Sunday, December 10, 2006


Mario Party Advance

How do you review a title like Mario Party Advance? Where do you even begin? The game is like a train wreck, grotesque and yet morbidly fascinating. It was put together in a way that suggests sentient intervention was involved in its genesis, and yet the end product is such a strange and twisted thing that it makes you wonder how this could possibly have been the end result that such an intelligence would desire. Not that it's necessarily a terrible game, you understand -- it's merely the sort of thing that has no real reason to exist.

It intrigues me. I feel compelled to revisit it time and time again, as if I can't believe my own memories of this game and I want to reassure myself that, no, it wasn't just a fever-induced nightmare, that this game actually happened.

Let me tell you a little bit about it.

The Game That Could Never Be

Before we begin, you'll need to come to grips with a sad truth: this game was doomed from the start to be nothing like the console versions. It's impossible to replicate that particular experience with the Game Boy Advance hardware.

Don't believe me? Consider this.

Mario Party was designed from the ground up to be a four-player game. So to make a real Mario Party on the Game Boy Advance, you'd need to allow support for up to four players. I will argue that single-pak multiplayer just wouldn't cut it for a game like Mario Party. There's just too much information there; it wouldn't fit in the miniscule temporary memory that the GBA uses for single-pak games. So that means all players would need to have a copy of the game to get the most enjoyment from it.

How often do people actually get four copies of the same GBA game together in the same room? I'm sure there's some hardcore geeks out there somewhere who plan their evenings around four-player Game Boy Advance games all the time, but for the most part, it sounds like a feature that very few players would get to exploit to its fullest, just like the original Four Swords game.

And even if you could get that Game Boy LAN hooked up, is it really going to feel the same, having three of your closest friends hunched over tiny little displays instead of crowded around the TV?

It was a terrible idea from the moment of its conception. It would only take a moment's thought for anyone to realize that it's just not worth pursuing -- some things are just better suited to home consoles. There's only one reason why a Mario Party Advance needed to be made.

We demanded it.

Yes, even when Mario Party was first born on the Nintendo 64, in the days of the Game Boy Color, Mario Party fans were clamoring for a handheld experience, little caring what such a project would entail. And for years, calmer minds and wiser sensibilities prevailed.

But then Wario came along with his band of programming rogues and showed the world what a pack of portable minigames can do. And maybe -- just maybe -- Mario got a little jealous.

The Quest for Mushrooms

So what is Mario Party Advance all about? Arguably, the game's centerpiece is Shroom City mode, a single-player board game adventure that blends classic Mario Party sensibilities with a long series of fetch quests. Shroom City is laid out like a gameboard, with various locations represented by spaces on the gameboard. After selecting your character -- Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Peach -- you cruise around the city in a cute little car that runs on mushrooms. You start with five mushrooms, and each mushroom gives you one "turn". (There are no other players in the game; it's always your turn.) A turn consists of rolling the die and moving around the board. Some spaces will give you another die to roll to continue your turn, some (which are very easy to avoid) will take a mushroom away, and some will give you a chance to earn extra mushrooms. You don't have to worry too much about earning extra mushrooms because every three turns, you automatically play a minigame with a chance to earn three more mushrooms -- basically, as long as you win, you'll break even. If you run out of mushrooms, however, the game is over, and you'll have to return to start the next time you play.

Most of the locations on the gameboard have "quests" that you need to complete. These can be little brain teasers or minigames, but they're much more likely to have characters who ask you to visit another location on the gameboard to pick up or deliver an item. When a quest is completed, you're rewarded with a new minigame to play or a Gaddget -- more on those later. Complete enough quests, and you'll get the chance to duel with Bowser and so on and so forth.

The quest is actually reasonably engaging until you start to realize that the only point to it is to unlock minigames. When you get a "Game Over", all of the quests you've completed remain completed. There's no real danger of failure here, no urgency to finish all of the quests before you run out of mushrooms. In fact, the game can't be completed in a single run anyway; three of the quests are only available if you're playing as a certain character, and you have to quit the game and restart to change characters, losing your entire store of mushrooms in the process. And once you've beat the last boss, that's it -- the game's done. All of the quests remain completed whenever you go back to Shroom City to play again. Sure, you're allowed to play the quests over again, but that feeling of satisfaction that you get from completing it the first time is gone. It's not like Wario Ware, which lets you play through cleared stages again to try and obtain higher scores. It's simply mindless, undirected activity.

Big Bag of Goodies

Okay. Mario Party isn't meant to be an epic adventure game, right? It's meant to be a vehicle for fun little mini games, and Mario Party Advance delivers on that front. There are fifty different mini-games that you'll unlock by the time you've finished Shroom City, consisting of thirty single-player games (the games that you play every three turns in Shroom City), eight duel games for one or two players, six Bowser games (where you're challenged to battle a certain number of Koopa Kids), and six casino games that you play for coins.

The games themselves are the usual sort of Mario Party fare. While most of the games are only really tolerable as part of some other exercise, a few of them are fun enough to fool around with outside of the context of a larger game. Some of the more memorable games are listed below:

Bill Bounce: Stand in the middle of a group of Bullet Bill cannons and bounce off of them as they fire. Like those infinite lives tricks in Super Mario 3, the more you can hit in succession without landing, the more points you score.

Sort Stack: A little quick-thinking game where you have to sort books on a bookshelf by color.

Melon Folly: A cute puzzler where you hop around on rafts and you have to touch each one exactly once.

Forest Jump: Keep your place on a platform as rolling and bouncing logs assault you. Jump over them, duck under them, and fight the wind to stay on the platform.

Shell Stack: Koopa shells are fired at you from either side of the screen. Time your jumps so you land on them and stack as many as possible.

Floor It!: Operate an elevator, pick up characters on both sides of the screen and deliver them to the proper floors.

Splatterball: A Koopa Kid game. Move a cursor around and fire at a shooting gallery of Koopa Kids.

Koopa Kappa: Another Koopa Kid game. Press the correct button as a Koopa Kid reaches the end of a conveyor belt to drop a lid on him.

Pair 'Em: A casino game. Try to eliminate all of the cards in the deck by arranging them in pairs and trios as they're dealt out.

Variety varies from game to game. There are a number of mini games based on platforming challenges, but with only one layout to play, they get dull after a few playthroughs. Much more interesting are the puzzle and arcade styled games.

If you're not interested in playing games Free Play style, there's Challenge Land, where you can play minigame contests for coins. All of the coins you win in the various Challenge Land events go into the game's bank, which you can use to purchase some patently awful bonuses. Things like different title screen art and the game credits.

Anyway, Challenge Land. Mini-Game Attack is a fun little diversion, sort of a cross between Mario Party and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. At every tier, you get a choice of three different minigames to play. If you win, you go on to the next tier. If you lose, you don't get to keep any of the coins you've earned. You can pull out at any time or use a "life line", like a chance to practice a game before you decide to pick it. Very interesting setup, but really damned hard -- I've only gotten to the sixth tier once.

Then there's Bowser Land. Bowser Land is essentially a seven-space gameboard. The game rolls a die and moves you forward automatically, and then you get to play a Koopa Kid minigame. If you lose, you go back to start. When (if) you reach the end, Bowser gives you a number of coins depending on how long it took you to reach him.

And then there's a casino where the six casino games are presented as physical fixtures and you can wander from one table to the next for as long as you like and dump all of your hard-earned game coins into whatever amusement strikes your fancy. And there's a Duel Game tournament that you play against the computer that I can't be bothered to care about.


And now we come to the Gaddgets -- digital toys created by Dr. Elvin Gadd in the spirit of the souvenirs from Wario Ware Twisted. Some of them are games. Some of them are toys. Some of them are just... weird.

Like the Screen Cleaner. You start it up, and there's a fuzzy image of the "Game Boy" bootup logo. When you press A, a little mechanical water sprayer appears on the screen and gives it a squirt from the inside. This is followed by a mechanical squeegee that wipes the screen clean, leaving you with a brilliantly clear logo. And that's all it does.

There are desktop sports toys. There's an activity where you can try to get an egg to stand on its end. There's a stress-relief Gaddget that lets you select a victim -- a clay mushroom, a diamond, or an alarm clock -- which you can smash to bits with one satisfying button press. There's an activity where you grow a mushroom. There's an X-Ray toy that shows you what's inside your finger if you put it on the screen. There's a program that turns your Game Boy Advance into a puppet with Mario's mouth so you can put it in front of your face and make it look like you have Mario's mouth. There's a maze-generator. There's a Morse code generator. There's a 15-tile sliding puzzle. There's a card trick. There's not one but two Rock Paper Scissors programs. It's basically the video game equivalent of a grab bag filled with a bunch of those stupid party favors that they pass out at six-year-old birthday parties -- cute and good for a laugh, but the novelty wears out rather quickly.

Life of the Party

Even though the slim focus that this game has is on the single player experience, there are a number of unconventional multiplayer options available.

Yes, you can link up to play any of the Duel games with two human players. Oooo, wowee. Fun.

There are also two modes where you pass the Game Boy Advance around and see who can get the highest score at a randomly-selected game. Support for up to 99 players is provided, which is just a nice way of saying as many people as you can cram in a room. Hot seat gaming, yay.

And then there's the Bonus Board.

I could've gone my entire life without ever owning a copy of Mario Party Advance if I hadn't heard about the Bonus Board.

When you bought a new copy of the game, it came with a cute little fold-out paper gameboard with cut-out-fold-and-glue-together game pieces. You could get two to four players crowded around this thing, fire up your Game Boy Advance, and play a real-world Mario Party game.

Well, not exactly.

When the game is in Bonus Board mode, it serves three functions. First, it rolls a virtual die, so you don't have to steal one from the Monopoly set. Second, it serves up a random minigame whenever a player lands on a minigame space. Third, it gives you a chance to find the power star so you can get this game over with already, dammit.

The gameboard is made up of two rings, inner and outer. A star space is placed on one of the spaces in the inner ring, and players start on the outer ring. Players take it in turns to move around the gameboard until the fates allow them to land on a space that lets them into the inner ring. There, they pray that fortune will continue to smile on them and allow them to reach the star space before 1) they land on a space that sends them back to the outer ring or 2) a bastard opponent moves the star space.

And what about these minigames I promised two paragraphs ago? Well, whenever a player lands on a minigame space, the game randomly selects a Gaddget that's specifically designed for the Bonus Board mode. Some of them, mercifully, allow up to four players to play in turns. Some of them, however...

Well, remember the two-player games in the original Wario Ware Inc? Where one player used the L button and one used the R button? Yeah, it's like that. So if you have four players, you get one on L, one on R, one on the control pad, and one on the A and B button. I've never actually tried to do this in practice. I'm afraid to.

Anyway. The whole point here is that it was too much of a goofy novelty for me to pass up, but the end result is something that is sure to offend your friends if you invite them to participate in it. It's simply too long, too drawn-out, and too tedious for what it is -- the sort of board game that you find on the back of a cereal box or stuck in the pages of an activity book.

I once owned a Twister keychain that contained all of the spots and the spinner needed to play the game. Just because it's possible to play a game that resembles Twister using this equipment doesn't mean that you should. The same goes for the Mario Party Advance Bonus Board.

Why Do I Like This Game?

Maybe it's my unyielding love for anything even tangentially related to board games. Maybe it's my fascination with the novel and peculiar. Maybe it's the sprinkle of pixie dust that Nintendo uses to baptise each and every game they publish. Who knows.

The folks who made this game never really decided on what it was going to be, and they ended up with an absolute mess of a game. But it's a fun mess. It's a video party favor, a cute little curiousity to poke around with every now and then. It's not going to win any awards or go down on anyone's all time top ten (or even top hundred) lists, but I'd rather have it than not have it.


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