Given the palm-rending popularity of the Mario Party series on Nintendo 64, it was only a matter of time before Nintendo brought the festivities to a handheld venue, and in 2005 Mario Party Advance arrived to fulfil the dreams of on-the-go party people everywhere. Developed by the busy bees at Hudson Soft - best known as the house of Bomberman - this portable entry is a definite departure from the Mario Party line, with a focus on single-player games and much more time spent moving around the board. It's certainly different, but that doesn't mean it's a dud - Mario Party Advance has a feel all its own, and plenty to offer for Party fans.

The festivities for Mario's first portable Party kick off when an excited Toad introduces you to Party World - a floating land of non-stop fun with mini-games galore. Of course, as the weary residents of the Mushroom Kingdom might have predicted, it's not long before Bowser shows up to rain on the Party World parade. With his hefty frame and foot-stamping rage, he scatters the games all over nearby Shroom City, and it's your job to get them back.

In the main single-player adventure mode you'll choose a character - Mario, Peach, Luigi, or Yoshi - and set out to retrieve the lost games and “Gaddgets" - virtual toys built by Luigi's Mansion's Professor E. Gadd - by helping residents of Shroom City with their day-to-day (and often off-the-wall) problems. Instead of the multiple boards of traditional Mario Party titles, Mario Party Advance takes place on a single map of Shroom City, and though each of the characters starts out in a different area, the whole board is linked by paths and pipes.

You'll move your character across the board by rolling mushroom dice, and in addition to plain yellow spaces you'll also run into green spaces which grant extra dice rolls, red spaces which take away a turn, and blue spaces which let you play mini-games for more mushrooms. Mushrooms are the lifeblood of the Mario Party Advance experience - as long as you have a spare 'shroom in reserve, you can move around the non-linear board as you like, but once you've rolled your last one, it's Game Over.

Even with the random dice rolls, there's a bit of strategy involved in choosing just where to go, but most players will wisely try to head straight for the mini-games - the heart of any Mario Party. Mario Party Advance offers up several dozen games, and the variety is impressive - with just a quick glance at the collection you'll find overhead sled racing, arcade volleyball, tile puzzles and plenty of different platforming challenges, among many others. There are some definite standouts - like Koopa Krunch, an engaging mashup of Puyo Puyo and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo that we could happily play for hours - but very few duds; the mini-games are well done, quick-fire fun. The fact that they tend to be focused on score-chasing and tests of skill instead of competition against computer AI makes them a great fit for solo play, too; rather than feeling like pared-down versions of games you'd play with three friends if you could, they're fun for one in their own right.

The only problem with these Shroom City mini-games is that it can sometimes be maddeningly difficult to manage to play them. Mini-game spaces are relatively rare on the board, and we went through more than one round of unlucky rolls where we ran out of mushrooms before landing on a single one. Mushroom Challenges - which pop up to offer you a random mini-game and a chance at more rolls when you're low - certainly help, but the balance still leans more towards the meta-game than mini-games. At times it can feel more like playing parcheesi than the Party experience of the console games in the series.

Of course, that's not a necessarily a bad thing - board games can be fun, and even though there's a huge amount of luck involved Mario Party Advance makes moving around the map worth your while through its Quests alone. These missions are triggered by stopping at certain spots in Shroom City, and involve everything from one-shot mini-games to city-wide treasure hunts that will take you across the board. Mechanically, they're always simple, but they're fun to take on thanks to the sharp, sweetly silly writing that calls to mind the Mario & Luigi RPG series. Whether you find yourself bailing an overdrawn owl out of his debts, helping a lovesick Shy Guy pass on a poem to his bashful beloved, or throwing a swim race to help a struggling Cheep Cheep regain its confidence, the situations and characters are all fun and memorable.

There are 50 quests in all, and each time you complete one you'll be rewarded with either mini-games or Gaddgets to play in Mario Party Advance's other main modes: Challenge Land and Play Land. Challenge Land lets you play mini-games or a special set of chance games to earn coins - which can then be used to purchase more Gaddgets - while Play Land acts as a free-play mode where you can pick up and play any game or Gaddget you like.

The Gaddgets deserve a special mention, too. Bite-sized virtual toys in the style of Game & Wario's Cluck-A-Pop capsules, they run the gamut from love testers and decision makers to jewelry boxes and stargazing sims, and represent Nintendo's quirk at its carefree, creative best. None of them are going to keep you occupied for hours (or even minutes) on their own, but taken as a whole they're a treasure trove of fun and funky ideas - where else could you find a working Morse Code machine, a virtual fan, a bowling game, and a screen-cleaning simulation all in the same place?

Hidden among the odds and ends are also quite a few multiplayer micro-game Gaddgets that were built for up to four players huddled around a single Game Boy Advance - and happily, these work better than ever on the Wii U Gamepad. Each player uses one corner of the GamePad (either 'L', 'R', the D-Pad, or 'A' or 'B') to take control in these one-button multiplayer experiences, like competitive pinball, a chicken race, or a Hungry Hungry Hippos clone. They're simple but lots of fun with friends, and feel like natural forerunners to the GamePad Party games in Wii Party U. We can only imagine the Ouija board-style group negotiation that would have gone into keeping the action in view for all four players on an actual Game Boy Advance, but freed from the backlight-less screen of their original hardware, these Gaddgets really shine.

Unfortunately, these four-player Gaddgets stand out especially in this Virtual Console release not only because they work so well on the GamePad, but also because of the loss of several other multiplayer modes. Mario Party Advance was always primarily a single-player game, but the original release still featured several types of Duel games that could be played over a Link Cable. Sadly, as with all GBA games on the Wii U, these modes are now inaccessible, which is a real shame. There are a few single-system options for pass-and-play parties to make up for it, however: 100 Player Battle picks a random mini-game and let you and up to 99 (!) friends take turns competing for a high score, while 100 Player Attack lets you select a mini-game, set a record, and pass the GamePad down the line until someone beats your score.

In its original release, Mario Party Advance also featured a creative form of single-cart multiplayer with the Bonus Board mode. This was played on an actual paper board and character tiles - included in the game box - with the GBA used to roll dice and play four-player Gaddgets when players would land on certain spaces. Of course, there's no Bonus Board map bundled in with your digital download on the Virtual Console, which makes this another multiplayer mode lost in the transition to Wii U. The game mode itself is still fully functional, however, so interested players who can track down a Bonus Board or craft their own could ostensibly still enjoy a papercraft party.

In terms of presentation, Mario Party Advance embodies the bright, colourful zeitgeist of the Mushroom Kingdom ca. 2005, featuring beautiful pixel art that looks great with the Wii U Virtual Console's screen-smoothing on or off. The music is an upbeat, catchy blend of remixed old favourites and cheery new tunes, and the sound effects are classic Mario. Some fun extras round out the package, like a character guide that has snappy bios not just for Mario and co., but for all the Shroom City residents you'll meet along the way.

Conclusion

Advance is a very different kind of Mario Party, and your expectations going in will have a lot to do with whether you love it or leave early. There's none of the raucous action and mini-game madness of the console games in this portable party, but it offers up its own attractions within the board game frame: charming Quests with great writing, fun, solo-focused mini-games, and a toy box full of wonderfully whimsical Gaddgets to explore. The lack of multiplayer - apart from some four-hands one-GamePad micro-games - is a definite disappointment, and the huge role played by the roll of the dice can be frustrating at times, but if you're up for a less prototypical Party there's plenty to enjoy here.