In its eighth console iteration over as many years, a new Mario Party is almost as certain as a new Madden title. Yet in those eight years, I’ve somehow managed to avoid the series until now. I thought I’d look back to see what this site had in mind for a Mario Party sequel, back before even the second game came out. After all this time, almost none of those ideas have been added to the game. The addition of Wii controls cannot overcome that deficit, and both the core gameplay and usual saving grace – the mini-games – fail to make Mario Party a good party game even on Wii, the "party game system."
The game includes a carnival theme, and a Party Tent houses the main board game modes, each of which uses slightly different rules. The carnival also includes the Star Battle Arena, which is a single player game similar to the normal party game; a Mini-game Tent, where unlocked mini-games can be played; an Extras Zone; and a Fun Bazaar, where players can see records and redeem point cards. Most, but not all of the game is controlled with only the Wii Remote.
The basic gameplay has not changed: players take turns hitting a die and traversing a game board. Along the way, various spaces may give bonuses, trigger booby traps, or even change the structure of the game board itself. The primary goal is to collect as many stars as possible before the end of the game. The board game’s camera angle has changed from prior editions, now zooming in on the player. This change makes the game feel less like a board game, since you cannot see what is going on more than a few spaces around your character.
After each player has taken his or her turn, all players engage in a brief mini-game. As in previous Mario Party games, the mini-games are divided into 4-player every-man-for-himself, 3 vs. 1, and 2 vs. 2 game sets. The color of the space that each player is positioned on determines the set the mini-game is selected from. Overall, there are dozens of mini-games, including other play types such as duels.
Upon the start of a mini-game, multiple screens full of text and animations explain the rules and controls of the game. Perhaps I’ve gotten used to WarioWare style of game play, but the Wii was supposed to bring in new audiences, not scare them away. Even though these instructions were present in previous iterations, requiring that much explanation should have given the game’s developers an indication that they should rethink their control schemes. This type of interface presents a potential problem to the many young children who will likely play this game. For that aforementioned audience, there are several handicap settings available to even out players’ abilities.
Some of the mini-games are similar to the types of pattern recognition games you might find in Big Brain Academy, while others are small arcade-like racers, obstacle courses, and target shooting. The mini-games are quite polished, though not always engaging. There are certainly several fun mini-games in the batch, especially the racing and shooting games, but then there are other throwaways such as one where players simply shake the remote as if it was a soda can. Each of these games is controlled in a different manner, some opting for traditional NES-style control, and others using the pointer or motion sensor. Unfortunately, some of the mini-games, particularly tilt-based games, are not as responsive as they should be. Still others use unintuitive control schemes that seem like they were included simply for diversity.
Being based on a board game, much of the game relies on random events. This can add excitement and an equalizing measure during multiplayer, but many gamers are competitive, and this lack of control over their destiny may become more of an irritation. As a partial remedy, the oft-derided end-of-game Bonus Stars can be turned off, removing some of the randomness. The game also introduces candy power-ups, which can be collected or bought at stores found along the board. These candies transform players into various forms such as vampires or Thwomps. These transformations give special powers such as the ability to attack and steal coins or hit multiple dice blocks on a single turn.
The boards themselves do not directly adhere to the carnival theme, though each is run by MC Ballyhoo, the bizarre carnival emcee with a talking hat. Each board includes unique features, such as Shy Guy’s Perplex Express, which has players ride a train with interchangeable cars that can quickly alter the contestants’ progress. Koopa’s Tycoon Town deviates the most from the standard formula with hints of Monopoly influence. On this board, players must invest their coins in hotels, and players with the highest investment will earn stars depending on the total number of invested coins. Another player can come along and invest even more to steal the stars away. Tycoon Town at least involves a little more strategy than the other boards.
What really kills the game play is the mind-numbing slowness of progression. Nothing except CPU mini-games can be skipped or sped up in any way, meaning players must sit through pointless and repetitive animations and monologue waiting for their next chance to do anything. The usual “A button skip" will do nothing for you here. Even real board games can go faster, and playing is more of a chore than entertainment. The standard 15-turn game takes between one and two hours to complete, making the 50-turn game option seem absolutely ludicrous.
Of course, while single player modes are available, Mario Party was intended to be played by multiple players. Playing with others certainly increases the fun, but not significantly, especially when there are so many more compelling multiplayer games already available for Wii. While your experience will depend somewhat on your friends, they are likely to ask when they can start playing Wii Sports instead. Even though mini-games have been a staple of Mario Party gameplay since the beginning, the advent of the Wii has introduced a plethora of mini-game collections, and the sad fact is that most of them are better than Mario Party.
Mario Party 8 tries to entice players to keep playing by providing a large array of unlockable items and features, obtained by redeeming point cards. The problem is that a single game can literally take hours to play, and few point cards are awarded after playing a game, meaning that it takes an inordinate amount of time to unlock everything, a painfully boring prospect. Even worse, mini-games that haven’t been played though Party Mode or bought with point cards cannot be played in the other modes, rendering them practically useless until significant time has been spent in the main game. For a party game, certain types of unlockables do not even make sense; why shouldn’t all of the fun be available whenever your friends are there?
The Extras Zone is another mini-game mode, with eight longer games designed for play with Miis. While mostly tacked on, these games are fairly decent, though there are a few odd inclusions, such as a bowling game that is inferior to the one that comes with the system in Wii Sports. Miis also appear as spectators in some of the mini-games.
While not a complete carbon copy of its predecessors, Mario Party 8 does nothing positive to distinguish itself from its progenitors or even other multiplayer Wii offerings. In fact, its forced board game style of play may be its biggest detriment, imposing a lot of down time just to play some quick mini-games. The series is screaming for reinvention, and even the introduction of Wii control was not enough to invigorate it.