The Mario Party series has never aspired to be much more than a colorful delivery system for fun four-player minigames, and Super Mario Party at least succeeds in freeing its enjoyable content from its clunky, board-game framework. Unless you’re dead set on beating the game’s threadbare story, you can quickly unlock and skip to other modes, like Sound Stage, which is all rhythm games all the time, and River Survival, which swaps out the passive traversal of a flat board in favor of active navigation down the forking paths of whitewater rapids. There’s even a solo mode, Challenge Road, that requires players to break specific scores on all 80 minigames, and the option to play a few select games for worldwide bragging rights in an online Mariothon.
The classic Mario Party mode in which you roll dice and move around a board, avoiding obstacles and collecting coins while attempting to purchase stars—consider them victory points—is still present, albeit with the fewest number of boards in the series’s history. Likewise, there’s a Partner Party mode that, in a nod to Mario Party: Star Rush, offers remixed, cooperative versions of each level. Both are the weakest parts of Super Mario Party, since they’re poorly designed and fail to scale to the length of a match. A short 10-turn game will likely fail to trigger the explosive mechanic at the heart of King Bobomb’s Powderkeg Mine, whereas a long 20-turn game on Megafruit Island will leave players frustratingly stranded after a giant blooper wakes up to terrorize a vital bridge crossing. You’d think the 15-turn option might strike a happy medium, but even there, far too much of the game is left up to dumb luck, which is a stark contrast from the minigames played at the end of each round.
Whereas the board game seems to be constantly wrestling control away from players, the minigames—with the exception of “Don’t Wake Wiggler,” about which the less said the better—are satisfyingly precise. Each player gets half a JoyCon, each of which turns out to have an equally calibrated rumble function and gyroscopic control. A practice screen appears before each game, ensuring that matches are based on skill as opposed to a lack of input familiarity.
These minigames are balanced and relevant in a way that the old-school boards are not, something that’s true even for the 1v3 games, which evenly spread out the handicaps. “Sign, Steal, Deliver,” for example, gives the solo player a drone that can fly directly to packages but can only carry one at a time, whereas the other three players, who must maneuver their characters up and down stairs without blocking one another, can carry two at a time. Even games that recycle mechanics familiar to longtime fans at least do so with panache, like “Slaparazzi,” where players slap each other around in an attempt to be at the center of each photo. There’s no doubt that Super Mario Party is at its best with a couchful of friends, but even 2v2 matches in which you have to play with the computer AI are passably done.
Throughout Super Mario Party, the developers show a responsiveness to critiques of previous entries, as they’ve cast off the reviled communal car mechanic from Mario Party 9 and 10, allowing players to once again split up and follow their own paths through each board. They’ve even attempted to add some strategy into random rolling, in that players can choose between a standard six-sided die and a character-specific die, like Daisy’s, which can only roll threes and fours, or Wario’s, which will either cost you two coins or move you six spaces. (The downside, of course, is that you may be handicapping yourself from the start if you choose someone like Yoshi for his aesthetic alone.) Sadly, the game also retains many unfortunate series staples, like bonus stars, which are randomly assigned after your last turn. Each successive entry in the series has added more potential categories for this last-minute award, and with only two or three randomly chosen from a pool that includes sets of polar opposites (like moving the most spaces, or the fewest), you just have to blindly hope you’re rewarded for whatever you’ve already accidentally—as opposed to strategically—done.
Super Mario Party has enough rough and baffling components such that the “Super” tucked into the title feels a bit undeserved, but it shows a developer operating with the best of intentions, attempting to offer up a party for every sort of player. That, as it turns out, is something worth celebrating, and there’s no shortage of good games to celebrate with here.