There's a party in my pocket, and everyone's invited!
Well, it's time for another Mario Party review. At least, that was my attitude going into Mario Party DS. While it is the standard party game, through and through, subtle design decisions raise this entry above some of its more mindless predecessors.
In Mario Party DS, the superstars have all been miniaturized by Bowser, and in the predictably weak single player game, you must establish yourself as superstar on each board, slowly making your way toward Bowser’s lair. The gang’s miniature stature doesn’t really affect gameplay: players still take turns rolling dice to move around the board, scrambling to collect each star and competing in free-for-all and teamed mini-games. However, the miniaturized theme does make for a more interesting presentation, as boards involve "giant" non-player characters, and mini-game settings and props integrate common household items such as clothing hangers, a bathroom sink, and tin cans.
Mario Party is a respectable entry for the series. Each board plays differently, with subtle variations on the acquisition of stars, branching paths, and green "?" spaces. The boards are also decidedly small—a welcome change from the huge, sprawling boards found in most of the game's console counterparts. This makes star collection more competitive and frequent, even in short, 10-turn games. A character very far away from the star usually has a chance at snagging it if he or she has a double or triple dice block. Players can also place hex items on board spaces to steal coins or stars, which add to the mayhem.
Mario Party DS makes solid use of the platform in its mini-games. Instead of focusing on the touch screen like most DS mini-game collections, Mario Party DS has a healthy mixture of control schemes. The majority of mini-games use the D-pad and/or face buttons, a minority use the touch screen, and a handful use the microphone. Some 1-on-3 mini-games use multiple control schemes, depending on which team you’re on. The microphone controls are the least enjoyable, as they all (as far as I’ve seen) require you to blow onto the screen…usually as hard as you can. Fortunately, you may easily remove all microphone-based mini-games from the mini-game set in the option menu. Many mini-games strongly resemble those from the nine earlier Mario Party games, but that is to be expected by now.
Mario Party has always been about multiplayer; this is why the mostly single-player Mario Party Advance was so abysmally received. Fortunately, Mario Party DS does multiplayer as a party game should. Mini-game descriptions and controls are tailored for each DS, so you don’t need to trudge through instructions irrelevant to your character’s role in team-based mini-games. Two friends can opt out of computer opponents for a head-to-head competition with individual mini-games or on a board, though this limits the mini-game selection. Also included is an interesting cat-and-mouse game where two humans must chase down and surround two computer opponents on a grid within ten turns. The game only supports single-card multiplayer, but outside of the initial transfers, load times are negligible.
Unfortunately, Mario Party DS does nothing to change the series' fundamental problems. Mario Party has always been a social game, and being good at mini-games and strategic with items does not guarantee victory by design. Some mini-games are pure chance, and acquiring or stealing stars often requires some amount of luck. This allows even those bad at games to taste victory and is meant to foster taunting, jesting, silly arguments, and mild bitterness amongst friends. But when playing against computers—especially alone—the experience is boring and, if the computer gets lucky, infuriating. Thus, no amount of Mario Party points, collectable figurines, and badges is enough to make the single player mode enjoyable, and it is unfortunate that the series continues to rely upon a single player mode against three CPU opponents to unlock boards. The inclusion of prior Mario Party puzzle mini-games does little to improve Mario Party DS's status as a single player game, as they are simplistic and cumbersome.
Mario Party DS will hardly convert dissidents, but its existence is certainly more justified than most of the Mario Party titles out there. Mario Party DS's strong line-up of mini-games with varied controls, interesting boards, and portable nature make it one of the best Mario Party games. The lack of online multiplayer two years after Mario Kart DS is disappointing, but Mario can still party on the DS.