To be honest, even if there is a huge range of social and party games on offer, most are fairly lacklustre. Moreover, while Nintendo defined the concept of the party game fourteen years ago with the best selling Mario Party series, it seems that they threw the series under the bus when the most appropriate console came around, judging by the disastrous eighth instalment and the focus on the simplistic Wii X series. Now, Nintendo wants to get away from that, show us where good party games are all about and host a party that will appeal to everyone once again. And this is something they succeed with in Mario Party 9.
The previous instalment, really illustrated the problems the series was suffering from: it lacked fluidity, innovation and high production values. These three key points are what Nintendo have focused on this time around. Mario Party 9 takes some notes from Wii Party to provide a faster and more dynamic experience, radically changing the board mechanics and does a better job when it comes to presentation.
Superstars have disappeared from the board, eliminating those dice roll-based races to reach the golden treasure before anyone else. Now, four characters travel the board together in a vehicle (car, robot, carpet). By playing mini-games and board bonus event, they collect mini-stars, and the one with most mini-stars at the end of the road will earn a superstar and win the game.
Some long-time players might feel uncomfortable with this direction, as you are "tied" to your vehicle fellows and unable to walk the board freely. It's easy to understand these complaints and we wouldn't have mind playing the game with the old rule set. However, once you get into the groove of things, the new system feels like a definite improvement.
The best thing about it is that it still has a strategic component, as the ‘captain player' (the one who rolls the dice on his turn) makes decisions for his own benefit, like choosing the route the vehicle will follow, or trying to end up in a specific square, either to get a prize, avoid a hazard or trigger an event. In addition, the captain gets a mini-star bonus at the end of every mini-game.
Add to this the appearance of mid-board and final bosses, definitely a contribution to this release that provides a lot more personality and a better link to the Mario universe. The boss battles are co-operative mini-games that last a bit longer than the average mini-game, with original and fun combat systems. You must fight together to overcome the boss, but the idea is to hit more than the others and deliver the coup de grace (for an extra bonus).
The collection of mini-games foundin Mario Party 9, between boss fights and your typical quick events, are some of the best of the entire series. An impressive feat after nine games and a thousand ideas. Control is more precise than in the eighth entry, and also more accessible to inexperienced or classic players, since it mostly ignores the pointer. Most events are played with the d-pad, buttons, by tilting the Wii Remote or shaking, always with an excellent response. The design is varied and less conservative. Almost all of the 80 mini-games are enjoyable.
As always, skill, strategy, reflexes and a good portion of luck influence these mini-games, a rule which is also true for the action on the board, where the computer sometimes makes unfair changes to add some last minute excitement. Still, it seems a title really balanced in this sense, less random, setting the stage from some bitter rivalry among friends.
Mario Party 9 is also a particularly beautiful game and distinguished from its predecessors. Artistically, the colourful design follows the rules of the Mushroom Kingdom, but strong influence of recent games like Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Land 3D makes the boards look like worlds and mini-games look like levels of those games. Everything is more daring, more natural, finer and softer. There are new camera angles on the board, new animations and many new visual effects as the series finally makes use of the capabilities of the console.
When you finish playing the board and you don't want to play more mini-games, you should give the extra games a try, where Goomba Football is the main star (you will play until dawn, believe us). But as far as extras go we miss two things: some added incentive or motivation to play the game on your own (Online leaderboards? Better unlockable content?) and the game should have paid more tribute to the history of the franchise, perhaps with memories from previous games or some nice easter eggs or references.
Mario Party 9 shows Nintendo's expertise in the genre. It's one of the best party games you can find on the console and one of the best and most imaginative entries in the series. If you need a reason to throw a party, you've just got one. Go buy some drinks and call your friends.