Since 1998 the Mario Party series has entertained gamers by mixing the play of traditional board games with frantic mini-game action. There have been numerous releases over the years (most recently Mario Party 10) and now Wii U owners can purchase one of the earliest entries from the eShop. Known for blister-creating rotate-the-stick minigames, Nintendo (as it did on the Wii) has skipped the first title and instead started with Mario Party 2. Disappointing for completists, but overall this is a similar experience to the first game, only bigger and more impressive.
Gameplay is straightforward in this virtual board game with each of the four players taking turns to hit the "Dice Block" to negotiate the board, collecting or losing coins depending on where they land. The aim is to collect as many stars as possible (purchased in exchange for coins) before the pre-chosen number of turns is completed.
If that's all there was to it, frankly it'd be rubbish, so it's a good job then that the Mario Party titles feature lots of mini-games. After all four players have had their turn a mini-game commences giving players a chance to compete for more coins. Some are four-way free-for-alls, others split you into teams of two and there are also one-on-three mini games. There are 65 mini-games in all and whilst they control differently and have different rules, they are simple enough to quickly get to grips with. If in doubt you can check the rules/controls before you play and even take part in a practice game.
There's a good variety of minigames here and the short bursts of fun include a tank battle game, a bobsled race, archery, jumping across sliding tiles and a climb to the top of a mast on a sinking ship. Some are frantic button bashers such as "Skateboard Scamper" where you race to the end (whilst also having to jump raised sections) but others require a slower pace. One highlight is "Sneak 'n' Snore" where the barrel-wearing players carefully make their way to the door-release button as a Chain Chomp sleeps; should the sleepy sphere awake any players not hiding in their barrel are eliminated. If you particularly like a mini game they can be purchased in "Mini-Game Land" for repeated play whenever you feel like it.
Given it's age, it isn't particularly surprising that the game looks quite blocky at times and characters can fail to mesh convincingly with pre-rendered backgrounds, but the colourful style works well for the most part. There are six different boards in the game, each with its own theme (examples: pirates, space). The music adjusts according to the theme of the current board and one good visual touch is that the players' garb changes to match too. For example on the "Mystery Land" board, everyone is dressed like they are ready for an archaeological dig.
Also affecting games is the use of items - purchasable from a shop or collected if you land on an item minigame space. Items include mushrooms and golden mushrooms for a second and third use of the Dice Block and the ability to send a Boo to steal coins (or even a star) from an opponent. Clever use of items can help you succeed in the game, but you should be careful not to hold onto them for too long; should a rival collect a "Plunder Chest" they can steal it from you.
With additional spaces mixing up the gameplay (Bowser taking coins, hidden stars) the fortunes of the players change throughout a game and there can be a lot of excitement when someone who seemed destined for fourth place picks up a couple of stars in quick succession. Bonus stars awarded at the end of a game (for things such as most coins collected in minigames) can also shake up the results.
The game is certainly a lot of fun to play, but how you are playing effects how enjoyable it is. It's best suited for four friends relaxing with some snacks, bantering away, not taking things too seriously and, in an improvement over the original release, the cable-free nature of the Wii U controllers prevents accidental garrotting should you trip when going to fetch more Pringles.
Should three additional human players be unavailable, their places are taken by CPU controlled characters and here the enjoyment is lessened somewhat. Should you land one space short of a star which a friend then collects on their next turn, it seems like they got lucky (likewise if another friend lands on the bank and collects the funds deposited within). Should a CPU character collect a useful item or find a hidden star however, it can seem suspicious.
Play alone and a game can suddenly seem very long, even the twenty-turn "Lite Play". It's still very enjoyable but with no one to discuss the news or your plans for world domination with, there's not much to do other than twiddle your thumbs between turns as the other characters hit Dice Blocks, pay fees or partake in item minigames. It's not a big problem, but if you do get bored the usual Virtual Console restore/suspension point functions are present to allow you to finish the game at another time.
The gameplay is simple but a lot of fun as you compete to collect the most stars. The variety of minigames and the different boards with their unique features (such as the laser in Space Land) combine to provide a lot of enjoyable gaming whether taking part in the "Filet Relay" or trying to bowl over your rivals with a Koopa shell. The game loses something in single player mode, but that's to be expected when 'Party' is in a game title - get some friends around and this is a game you won't be bored with.