Perhaps indicative of its stature in the grand scheme of things, Mario Party: Star Rush was initially revealed by a throwaway line in a press release at the end of E3 2016's first day. A series more readily associated with home consoles, Star Rush is the second entry in the IP to arrive on 3DS. That may suggest it's a quick cash-in sequel, but it actually feels rather like a test for the more free-wheeling and competitive aspects of the series that have been somewhat lost in recent times, even if the usual last chance bonuses ensure that no-one's ever truly out of the game.
The key change in Star Rush, across all of its varied modes, is that you're no longer sharing a vehicle or moves with your rivals; that alone will likely get fist pumps from followers of the series. There's now freedom and strategy in independent movement, while a common approach across the modes is that players are constantly participating. Dice rolls and movement happen for everyone at the same time, so there's no more waiting around twiddling thumbs. Right from the off, then, it's evident that consistent complaints from fans have been heeded.
Before we get into a breakdown of the modes, there's another key feature that is worth highlighting. While all modes can be played solo and against CPU opponents, Nintendo has acted to ensure that the portable aspect of the release doesn't necessarily hinder local multiplayer, which is vital for any Mario Party game. A 'Guest' download will be free on the eShop and is essentially the whole game minus the vast bulk of single player content. As long as one player owns a full copy and hosts a room, three other 3DS owners can jump in with the free Guest download and have immediate access to the multiplayer experience in that session.
This is a key feature - and deceptively simple in its implementation - and it minimises a common issue with portable Mario Party games: namely that it's less intuitive to play with others, which is the most fun way to experience these games. While it doesn't replace the shared madness of TV play, nudging and smack-talking friends that are on their own 3DS is still a lot of fun. Performance is flawless using the Guest downloads too, with no lag in our tests, even to the point that the music between units was perfectly synchronised. Oddly there's still a Download Play option, which will have the usual load times and limitations, but the Guest download ensures that families or groups of friends with four 2DS / 3DS units handy will only need one copy of the game to get stuck into the multiplayer modes.
Mario Party lives or dies by its modes and minigames, of course, and overall the mix is a decent one. There are some enjoyable highlights, some decent alternatives and one or two outright duds; overall the positive inclusions outweigh the weak points. Let's break them down.
The most publicised mode is Toad Scramble, though thankfully it's the only one with a limited cast. It's an interesting setup, as you gradually unlock a range of diverse maps which require a bit of strategic movement in addition to the usual minigame mastery. Starting off with your Toad, the key objectives (beyond the usual item blocks and distractions) are to grab AI allies as they appear (in the form of other members of the cast) and make it first to Boss encounters. It's in coming out on top in the Boss minigames that the Stars - the key currency for victory - are won, so having a few allies helping you out not only adds to the zany action but boosts your chances in a big way.
We rather like this mode, especially in later maps where the environments get trickier to navigate. When playing solo you can even scan in a compatible amiibo right off the bat, giving you an extra character in your team and a special item. Don't feel guilty about using this, either, as setting CPU opponents to 'Very Hard' (with 'Normal' and 'Hard' being other options) actually throws up a tough challenge. We're not convinced the 'Luigi doing nothing' meme will work in this one.
Toad Scramble is fun, in the end, and that's fortunate as it's the first mode unlocked. Your copy of the game essentially has a profile and 'Party Level', with activities and successes building up XP to level up. A number of modes and characters are unlocked this way, but it's nothing to fret over - we found that unlocks came along relatively quickly, so it won't be long before you've accessed all of the content on offer.
Next up is Coinathlon, which is our favourite mode for dip-in solo play. Each round has you racing around a simple board by collecting lots of coins across three minigames. This mode has its own batch of coin-centric games, and though the 'campaign' necessitates clearing a lot of rounds you can save progress and return any time. A typical round, depending on the number of laps, should last between 3-8 minutes, ideal for quick portable play.
Though you'll get overfamiliar with the limited number of minigames in this mode, they're some of the stronger examples in the game and the heat of the battle is rather addictive. Dishing out and being on the receiving end of disruptive items adds to the tension, and in some rounds there are even Bowser interventions (an idea partially borrowed from Mario Party 10) where the participants scramble for survival. This mode is certainly a standout, especially for short single player sessions.
Balloon Bash returns to more standard Mario Party fare, and is also the best mode for playing the broadest variety of minigames. A few different boards are available and the formula's simple - pop balloons, win coins, fight it out in minigames and try to trade those coins for Stars. Though the maps are small, encouraging players to crossover and occasionally have brief 'duels' on the same square, this feels closest to Mario Party of old, albeit with that benefit of everyone rolling the dice and moving at the same time.
As already mentioned, this is a great way to experience (and unlock) the broadest range of minigames. In multiplayer we found that longer sessions (of 20 or 30 turns) dragged on a little, but you can easily switch to a 10 turn round if you wish. It's a toss-up between this and Toad Scramble in terms of the best multiplayer mode in the game, though those that want quicker minigame action will likely lean towards Balloon Bash.
Next we have a bit of a dud in Rhythm Recital. The idea is that you play through iconic Super Mario tracks as part of a mini orchestra with other players. The arrangements are peculiar, however, as your parts don't reflect the core track but add misplaced extra lines. It's a simple tap-based rhythm minigame, but aside from the pleasure of listening to the tracks this one falls flat. If the player's actions better reflected and contributed to the music we'd be more generous about this mode, but as it stands it feels like a throwaway and sloppy inclusion.
Mario Shuffle, similarly, feels like an odd misstep. Two teams of three characters aim to move across to the rival's side in a straight line, taking advantage of or avoiding squares that have basic effects (+ and - moves, basically). It's a simple dice throwing game, primarily driven by luck with a smidgen of tactics also involved. You can scan an amiibo in for a little advantage, but overall this seems like a poorly thought-out mode, lacking creativity and spark. It's possibly the weakest inclusion in the game.
Boo's Block Party, thankfully, brings us back to more positive territory. Essentially a 1 vs. 1 match-3 game, the twist is that you're trying to match numbers on blocks. These blocks are numbered from one to four, so you need to rapidly rotate them to complete matches and stop columns piling up to the top of the screen. It's a simple idea, but these sorts of games are popular for a reason - ideal for quick, intense matches.
Finally we have Challenge Tower, which is effectively a vertical Minesweeper. You climb one level at a time, and blocks you land on light up in different ways to indicate that all surrounding blocks are clear, or to indicate one, two or three surrounding blocks are dangerous and can halt your progress. A bit of brainpower is needed, and you can 'mark' blocks you deduce are actually traps. There are a few difficulty settings, and this offers a welcome change of pace along with a simple mental workout.
Beyond that there's a Minigames area where you can pick or randomly play a mix of the games you've unlocked and accessed so far. The minigames are split into distinct types, reflecting how they split up between the different modes, and our overall opinion is that it's a solid if unexceptional batch. Most are skill-based, with occasional luck-driven examples, and there's plenty of charm along with a mix of physical button and stylus-based challenges. These certainly aren't the best that Nintendo's produced, but the overall collection of minigames is generally effective and enjoyable.
All told that's a decent amount of content, and a couple of duds are easily overlooked in favour of the meaty main modes and a couple of enjoyable shorter games. We've found enjoyment in Coinathlon and occasionally longer modes when playing solo, but the big selling point is to be found in local multiplayer. We've happily lost some time at home and on a car journey when playing with others, which for this 30-something has been a strange blast from the past. As you'd expect, too, it's a game designed to make you smile. Cute animations, light-hearted music and surprisingly clean visuals - combined with a nice use of the 3D effect - help this one to entertain and charm in equal measure.
Mario Party: Star Rush achieves its goals. It's entertaining, charming and offers some easy-going minigame fun. The main modes have a nice variety and sense of purpose, and aside from two duds the overall offering includes a mix of longer-form and quickfire gameplay options. The free 'Guest' download is a brilliant touch for quick and easy local multiplayer with only one full copy on hand, and even though the minigame collection isn't Nintendo's finest we've enjoyed some light-hearted - and occasionally feisty - games with family and friends.
Mario Party: Star Rush may not excel in many ways, but it addresses some complaints from past entries and delivers some harmless entertainment. We're not sure you should rush out to buy it, but it still shows that Mario and company can be stars of a party.