of choices that make this outing a more substantial and downright lovely experience.

From the hub, you’re shown just how much variety there is here in terms of game modes. You’ve got Partner Party, River Survival, Sound Stage, Challenge Road, Minigames, Toad’s Rec Room, Online Mariothon, and of course, the long forgotten classic, Mario Party.

Partner Party is an evolution of the style of play popularised by the 3DS entries; instead of being on a one-directional board you’re all on a grid moving around freely, trying to get Stars and outwit your enemies. This time however, as the name quite blatantly suggests, you’ll be doing so with a teammate, resulting in a 2v2 style of play. Whilst it’s not anything absolutely extraordinary, the team-based gameplay does add a nice twist to the formula, and it definitely works better with these grid-based boards than the Mario Party classic.

River Survival is another wry nod to a past Mario Party idea that divided the fanbase: the car. If you’re unaware, several later Mario Party games put all players into a single vehicle and forced them to move as a single unit, and if that doesn’t sound very Mario Party to you, then you’re bang on the money. Where River Survival changes things though is that rather than moving around a board together, you’re all freely moving down a raging body of water (sometimes known as a river), with each of you controlling it with one of four paddles.

To get to the end before the time limit expires you’ll need to work together and coordinate your movements appropriately, slam into minigame balloons to earn extra time and avoid countless obstacles. This is undoubtedly better with real people as you can actually talk to them, and if you choose to play with three CPUs you might want to prepare yourself for a few instances of Luigi Ruins the Boat Ride by Doing Absolutely Nothing.

For something that smacks so much of an element so many fans hated, River Survival is actually immensely good fun, and is a much-improved implementation of the same idea. The minigames are all unique as well, offering no competitive elements and instead relying entirely on teamwork, which is a clever spin but ultimately results in only a handful of available games. During a session you’ll probably repeat at least one minigame, which is a shame, but what games they do have are all extremely entertaining.

Sound Stage is another, totally new way to play. This is little more than a minigame challenge, but much like River Survival, it features games that are totally separate to the main board game modes. As the name suggests, all of them are based around rhythm and timing your actions to the beat, and sweet biscuits is this is a good time. The thumping beat, the satisfaction of timing your motion control movements just right; it’s just pure joy to be a part of. So much so that it’s a wonder why it’s impossible to have its excellent rhythm minigames appear in the main board games, as it would no doubt offer a wonderful change of pace to suddenly start thumping along to some classic remixed Mario tunes. It feels like the developers are testing the waters with this type of minigame, but it’s a shame they weren’t bolder and made it a more integrated part of the game.

Challenge Road is the potentially overhyped single player mode, and sadly it is just that; overhyped. You can’t even play this mode until you’ve unlocked all the minigames by playing multiplayer with CPU or humans, which seems like a mind-bogglingly poor choice. There are very few minigames that need to be unlocked anyhow, it happens after two or three games anyway, so why lock this mode away for those that want a solo romp?

Well, even if you’re gagging for it, you’re not really missing out on much, to be honest. Challenge Road is simply a one-after-the-other stint through all the game’s minigames with a borderline arbitrary challenge tacked on to give it more worth. 90 percent of these challenges range from ‘win the minigame’ to ‘get so many points in the minigame’, which means that it’s practically the same experience as just playing them in free mode. Very occasionally there’s a bit of innovation, such as requiring you win a barrel-rolling game without touching the easily-touchable water. This doesn’t spell doom when playing the game normally, but here it does, and it’s a massive shame that most of the jaunt is underbaked. It’s also short, being able to be completely conquered in just a few hours maximum, and with absolutely no reason to come back once you’re done. It’s a missed opportunity.

Minigames is an ever-so-slightly misleading name, as this actually hides another two games modes that admittedly focus almost entirely on minigames. Mariothon is simply a round of five minigames with one person being crowned the winner at the end, but Square Off is a more interesting beast. Much like a bad game show from 1998, if you win a minigame you get to select a square on a panel of sixteen, and subsequently place additional squares adjacent to any others you have. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s another instance of this game offering far more choice than any previous entry, and it’s extremely welcome.

Online Mariothon is presumably just that, an online version of the five minigame tournament. We say presumably because as of the time of writing the service is not currently available, so we've not been able to attest to its practicality or if it's good or not. It's a first for the series to include internet capabilities like this, but it is a shame it's not inclusive of the main game modes as well. The other option is Free Play, which is just playing minigames with no stakes. Moving on.

Toad’s Rec Room is another ‘bonus’ series of game modes that occur outside of the main game modes. This is a seemingly ramshackle collection of minigames that are admittedly too specific or long-winded to be something that happens on turn 9 in Mario Party. A handful use two systems to function, requiring you to have both undocked and face up in order to play properly. These are very much something to muck about with for a few minutes, which means yet more options for getting your Mario Party on without having to set aside a few hours and mentally prepare yourself for losing up to three friends at once. They’re certainly innovative and gimmicky, and a good party trick for the Switch to flaunt, but not much more than that. It’s the right way to do it though, as having something relying so heavily on a gimmick and requiring two consoles as part of the main game wouldn’t be a good idea.

And finally, we get onto the big daddy, the meat, the whole reason we’re here really; Mario Party. Yep, it’s certainly Mario Party, and it’s back to its argument-causing, frustration-inducing, relationship-shattering glory days, and it’s absolutely fantastic. The ‘dick moves’ of the older games have been toned down somewhat, and so you’re not going to be trading Stars with an opponent on the last three turns, which honestly is probably a good thing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of totally random instances that can turn the tide of an entire game in about thirty seconds flat though, oh no. Hidden Blocks with Stars, Golden Warp Pipes that take you directly to a Star, Lakitu offering to commit robbery of another player’s Star for you; there’s plenty of scope to bamboozle your friends and steal victory from underneath them. It’s wholly unpredictable, massively annoying at times, and that’s what makes it so bloody good.

The minigames you’ll be encountering range from ‘fine’ to completely wonderful, there’s not a duff one amongst them in our eyes. Practically all of them feel natural and easy to pick up as well, even if they’re not straightforward to master, and use a variety of traditional and motion controls for serious variety. The Joy-Con really prove themselves to be the perfect tool for the job; flipping between holding them horizontally or vertically is completely effortless, and their responsiveness prevents any of the minigames from feeling clunky, unless they’re designed to be.

Even though all but Toad’s Rec Room and Challenge Road are unlocked from the start, there’s still a good amount for you to churn through and unlock, which certainly boosts the game’s replayability. Every major game mode is host to one of five gems, which, once obtained, allow access to a number of interesting little extras, such as a sound test and other visual niceties. All of these are purchased with points that you earn from completing games, which alongside having each gem associated with a game mode, encourages you to try out everything rather than just stick to one area.

The presentation is completely lovely as well; every character has bagloads of charm and little nuances here and there really bring to light how much thought and care was put into making this the best Mario Party game it could be. A few of our personal highlights are each character actually opening up a map when you look at the board as a whole, certain characters have unique dialogue with some other characters, such as Bowser referring to Bowser Jr. as simply ‘Junior’, and Waluigi’s majestic, gangling run.

However, the absolute zenith of video game history has to be when Monty Mole is brought into a whack-a-mole style rhythm minigame, where he sweats profusely and jitters anxiously on the spot as he’s forced to become the thing he hates the most.

Conclusion

Recent Mario Party games have previously had a somewhat sterile feel to them, but with Super Mario Party that simply isn’t the case. This isn’t a cash-grab with Mario's face on the front; this is a well-constructed and beautifully realised Mario Party game which takes the series right back to its roots, but without being a straightforward rehash. There are a few interesting ideas that feel a little bit underdeveloped, but on the whole Super Mario Party is a true return to form.

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