Mario Party 9 is the best Mario Party since the series reached its heights in the early GameCube days (for the record, Mario Party 5 and Mario Party 6 are my favorites). But throughout its many generations, Mario Party has carried a fatal flaw, buried deep in its DNA: In spite of your proficiency at mini-games, or penchant for board game strategy, Mario Party is dictated by the dice roll. Randomness, which Mario Party 9 flaunts with a particularly annoying brand of euphoric abandon, ultimately ruins what could be a very good game.
The goal of Mario Party 9 is to amass stars, which represent a sort of high score tally at the end of each round. You can win dozens of these stars by beating your opponents in mini-games -- which range from Super Mario Bros.-like action, to memorization, to rapid button mashing -- but stars are mostly won by pure luck. And that's how you lose them as well; by landing on the wrong space, or, worse, by someone else landing on the right space. Provided you aren't a small child, a masochist or Buddhist monk, the frustration from being so frequently at the whim of a box with numbers on it will cause your blood to boil.
See, there I go again -- I'm really upset about those stars. So I'm going to take a few deep breaths and tell you about Mario Party 9's improvements. In 2007, Mario Party 8 was part of the first wave of gesture-obsessed Wii games, with each mini-game serving as a tech demo for what the Wii Remote turned out not to be very good at. Mario Party 9's mini-games mostly use pointer-based controls along with my personal favorite Wii remote orientation: Held on its side, like an NES controller.
The restraint developer ND Cube demonstrates in using the Wii Remote in this old-school manner pays off in the quality and creativity of mini-games. They are mostly great, and a welcome diversion from dice-rolling. Strangely, Mario Party 9 randomizes the appearance of mini-games on the actual game board instead of making them fixed occurrences. This is partially alleviated by the addition of boss levels, which pit all the players against a large enemy in a cooperative minigame, with everyone vying to do deal the most damage.
Mario Party 9 has also received polygonal overhaul. No longer sporting the farmed-out, slightly "off" look of its predecessors, Mario Party 9 draws aesthetically from Nintendo's recent blockbusters; a Donkey Kong-themed level shows off a Donkey Kong Country Returns-inspired set of temples, and a few ancillary characters and cool space backdrops appear courtesy of Mario Galaxy 2.
The graphics add some much-needed charm to the game boards, which have been, ahem, "streamlined." As you may have seen in our preview of Mario Party 9, four players now travel together in a vehicle along an essentially linear path. This removes an aspect of strategy (no surprise there) present in all previous iterations, which featured looping, complex game boards filled with risks and rewards. But after eight Mario Parties on Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii, a major change is welcome.
The new "party bus" system adds a new type of strategy too, in the form of specialized dice. You can amass a collection of specialized dice blocks that allow you to move various distances. For example, if one player rolls the dice and moves the car to, say, the teetering precipice of an evil star-zapping chasm, you may happen to have a die that only rolls a one or a zero. Roll the zero and it's the next player's butt on the line.
Finally, one subtle, but important improvement that has been made in Mario Party 9 is its brilliant considerations for two- and three-player games. You can now turn off the computer-controlled opponents entirely, and the mini-games all adjust to your group size in clever ways. Mario Party veterans will no doubt recall the monotony of waiting for a computer-controlled player to take a turn, and the pathetic artificial intelligence on display in mini-games.
Just like real life, it takes at least two to party, properly. Mario Party 9's single-player mode places you in a dreary slog through all of the boards -- on the heels of suspiciously high-rolling computer-controlled characters. If you place anything less than first, you are forced to replay the same game board like some chintzy Mushroom Kingdom incarnation of Sisyphus.