Nintendo's never been afraid to capitalise on the success of its franchises or, as some would say, beat its successful games to within an inch of their lives. Who knew when the very first Mario Party hit N64 in 1998 that, 14 years later, we'd be staring at the 11th — 12th if you count Mario Party-e — instalment in the series? After years of dice blocks and manic minigames, has the franchise finally outlived its welcome?
The pleasing and altogether surprising answer is "no". Mario Party 9 deviates significantly from the series' familiar template, pitching four characters together in a vehicle and having them move along the board together instead of individually. While this removes some of its predecessors' opportunity for devious route-taking and opponent-stomping, it actually works well, increasing the speed of games and facilitating a new style for the boards.
Instead of collecting coins to purchase stars, you now collect mini-stars when you pass over certain squares. Mini-stars are generously distributed around the boards, so it's no longer a case of everyone racing to get to one spot only for the Star to move. There are so-called mini-ztars that rob you of your precious little lights though, so look out.
Gone too is the rigid structure of playing a mini game after all characters have taken their turn. Mini games are less frequent occurrences now, taking place when you land on certain squares or simply by chance, and this title is better and quicker for it. That's not to say the mini games are poor — most of them eschew shaky motion controls in favour of holding the Wii Remote NES-style, but the games that employ motions do so with a quick shake or simple twist. Some might be disappointed at the lack of Wii MotionPlus controls, but that's more Wii Play Motion's arena; it's unlikely Ndcube could have come up with 80 motion-emphasis mini games that are as good as the more traditional button-based affairs often found here. Gladly there's rarely a scenario where the controls get in the way, with simple explanations and practically zero loading time getting you in and out of the games quickly and easily. With 80 mini games included there's bound to be a few duff ones, but on the whole it's one of the strongest arrays for quite a while.
Still more change comes in the form of new boss battles: whereas previous games ended after a certain number of turns, each board in MP9 now has a clearly defined end point where the final boss lurks. Reaching a boss or mini-boss as the Captain — i.e. on your turn — nets you bonus mini-stars and the choice to pick your opponent, and while there aren't that many boss options most of them are an enjoyable mix of skill and chaos. Whether you're on a mine cart destined to fire a cannon at a Chain Chomp or playing a fantastically tactical numbers game with Whomp, they're just long enough to feel like boss battles and just short enough to stay fun.
You'll be able to finish most parties in around 30 minutes, whetting the appetite for another go-around. Play accumulates party points, which you can spend on new boards, vehicles, a harder difficulty level or constellations for the observatory mode. It'll take plenty of play to unlock everything, whether solo or in a party, providing welcome reasons to return. In fact, there's a separate mode that pitches single players against CPU opponents across each board: if you lose, you fail the board and have to try again. Suffice to say, you won't be firing it up for repeated solo play.
Not in the board game mode at least, but the Extras menu holds a few intriguing alternatives, from an addictive puzzle game with the most infuriating music to Goomba Bowling, where you throw red shells at waves of Goombas. Both are worth a blast, though Shell Soccer is pretty woeful. You can also choose to play any unlocked mini game at your leisure if you don't fancy traipsing around the board.
It's not all successful though: the so-called Captain Events are often poorly explained side quests that confuse far more than they entertain, and unlike fellow recent Mario-themed board game Fortune Street/Boom Street there's no online play, so it's strictly a single room-only experience. It doesn't suffer too much for that — all parties are best contained in a single area — but if you don't have a regular corral of local players you might find it off-putting.
Mario Party 9 makes the most major changes to the series we've seen in years, streamlining it to a short and snappy rush of mini games. It's less predictable than its previous instalments, smartly ditching the dead wood in favour of a fresh approach that emphatically reminds us why the series has been going for 14 years.