Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, reunions, graduations, or just for fun - all great reasons to have a party. However, in the Mushroom Kingdom the only reason you need to throw a shin-dig is because Mario said ‘Let’s-a-go!’. As with any series that's been around long enough to reach its ninth mainline entry, you would expect a degree of innovation and key differences between games; something to keep players excited and wanting to come back for more. However, while Nintendo promised to shake things up for Mario’s latest box social, you'll probably still find an excuse to leave this party early.
On the surface, Mario Party 9 appears a repeat of the same Mushroom Kingdom song and dance that we saw in numbers one through eight. You still move around a game board by rolling dice, moving to spaces that trigger mini-games, result in special board-specific events, or maybe even… do absolutely nothing! But, of course, we return to that famous Nintendo promise to breath new life and new ideas into the series before it gets too stale. So what exactly have they done to shake up this party?
It appears the developers' concept of ‘new ideas’ is to simplify and streamline an already pretty straightforward experience. For starters, you no longer move along the board at your own pace (all of the players are grouped together in one vehicle and take turns as the ‘captain’). While I understand the thinking here - that having everyone together would prevent younger gamers from losing track of their position on the game board - I find that it actually doesn't simplify things; by having everyone in the same spot it can be harder to keep track of who is the captain and exactly who gets the bonuses and the hazards.
Players are no longer competing for who can collect the most power stars per se, but mini-stars. These smaller stars can be acquired by either driving through a cluster of them on the board as the captain, landing on a ‘lucky’ space, or, of course, by competing in mini-games. At the end of each stage the player with the highest number of mini-stars is crowned the Super Star and the cycle begins anew. You may have noticed I said at the end of each ‘stage’. That’s because Mario Party 9 features linear game boards that play more like levels than actual board games, complete with mid-bosses and final bosses, each with their own mini-game. This change is definitely a welcome one, as (unlike the car) this actually does streamline the gameplay and makes completing a level feel like an accomplishment.
Speaking of the mini-games, they've definitely been one of the most maligned elements of Mario’s recent parties (and rightfully so - many were simply ripped straight from older titles). Well fear not, Mario Party 9 does its best to shake up the formula with a more robust selection of party favourites. That's not to say that some of these activities aren't downright terrible (notably the ones that require you to shake the Wii Remote like its 2006) - they are. But thankfully most of the games require the Wii controller to be held sideways and feature responsive controls. An added layer of variety would've been appreciated, but if this is what Nintendo mean by ‘trimming the fat’ then I’m all for it.
The driving force of any Mario Party game is good ol’ lady luck and it appears I have made her mad. One moment you can be clearly in the lead, owning more stars than the night sky, the next your star count will fall to around the amount on the Liberian flag. Things like this will happen more often than not, and while it’s perfectly understandable that a title based around classic board game concepts will involve a large element of luck, sometimes it’s all too easy to feel cheated.
One area where Mario Party 9 clearly stands above its predecessors is in its visuals. No longer must we endure models of Mario and his pals that look ‘stock’ and basic; here the designers clearly put some effort into giving the game a revitalised look that takes some inspiration from the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns. The animations also deserve praise for being particularly well acted and comical (Waluigi’s run always gets me), even if they do lack originality.
While the game’s visuals stand out impressively, the exact opposite can be said of the soundtrack, which is essentially a collection of the same generic Mushroom Kingdom tunes we've been listening to since the mid-90s. This, coupled with the same sound effects used in every Mario spin-off title since the Nintendo 64 era, gives the game a very generic feel to it. Surprisingly, though, all of the character voices are very well acted and feature chunks of new dialogue which, while not game-selling, are a treat to hear.
I seriously doubt any gamer worth his weight in DS cartridges could look you in the eye and tell you that the Wii is lacking in party games, and in that context Mario Party 9 does little to make its case for your hard-earned coins. You can see everything the game has to offer in just a few short hours, and while the game does feature a decent amount of unlockables, most of them are pretty lame (a vague description of Mario, really?); a couple of admittedly-great stages are the only stand-out exceptions. To make matters worse, Mario Party 9 is priced as a standard Wii game, which is far too expensive considering the lacklustre amount of content on offer.
If you're going to take one thing away from this review then let it be this: for the sake of your own sanity you must only play this game with friends. Trying to go at it solo is like asking for a very boring punch to the gut. The game seems to agree with me, hiding the ‘solo’ option in a tiny corner of the menu and giving you the option to add human players (as long as you’re playing with the right number of CPUs) at any point during a level. So please, bring at least one friend, because everyone knows how awkward it is to show up to a party alone.
Mario Party 9 is the equivalent of pulling out a battered version of 'pin the tail on the donkey' for a 17 year old girl’s birthday; it’s outdated and boring. The gameplay is monotonous, the mini-games - while occasionally fun - simply aren’t consistent enough to warrant additional playthroughs, and you'll end up losing interest after just a few spins of the dice.
This review is based on a retail copy of Mario Party 9 for Wii.