After nearly five years since Mario's last party, it may have started to look like the portly plumber was all partied out. With a new developer and a new direction, Mario Party 9 brings the series back in a big way. Even with a multitude of party games available on the Wii, Mario Party 9 still stands out for numerous reasons, though it's also bogged down by an abundantly luck-based system.
For the uninitiated, Mario Party is best described as a video board game, though it offers more than your standard board game. Players take turns hitting a dice block to move around a board, where various outcomes and events may take place depending on which spaces the players land. Minigames are a common occurrence throughout the game, which come in a variety of types. The goal of the game is to collect the most stars through any means necessary. That's the gist of Mario Party, but this ninth entry offers some spins to the tired formula to shake things up.
The biggest changes have to do with the board setup. Instead of every player traveling on their own around the board, everyone rides together in a vehicle, each taking a turn as the “Captain.” Whoever is the Captain when the car lands on a space is the one affected by whatever occurrence takes place. The boards are mostly linear, with the car traveling from one end of the board to the other, with a couple small branching paths along the way. Games are no longer measured in a number of turns, but rather, a game ends when the car reaches the end of the board.
The dice block can now roll 1-6, which makes more sense than the 1-10 range of previous games, because it has six sides. However, there is no longer any trick in hitting the dice block to try for certain numbers, and the number rolled is entirely random. Items come in the form of special dice blocks, which include the 0-1 block that can help avoid upcoming dangers, and the old 1-10 block that can help gain more ground. There are five different special dice in all, and one can be picked up when landing on a Dice Block space.
This time around, the goal of the game is to collect the most Mini Stars, which replace the coins and stars of previous games. Many Mini Stars are scattered around the board, and whoever is the Captain when the car drives through a batch of Mini Stars will pick them up. They can also be earned from numerous spaces on the boards, such as Lucky spaces that will feature a quick event to gain a few stars, or larger Captain events where everyone gets a chance at them but the Captain controls the outcome. These events can provide some entertainment, if players choose to badger the Captain player about what choices to make.
In addition to Mini Stars, there are also what are called Mini Ztars on the board. Like Mini Stars, these can be found scattered around the boards, but picking these up will decrease the number of Mini Stars held by the Captain. As another opposite, there are Unlucky spaces on the board where the player can lose a number of Mini Stars. The biggest loss of stars will come from Bowser spaces. Landing on one of these will bring up Bowser's roulette, which contains four undesirable outcomes. The possibilities range from giving stars to last place to the player losing half their stars, but they all center around at least one player losing stars.
Mini Stars are also awarded for winning minigames, which also work a little differently. Minigames no longer happen after each player takes one turn, and are most often triggered when a player lands on a minigame space. They can also come out of the surprise boxes that appear on Dice Block spaces, and may occur from a couple other event spaces. Mini Stars aren't just handed out to the player who wins a minigame; every participant gains some stars, with the amount depending on where they placed. Because of this, the player who placed first doesn't gain an amount significant enough to create much of a lead.
Each board features two boss battles, one at the end, and one somewhere in the middle, which are essentially longer minigames than usual and also have larger payouts of Mini Stars. These minigames involve the players all attacking the boss in some such way in order to deplete its health bar, scoring points by causing damage. When a boss's health is halfway down, it will grow angry and begin moving faster, as well as act more aggressively. Players will lose points if they are hit with an attack, and some bonus points are awarded to whichever player lands the finishing blow. At the results screen, whichever player was Captain when arriving at the boss space will earn a few extra stars.
The Mini Star system is unfortunately where the game begins to fall apart. In most cases, gaining and losing Mini Stars is a matter of nothing but luck. Mario Party games have always had some element of luck, but it never felt excessive; this game brings it to the point of absurdity. Lots of the stars gathered in a game will come from the boards and its event spaces, which leaves them up to the roll of the dice block. In addition, there are a lot of ways to lose stars or hand them over to other players, especially during the final moments of the game. Once the car reaches the final stretch, an angry Bowser will show up and toss 3-7 Bowser spaces along the remaining path. It now becomes extremely likely for at least one player to lose a significant portion of their stars. Not only that, but some boards have hazards that will cause the Captain to lose half of their stars, such as the Boo on Boo's board that will chase after the car, moving 3 spaces every turn. This can make everything before the endgame feel pointless, so it definitely helps to have players who will laugh at the insanity.
The minigames themselves vary in quality, but most can provide entertainment and laughter. As some examples, in one minigame resembling New Super Mario Brothers Wii, players must jump across spinning and falling platforms to reach the goal first. In another, a horde of Goombas is seen running across the screen, and players must count how many there are; it's devious fun to yell out random numbers in the hopes of breaking the concentration of the other players. There are a few other minigames that could spark outside player interaction, such as one where players must make their character look in the opposite direction of on-screen arrows, another case where yelling out directions can distract people. There are 80 minigames in all, which is a good number that will take many games before all of them have appeared.
The boss battles are some of the best minigames available, as everyone fighting a boss but also trying for the best score creates an interesting dynamic. Some of these are pretty straight-forward, like the battle with a giant Wiggler where every player frantically ground-pounds its back to cause damage. Others require a bit more strategy, such as the fight with the King Bob-omb. In this battle, players choose one of four bombs, each one of varying size and point value, and if two or more players pick the same bomb, their characters will stumble over each other and no one gets to use the bomb. Sure, players could coordinate by agreeing to use different bombs... or it could be a trick to go after the big points. It would have made for a little more intensity if the battles lasted just a little longer, but as they stand, they're one of the highlights of the game and a great way to end each board.
The basic Party mode will be the bulk of most players' time, but there are a few other modes on offer. Those who grow tired of the boards can play the Minigames mode, where they can freely pick to play any and all available mingames. There are also a few game setups to play through a series of minigames. For the single player, there is a Solo mode, which is a series of six games, one on each board. Given the luck-based system, this mode is mostly a chore, and it is unfortunately required to unlock the two secret playable characters. There is also a Time Attack mode, where ten minigames must be completed as quickly as possible, and a Perspective mode, featuring ten minigames played from a zoomed-in view that increases their difficulty. These modes are actually surprisingly enjoyable, and left me wanting more than ten minigames.
Previous games in the series have always lacked in the presentation department, but Mario Party 9 sheds the cheapness for a clean look on par with recent Mario platformers. There's a board with the grassland hills of New Super Mario Brothers, and a space level reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy. The animation of the characters is mostly smooth, and there are no drops in framerate to be found. The glossiness is a little overdone, as it makes some of the characters look a bit like plastic figurines. Classic Mario sound effects abound, especially in the minigames, and the music provides upbeat tunes for the more fast-paced minigames and more mellow melodies for the slower ones.
Even with its abundance of luck, Mario Party 9 still has the makings to be an enjoyable party game with the right crowd. The key here is the “right crowd,” as anyone who wants to play competitively will likely find themselves frustrated from the experience. It also has nothing to offer the single player, not that Mario Party ever did. In the end, it's a mostly welcome change to the series, and I, personally, can't wait to see where it goes from here.