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Mario Party is, without a doubt, one of Nintendo’s most infamous franchises. A staple of its consoles since the Nintendo 64, Mario Party and its often unpredictable mechanics have supposedly endangered so many friendships that it’s become a meme.
A digital board game featuring a swath of gaming’s most recognizable characters should be an appealing concept. But after 10 installments, the novelty had worn off: Players developed expectations about the quality of mini games and various modes, and the game stagnated after Nintendo’s experiments into the non-traditional—a focus on motion controls, Amiibo, and the Wii U’s uncomfortable tablet controller—all got in the way of the quick and easy multiplayer chaos that drew people in.
Thankfully, Super Mario Party lands with all the right intentions. Reflecting Nintendo’s larger mentality in the Switch era, this entry cuts a lot of fat and provides a straightforward experience that doesn’t lose any essential DNA.
Out of the gate, the JoyCons make Super Mario Party a two-player experience. The game cannot be played any other way than with a single controller held on its side. This makes single-player a bit uncomfortable, but conversely it makes multiplayer more accessible by not requiring the purchase of additional hardware.
Thinking back to the Nintendo Switch reveal, fans were sold a console that could be played anywhere, anytime, with friends. The portable nature of the system is certainly a selling point—I’d go as far to say I play my Switch undocked 95 percent of the time—but few titles have capitalized on the possibilities of having multiple, modular controllers available.
The core experience of Super Mario Party feels built from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch hardware, and it’s one of the most brilliant showcases for everything the console offers. I’ve never realized before just how many things the JoyCon can do, but Super Mario Party shows them off more organically than ever. Mini games will have you making use of motion controls, various vibrations, sound effects, and unique button prompts. There was never a moment I felt the controls were awkward or obtuse, even after playing through all the game’s offered modes. A lot of the ideas are simple, perhaps to a fault, but I can’t say they don’t work well.
Super Mario Party features a dizzying number of characters and items from the Mushroom Kingdom. On the playable character list alone, you’ll find Monty Mole, a Hammer Bro, and Pom Pom. Certain games star lovingly detailed enemies and allies from Mario’s history. There’s a level of visual detail consistent across the entire experience, but it also helps make no two rounds feel the same. Each character is able to spin a unique die while traversing the board, with genuinely wide-ranging effects. Some characters like Rosalina can earn coins at the cost of no movement, while others risk losing coins for high-powered rolls.
For many, the main draw of the game is the traditional four-player board setup. It may be disappointing to learn there are only four such maps in Super Mario Party, but they each offer a broad set of traps and hazards that can lead to wildly different strategies depending on the player. Right away, your travels will take you through a set of ancient ruins, a booby-trapped volcano, and a network of tropical islands. Clearing the first three grants access to an ornate castle, with supernatural distractions and spaces that change often.
These maps can also be toured in the new Partner Party mode, a two-on-two team matchup that offers new layers of strategy. Players share a pooled dice roll, but can still add on unique bonuses. The mini games here require team cooperation and communication, meaning solo players are out of luck.
My favorite addition in Super Mario Party is River Survival. This four-player co-op mode is the best realization of a bad idea, where previous titles in the franchise had all the characters move together at once. Players occupy one raft here, paddling their way down an increasingly challenging obstacle course. Games and items can add time onto the course, and with several branching paths, replayability is high.
With more than 80 mini games, one might expect it to take a long time to see everything in Super Mario Party. However, the repetitive nature of the game becomes obvious rather quickly. Even random elements, like hidden blocks and bonus stars, become easy to predict after a few hours. A match can last anywhere between one to two hours, and as you have to sit through each player’s turn, you can feel the game drag on.
But Mario Party fans should know almost exactly what they’re signing up for. This is certainly the best entry in years, and makes great use of the Nintendo Switch hardware. Other new features, like the ability to play with multiple screens, amount to a fun distraction that’s worth experimenting with once or twice. The series’ first online mode is likewise a massive disappointment, offering only a small rotating selection of mini games.
If you have a Nintendo Switch, or some friends with their own systems, Super Mario Party can be a good time. The amount of content and challenges to unlock keeps the game fresh for more than a few hours. This isn’t the most expansive or intense game you can play on the Switch, but brings great local multiplayer features and enough innovative mechanics to justify the price of admission.
This review was written based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher. Super Mario Party is available now for Nintendo Switch.
AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.