Super Mario Party, the 11th entry in the Mario Party series, is a tech showcase for the Nintendo Switch console and a go-anywhere-with-anyone experience befitting of the Nintendo brand itself.
The initial reveal to the public sounded too good to be true: 80 new minigames, local and online multiplayer, a weaving of innovative Joy-Con and motion controls in competitive and cooperative formats and some of the most iconic faces in gaming history. It all adds up to a complete overhaul of the series.
Yet this is Nintendo we're talking about, and it wasn't going to let a game featuring the red-hatted plumber fall short, no matter how ambitious the promises.
Gameplay and Presentation
Longtime fans know what to expect here.
SMP is a superb-looking game, if not flawless. The Switch isn't being asked to do anything too intensive given the subject matter, but the characters pop off the screen in perhaps the best way they have ever looked, and the vibrant colors of various stages set the mood well—and that mood is sheer joy.
It's a delight to simply sit back and watch what SMP has planned for players. Players will go from handling the Joy-Con horizontally one moment while steering penguins into a container to being asked to hold it vertically and use the motion controls to partake in some good old-fashioned baseball.
This all works like a charm with nothing noticeable in the way of load times. Those motion controls aren't the gimmicky stuff companies tried to cobble together back in the day when the Wii started taking the world by storm. These are fun, responsive controls with little in the way of complaints or mistakes.
Nothing is lost in the form of graphical fidelity or overall enjoyability when switching from big-screen mode to the console's smaller screen, either. And as we'll really dive into later, using the screen in Toad's Rec Room in different ways is not only a display of technical mastery that should have the competition gnawing on its fingernails, but it's also perhaps some of the most innovative work we've seen in the games industry to date.
The sheer wonder of some of the title's technical marvels helps massage a slight issue—the game isn't 100 percent mobile. It can't be played in handheld mode due to the consistent implementation of motion controls, which would make for some awkward moments on a morning commute while a player tries to balance a Joy-Con and the screen itself, for example.
The presentation before each minigame is off the charts. There is a persistent bubble guide showing players which orientation the Joy-Con should be in for the given minigame. And each of the 80 starts with a story-esque intro setting up the events before starting the countdown.
Fans knew going into this release SMP would look great and play well. This is one of the best-looking games in the Mario universe to date featuring all the expected names and with Toad acting as host. That it doesn't settle for the tried-and-true formula is what makes SMP truly special.
Even the ever-popular Party Mode wasn't impervious to at least one big change.
Veteran Mario Party players know the deal. Four players take to a board, roll the dice and see their favorite characters subjected to all sorts of surprises with a Mario-themed twist in the pursuit of stars. Like its predecessors, SMP is cute at face value, but the underlying strategy is surprisingly deep.
The maps vary in setting and are unforgettable with their own gameplay quirks. One features a tunnel system and dangerous bridges in a Super Mario Sunshine-inspired setting, where the vendor to purchase stars from rotates every time. Another calls upon a lesser-known character for a big role and is much smaller, but memorable all the same, and while the stars don't move, the coin values needed to purchase them differs dramatically by turn.
The surprising amount of depth in the game's marquee mode includes unique character dice, which is a new addition to the series. One character's dice might feature the standard roll chances, whereas another character might be able to roll four ones, but also three much bigger numbers as well. It's a refreshing wrinkle, especially when a player manages to acquire an ally in the middle of a game, which gives access to that character's unique set of dice as well.
It sounds like a small addition, but add in board stipulations and quirks unique to each one, as well as the implementation of 80 minigames and end-game bonuses, and this is a mode fans might have constructed in their minds as a wishlist of sorts—but it is here now and very much real.
As an aside, it's disappointing Party Mode can't be taken online. Reasons likely abound (the minimum game time is 60 minutes, which could be a problem), but the omission sticks out. There is so much to do in the game and the online mode lends to help forget this at times, but it feels like a dropped ball on an otherwise superb offering.
Toad's Rec Room, River Survival and More
Party Mode feels like a small part of SMP, which is probably the intent given the wealth of superb game modes flanking it.
In River Survival, up to four players will partake in a fun co-op event. It boils down simply enough: players hop in a raft and must use synchronized paddling to navigate the rough waters, adversaries and jumps. Balloons along the way offer entry to minigames that will add seconds back on to the countdown timer. It's an enjoyable, creative way to round up the game's best co-op minigames and give them an interesting narrative.
It's a similar story for Sound Stage. Four players take the stage for dramatic effect and roll through some rhythm-based minigames. These are loads of fun, featuring a faster pace than the typical minigame, and include objectives like horse racing (aptly called "Fiddler on the Hoof") or Fruit Ninja-ing lobbed fruit with a spear to a beat.
Online Mariothon is the series finally stepping into the online realm, and it features some of the expected functionality like leaderboards and rankings. But otherwise, it is basic, throwing players into a randomized five minigames and having them compete for the highest score.
Last but far, far from least is Toad's Rec Room, where the Switch really gets to flex its muscles. There, Toad's offering of games makes dynamic use of the Switch's screen.
Throwing a party? Putting the Switch screen down in the middle of a table or kicking it up on the stand will let everyone see how the batter is performing in the baseball minigame.
Or bring another Switch into the equation, link them up seamlessly and have one screen display the batter's view and the other the pitcher's perspective. Or in a tank-battle game mode called Shell Shocked Deluxe, connect two prone systems and watch as one player's tank can simply drive from one Switch screen to the next in pursuit of the other character. There's no loading times, specific angles to connect the screens or physical latches, just a flawless interface and a serious peek of what might be to come for the system.
The party is all here, too. Typical staples like Luigi, Wario and Yoshi make the cut, but so do some fun new ones like Bowser Jr., giving players a cast of characters well representing the universe itself. Players will have complaints about omissions, undoubtedly, but the cast certainly isn't one of the game's weaknesses.
Overall, there are some interesting ways to tear through the title's 80 minigames. Players can simply free play or take part in a local Mariothon, choosing five minigames and competing for the highest score. Square Off is fun as well, which is a territory-grabbing war fought through the results of minigames.
Minigames come in the form of free for all, one versus three, two versus two, team, co-op and rhythm, with highlights sticking out among each.
From trying to brown a steak the fastest in a free for all (Sizzling Stakes) to a one-on-three tennis match featuring bombs and the solo player with a gigantic racket (What a Racket), the goofy, well-presented minigames are a blast, and there isn't one that comes up in the rotation that should have players disappointed, which is a testament to the thought put into each.
SMP wouldn't come to mind as an esports candidate right away.
After all, the game lends itself to chaos and wacky developments sometimes out of a player's control in a cartoonish environment. It has some of the most popular characters in the world, but a Mario game would look pretty silly in the booth next to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
But if Super Smash Bros can do it, why not SMP?
Smash shares many of the same qualities as SMP and is doing just fine in all formats. Here, would-be tournament organizers or streamers can hop into a free mode and choose from the 80 minigames, structure them as necessary and run through them as many times as needed.
Among those 80, reaction and skill-based options for a competitive slant exist. Gridiron Gauntlet is a football-themed reaction-speed test. What A Racket is goofy but not without its merits here. Many of the two-on-two modes would work (Pie Hard is dodgeball) and tucked into the "team minigames" umbrella is something like Just For Kicks, a straight-up soccer game. Throw in all the rhythm games and there is a nice test of skill.
Tempo, however, could be a problem. Remember the aforementioned minigame intros? Those are skippable, but it could get tiresome to see the same thing and the delays associated with it every time. It's a small issue, to be fair, but worth considering in the discussion.
And really, an esports game featuring a Mario cast is going to reel in a range of players, not just the quick-twitch skill crowd. Embracing the goofy side while featuring plenty of serious prizes in various formats would help the game carve out a niche.
SMP hasn't settled with simply reinventing the series on a strong standing. Instead, it has perfected the party-environment game, dipped its toes into the online realm and offered glimpses of the future for the Switch console.
The traditional Mario Party experience is here, too. It's incredible, really, that this is a game playable by children but also has a competitive side perhaps more so than any game in the storied series' history thanks to the additions of character dice and the ability to roll out certain minigame playlists.
SMP isn't without its problems. No Party Mode online is a tough pill to swallow, as is a limited number of actual boards. The game could move at a much quicker pace but opts for a deliberate, watch-every-move-closely approach, which is an admittedly eye-of-the-beholder topic.
Simplistic and deep, flashy and detailed, SMP is much more than top-tier Mario fanservice and another conservative entry into a tried-and-true series. This takes bold steps while offering 80 memorable experiences packaged as one and digestible by all while accomplishing some technical feats that can lead by example as other games follow SMP's lead.