For years now fans of the Mario Party series have been pleading with Nintendo to just go back to the roots of what made the series great; no cars, no bizarre new modes, not just a collection of minigames that when presented in a vacuum lose all context or purpose — just Mario characters running around a board grabbing stars and destroying friendships. Super Mario Party definitely took that feedback to heart, but only a handful of playable boards and limitations in other areas definitely left some die-hard classic fans wanting.

In that spirit, Mario Party Superstars seems to be Nintendo at last saying ‘fine, here’s your stinking old Mario Party’. The whole game from top to bottom is 100% old-school with all the warts included, besides the visuals of course. You’ve got two major modes to contend with if the idea of the options menu doesn’t get your motor running, namely Mario Party (!) and Mount Minigames. The latter is a method of simply playing any and all of the minigames on offer in one way or another with nothing more than a score counter keeping track of who won how many games.

This has always (aside from Mario Party: the Top 100) been the secondary focus of any game in the series — a means to have a quick dip in a specific minigame or just to have something to do with friends, and sometimes even a way for solo players to fun in a fashion that isn’t just replacing your friends with cold-hearted CPUs. This time around it’s a pretty basic no-frills affair. There are a few different ways you can delve into these with challenges and various themed ways to see who's the best, but they're all much for much.

But as the old saying goes, the real meat can be found in 'Mario Party', a mode which lets you play Mario Party in Mario Party Superstars. Tumble down a surprisingly long pipe in a clear nod to the original game that got the whole party started until you reach the board below. During said tumbling you’ll need to choose a character for each of the four players, with CPUs filling any slots not occupied by the meat machines you’ve selected to end your friendships with.

There’s also a somewhat pleasing number of options to tweak a game’s specifications, such as changing what kind of Bonus Stars will turn the tide at the end of the game — which is complete nonsense because I got the most number of coins and that’s way more important than landing on Event Spaces — plus how many turns the game will last (up to 30), whether minigames should tell you what you need to do, and whether anyone should start the game with a Star handicap. It’s not a list of options that will set the world on fire, but it’s a decent enough offering that you’ll be able to happily adjust to suit your party needs.

But then we run into the most important decision, and that’s which board to play on. At launch there are five boards available (but recent developments suggest there could be even more to come). Mario Party is represented by Yoshi’s Tropical Island and Peach’s Birthday Cake, Mario Party 2 boasts Space Land and Horror Land, and lastly Mario Party 3 has Woody Woods. The last three we mentioned are all pretty damned excellent, with a range of branching paths and fun event spaces that can be used to completely ruin any and all relationships you may have. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the other two.

Yoshi’s Tropical island is fine. It has a few branching paths and the Star can be in one of two places, but it’s a bit simplistic in truth. Peach’s Birthday Cake on the other hand is a truly bizarre inclusion. In essence it’s a loop with an unmovable Star, so you’re doing nothing but trying to roll high enough to get around the board as quickly as possible. There is a secondary loop that takes you to a more dangerous area with Bowser in it, and going this way will allow you to loop round more quickly to potentially grab another Star, but our time with it was actively dull, and we just wish we’d played another board.

One thing we could’ve done, but didn’t do because reviewing games requires you to not overlook something just because it’s boring, is quit and come back to that particular game later. We knew this was an option and at first assumed it was a single option of either resuming an old party or starting afresh and forgetting that game in Space Land where you rolled a five when you’d just used a Triple Dice item ever happened. Not so, as it goes — the game will save up to ten active games at once, which is a huge deal if you’re hankering for a 30-turn game but have an urgent breakfast meeting that you simply can’t miss.

On the flip side, if you’re playing a shorter game and your croissant and coffee liaison is cancelled, you can even add turns to extend the game beyond its original lifespan up to the maximum of 30 turns. Nice!

And games won’t even take as long as you might think, as player movement is far faster than it has been in the past, particularly for CPUs. Turning the text speed to ‘fast’ can actually result in you missing what a computer-controlled player achieved in their turn if you get distracted for a brief moment, and it’s bliss. The last thing anyone wants to do is to hang around waiting for the seat-warmer Luigi to be faffing around trying to work through which item he wants to buy with his AI monkey mind, and Nintendo have made certain that it’s as painless as possible.

The minigame selection is also top-drawer. Classics from all the way up to Mario Party 10 are included, and whilst there are one or two that don’t quite hit the mark for us, a vast majority are absolutely superb. You can even choose to limit what minigames you’ll encounter when you’re doing that pipe-falling charade we mentioned above, so if you only want to play minigames from the N64, you can do just that. You can even narrow it down to GameCube minigames, or ones that require skill, ones that are more suitable for families. It’s hard to argue all that much.

Despite all this, it does feel as though there’s been a missed opportunity to inject something new or even just relatively modern into the formula. We’re not talking competition-negating cars or suggestively motion-controlled minigames, but everything mechanical about this new entry is old. No personalised dice for each character like Super Mario Party, no Ally Phones, no new minigames at all. It doesn’t so much feel like a step back as it does a lack of confidence in anything that might mess with the classic formula. Don’t get us wrong, old Mario Party is good Mario Party, but such a stark reversal from forcing unwanted new mechanics onto players to a complete absence of any new ideas whatsoever – even as options that could be turned off – it's slightly disappointing.

But when it all comes down to it, Mario Party Superstars is just fun. There’s a good reason people have been crying out for a return to the old ways, and even though it may be a little too safe in our opinion, we have exactly that return right here. We couldn’t tell you the last time we had this much fun with a Mario Party game, and even if the board offerings are a little bit limited, a 30-turn jaunt around Horror Land is hard to top, and that’s even if Birdo is a cheating cheater and couldn’t possibly have got that many Stars through legitimate means.

And the best part of all this is that it can all be done online with friends, or even strangers. Be it Mount Minigames' daily challenge or the much more appealing prospect of Mario Party, it works almost as well online as it does as a technological hermit. The only caveat is that the games tend to take just a hair longer as other players examine the map, spend time deciding which item to purchase from the shop, and a bit of a delay between multiple dice rolls. It's super minor and doesn't skip a beat when it comes to the minigames, which is the most important thing. It may be a long overdue feature, but this time they're got it right for launch.

On the presentation side of things, Mario Party Superstars is an absolute belter. The main menu is one of many callbacks to the first game in the series, the classic board music has been re-recorded to be much more modern on the ears (although you can choose to listen to the classic N64 tracks instead if you wish), and every character and environment is just gorgeous. Even the minigames that load nigh-on instantaneously boast some jaw-dropping vistas used as nothing but a backdrop. Sometimes the lighting does give some objects a slightly plastic-y look about them, but most of the time everything looks just as you'd expect and about twice as pretty.

Animations are also super-appealing, such as DK clasping his hands together above his bowed head as he prays he hasn't pressed the lever that will make the bomb shaped like Bowser's head explode, or Waluigi tossing his signature rose in the air and catching it in his mouth, or DK giving himself a weighty applause whenever he wins a minigame, or DK subtly scratching his head with one finger as he tries to decide which item to use. It's all about DK, baby.

And to top it off it's all happening at a super-solid 60fps. Every roll of the die, every minigame, every real-world pummelling on the person who just activated Bowser Revolution with three coins whilst two spaces away from a Boo and now has enough to steal the Star you just got — it never drops a frame.

Conclusion

Mario Party Superstars is a love letter to the parties you remember attending 20 years ago. A disappointingly slim selection of boards takes the shine off things somewhat, but it’s hard to argue that this is the best Mario Party has been in over a decade. No new ideas absolutely feels like a missed opportunity, but by the same token we’d much prefer to have all these classic ideas intact rather than potentially tainting them with unwanted and unnecessary inclusions only added for the sake of being new. Grab a can of Tango and a fistful of 10p Freddos — you’re going to party like it’s 1999.