The Mario Party
series might as well be called Mario Birthday Party
. Since the first title in the franchise launched on Nintendo 64 in 1999, Nintendo and developer Hudson have managed to put out a new Mario Party
every single year. Quite a feat, considering that the tight release schedule hasn't taken a toll on quality. Each game in the series is packed to the brim with brand-new mini-games, features plenty of recognizable Nintendo characters, and dishes out fun four-player battles for all ages. It's also surprising that in these last five years, no other company (and not even Hudson itself) has managed to create a party board videogame that's as good as the last five games.
But even though each game has managed to replicate the fun party action of the original, one important feature has fallen by the wayside: originality. Given the fact that Hudson has had to come up with hundreds of mini-games and game boards, it's not surprising that pretty much everything you'll see in Mario Party 6's main gameplay modes has been done before. Between the tap-the-button-fast challenges, catch-the-object games, and mild platforming/buttstomping diversions, this latest party's offerings are decidedly routine -- and depending on your exposure to previous Mario Party games, will come across as a bit bland.
To add at least a little bit of freshness to the title, Hudson and Nintendo have included a handful of 1-vs-3 mic mini-games and a special quiz show and single-player mode that can only be played when connecting the included microphone controller to Memory Card slot #2 of your GameCube (wireless controller users, better scoot your couch closer to your TV, the cable's 6 1/2 feet long -- and no extensions are available). And sure enough, the microphone provides for some interesting diversions that show at least an attempt of advancing the groove the series has fallen into since its conception. One of three Mic Mode options, "Star Sprint," has you egg on an on-screen character of your choice verbally, telling him or her to "move up" or "move down" Excitebike-like obstacle courses, yelling "Go!" to increase speed, or "jump" to avoid ghosts, moles, and other things that stand in your way. There are a few context-sensitive special commands as well that can be used to fan away fog, bash in a door, or jumpstart a generator to turn up the lights, but with only three stages to choose from (one of which has to be unlocked), you won't be back for more after the novelty of the challenges has worn off.
Likewise, the "Mic Minigames" section where one mic-enabled player goes up against up to three controller-dependent opponents is fun for awhile. But the control options in these games are so limited and the voice operation so inconsequential, the fun simply doesn't last. Luckily, the quiz show mode, Speak Up, can actually last you a little longer. Up to four players take turns answering questions in a mock quiz show -- and the challenges are actually quite clever. Some involve a statue of a character from the Mario universe spinning at high speeds, which gradually slows down to reveal a more clear picture. Players have to guess which character it is -- the earlier the guess, the higher points. Another challenge presents a short cutscene that has a character walk through a sidescrolling landscape, with all sorts of items and Mario folk appearing in the background. The scene ends, and you're asked things like "how many mushrooms were there?" or "who was standing by the cannon?" The questions are easy at first, but the quiz challenges increase in difficulty every time, until you're finally left with rather complex memory and recognition challenges. This creates a great dynamic when playing with friends, as the other players will likely try to screw you up while you're trying to remember what is going on on screen.
There is, of course, a downside to all of this. The voice recognition isn't bad, but about every 10 times or so, it'll totally fail on you. I've run into times where one of my friends (an American -- don't try to blame it on my accent) clearly enunciated a correct character name, like "Waluigi," but the system would mark the answer as incorrect. Likewise, the voice recognition tends to misunderstand numbers and will ask back (in text form): "Did you say 3?" Every time this occurs, the mic gets closed and reopened, slowing things down to a crawl. And at that point, well, you've got to ask yourself whether the quiz show part of Mario Party 6 wouldn't have been better off using a standard multiple choice system without all that blabbering. A quick warning to parents: the mic mode isn't ideal for pre-teens. I don't know whether it's the fact that four 8-year-olds in one room make too much noise for the mic to filter out the correct answer or if the voice recognition software has issues with higher pitches -- I just know that the thing didn't have a clue what the little devils were saying.
For its main board game boards, Mario Party 6 this year introduces the concept of night and day, which ties in with the thin storyline about cute characters Brighton (a sun) and Twila (a moon). Players once again pick from a variety of differently-themed boards, such as Towering Treetop, E. Gadd's Garage, Faire Square, Snowflake Lake, Castaway Bay and Clockwork Castle, hit dice blocks, and try to collect as many stars as possible. The time of day changes every three turns, effecting changes around the board and in certain mini-games. For example, on Towering Treetop, players can visit Boo's hideout at night and bribe the thieving ghost to snag a star or coins from another player. During daytime, the shack is closed. Along with some board-specific features, like Castaway Bay's permanent star location that rotates between a good star and a shadow star (which takes one of your stars away), this creates situations where players actually want to roll low numbers or be warped far away to avoid getting to the right spot at the wrong time. The day/night cycle also affects some of the mini-games, switching the tasks that need to be performed or changing the difficulty.
Like last year's version, Mario Party 6 once again features a Solo mode designed for single players alongside the standard Party mode that's always been at the heart of the franchise. Hold on to your caps, Nintendo fans: Hudson actually listened and sped up the action. Well, sort of, at least. Board-changing cut-scenes, like the day/night shift can be bypassed by pressing the Start button, you no longer have to watch CPU duel games if you don't want to, and you can even have the game automatically skip the instruction screen before mini-games if you so choose. It's pretty crazy that it has taken Hudson five years to finally make this change, but it's a great, and much-needed upgrade indeed. Sadly, you still have to watch CPU players bounce around the board when playing Party mode with fewer than four players. I know I said this last year, but it can't hurt to repeat it: Hudson, please implement a "fast forward" function that has since appeared in games like Prince of Persia or Viewtiful Joe. It's really not that complicated to make the CPU and player characters bounce around the board at five times the speed when someone holds down the R button. If Mario Party is supposed to ever turn into a game that appeals to two players as much as to four, this change shouldn't have to wait another five years. Last year's capsule system has also undergone some significant changes -- likewise designed to keep the game running at a more brisk pace. You no longer receive capsules from gumball machines. Instead, capsules can either be bought in stores or picked up automatically when passing certain spaces. Each player can hold up to three different capsules and has the chance to use one before every turn. Some capsules contain power-ups that play into board movement, such as the ability to swap places with opponents, roll the dice three times, or slow down the dice block to easily get a high or low number. Others are designed for the sole purpose of annoying the competition. Spiky shells, Goombas or Piranha Plants can be placed on fields and will cause opponents to lose coins when they land on them -- and there's even the ultra-mean Snowman that costs an unfortunate soul all his capsules. To make sure that players harbor feelings of hate and revenge toward each other, spots occupied by such traps are clearly marked with player icons. With more than 20 different capsules, there's quite a lot of variety as well.
Once again, the mini-games are the real stars of the game. It's pretty amazing that Hudson created more than 80 little challenges in all to squeeze into this latest edition. That high turnout comes at a price, however. Though still fun, the quality of the actual games takes a backseat to sheer variety. Mario Party 6's mini-games can't stand up to the great cooperative challenges from Mario Party 4 or the fun quick-draw and puzzle games found in Mario Party 5, not to mention the more original stuff in Mario Party 2 on the N64. Still, there's plenty of fun to be had here when playing with four players. Once you've unlocked a good selection of mini-games by playing the Party mode, head directly to the mini-games section to set up board-less tournaments.
As far as presentation goes, Mario Party 6 is beginning to look a bit outdated. Many of the backgrounds and textures in the mini-games simply don't look as vibrant and lovingly drawn as in previous games -- and compared to other more recent Mario games like Mario Power Tennis, the character models are low-poly and jaggy to boot. This becomes even more apparent during the board game segments, when the camera zooms in to follow a character around the board. Given the fixed camera perspective, things just look too basic and bland. Hudson also didn't spend any time on creating a rendered intro, some of the unlockables are incredibly lame, there are no voices beyond the standard samples we've heard a hundred times over in Smash Bros. or other Mario games, and the instrument samples and looping tunes are more at home on the N64 game than on the GameCube. It's a bit strange to be playing a quiz game that relies on voice recognition, but fails to create any sort of quiz game atmosphere because you're the only one talking. And given the young target audience, it's doubly odd that there's no narrator for in-game events and announcements (and imagine these announcements would occur in voice form while you're playing, without you having to wake up player #1 to push the button and make the text window go away).
What's here works, but it would be nice to be surprised once in awhile when switching on a Mario Party game.
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