Sunday, February 25, 2007


Mario Party 5

I've always been fascinated with games. Before I had the disposable income to waste on video games, my fascination and obsession was with board games.

I used to love going to garage sales and Goodwill stores with my mom. When I was little, you couldn't go to one of them without finding piles and piles of vintage board games that nobody wanted anymore. Rarely would they sell for more than a dollar, putting them well within the boundaries of an impulse purchase even for a kid on allowance (or begging his mom for a new toy). I would often get an incomplete set, but I rarely let it bother me. If it was missing pieces, I would work around it. If it was missing rules, I would write my own.

Board games were my escape at that time in my life. I would spend hours on the floor of the living room, manipulating plastic pawns, spinning spinners, and rolling dice, and watching a small world come to life. It was never just a game to me -- every game was a simulation of something real and exciting, an interactive story that I wrote for myself, with plenty of random events to keep things exciting. Sometimes I liked the pawns so much that I would play with them just like any other toy, attributing names and personalities to them and taking them on adventures outside of their board game world. (The mice from Mouse Trap were especially good for that kind of thing.) I had games and games and games, stacked up to the ceiling in my bedroom, in the living room, anywhere I could find space for them.

Whether it's as deep and intense as Hero Quest or Heroscape or as quick and light as Fireball Island, I've never really gotten over my fascination with a good board game. I still skim the occasional garage sale or toy aisle just in case anything interesting pops up.

Another fascination from my youth which, sadly, I only got to experience as a spectator, was the golden age of physical game shows that blossomed in the 80's and 90's. From Double Dare to American Gladiator to Guts, I was fascinated by these game shows that challenged contestants to compete in bizarre and fun-looking physical events. When I went to the playground, I wasn't just climbing on monkey bars and going down slides -- in my mind, I was running through the Fun House or the Double Dare obstacle course, racing against time to complete the challenges I had set for myself.

So it's little wonder that I should fall so deeply and madly in love with a game series that found a marriage between these two childhood passions of mine. That series, of course, is Mario Party.

A Genre is Born

As we stand on the cusp of the eighth episode of the series proper (with two spinoffs and innumerable imitators besides), it's somewhat amusing to remember the initial reaction the gaming press had to the announcement of the original Mario Party. "Mario Party?" they wondered. "What the heck does that mean?" Sure, Mario had appeared in countless spinoffs in the past, but most of them had been in genres that people were intimately familiar with. There were racing games before Super Mario Kart and art programs before Mario Paint -- but who had ever heard of a "party" game before?

Remember the original concept? Mario had invited all of his friends -- and even a couple old enemies -- to a big party. But as the evening wore down, they began to argue over who was the biggest superstar in the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course it's Mario, but everyone else seemed to feel that they deserved a piece of that action, even Princess Perpetually Abducted. So Toad suggested they take a trip through a warp pipe to the board game worlds where they can compete to see who can get the most Power Stars, thus proving themselves to be the biggest superstar.

I was enchanted with it right from the start. The format was a bit of inspired brilliance. The larger structure of the game was an example of a good beer and pretzels board game -- one that allowed for a bit of strategy, but left a lot of room for the whims of fate to play a role. And, like Double Dare, they broke up the game with some quick, fun action sequences. And you never knew who you might be forced to cooperate with during these minigames. Hell, the savvy player might recognize when it's to his advantage to throw a minigame -- like when you don't want your temporary ally to have enough coins to get a star on his next turn!

Mario Party arrived to a somewhat mixed reaction. It was the sort of game that people either loved or hated. One thing can't be denied: it broke some fertile new ground. It was an expedition into a brave new world. Far from arriving as a fully-formed, perfectly-conceived new vision for video games, it was loose and exuberant and it made some rather painful mistakes, not the least of which were the blister-inducing stick-twirling games. But it gave Nintendo fans something new to look forward to in the future, and it laid the groundwork for what was to come.

Mario Party 2 took the original concept, a mere diamond in the rough, and expertly and exquisitely cut it, making all of its facets shine. The gameplay in the gameboard worlds was expanded with more events like the Koopa Bank and the Item system. Many of the best minigames from the original returned, refined in some way. Even the storyline had been given a touchup. The players would don outfits appropriate for the world they were about to enter -- cowboy outfits, pirate gear, space suits, etc -- and there would be a warning about Bowser causing some sort of trouble in that world. At the end of each game, there would be an amusing cutscene starring the game's winner. Yeah, it's a minor detail, but it's one of the things I loved about that game.

I played it compulsively for a long, long time. I still think it's probably the best in the series.

Starting with Mario Party 3... the series started to slide.

None of the minigames from the first two games would be returning in any form. No more Bumper Balls, Mushroom Mixup, Speed Hockey. Instead, we got a lot of annoying chance-based games. There was a new, terrible space on the board for a character named Game Guy, which I affectionately dubbed "The Screw Space". If you had the misfortune to land on it, you were forced to risk all of your coins in a game of dumb luck where the odds were stacked dangerously against you. The fun and engaging gameboard themes from the original were replaced with some newer and more forgettable locations. Even Toad was ousted as the game's emcee in favor of the callous and unlikable Millenium Star. My beloved cutscenes from part 2 were dropped, never to be seen in the series again. And, for the first time, the series began to shift the burden of accomplishment onto the universally-reviled single player campaign. Even the new stuff they added -- such as the Duel gameboards -- couldn't wipe the awful taste of it from my mouth.

This also marked the point where the series started to refer to competitions in terms of "battles", which always sort of rubbed me the wrong way. No doubt it was to try and make the game look attractive to the same folks who loved Super Smash Brothers, but I never thought it fit the tone of the game very well.

I was disillusioned. Usually, the third episode of any series is when Nintendo rolls out the best of the best, the culmination of everything they'd learned while doing the rest of the series. Mario Party 3 was the only game in the series that I returned to the store because I just couldn't stand playing it.

If I didn't like Party 3, why did I get Party 4? Basically because I wanted a Mario Party game that I could play on my Gamecube. Yeah, really no other reason. It was okay, I guess. It cleaned up a lot of the faults that the third one had, but it didn't really wow me. And the whole mega/micro thing was intensely lame. I figured I was done with the series.

So why did I get Mario Party 5? Because it was one of the games eligible for the Zelda: Collector's Edition giveaway offer that Nintendo was holding. I didn't really expect at the time that it would turn out to be so good.

Returning to Their Roots

We start with a surprisingly interesting premise. Mario and friends are invited back to the Dream Depot, a location that was established in the original Paper Mario, and the various game modes are hosted by none other than the Star Spirits. Continuity and geography are pretty maleable things in the Mushroom Kingdom; as an obsessive geek, it's kind of nice to see the occasional callback to places Mario has been to in the past.

The next pleasant surprise is that the game's centerpiece, the multiplayer board game adventure, has gotten its first major facelift since Mario Party 2 thanks to the "capsule system". Each gameboard starts out relatively free of the special event spaces that cluttered the boards in the last four games. You won't see Boo, the Koopa Bank, or even all that many traditional spaces like Battle Games or Chance Time spaces -- at least, not at first.

Instead of an item shop, there are capsule dispensers placed around the gameboard. Every time you pass one, you get a free, randomly-selected capsule until you reach a limit of three held capsules. Capsules can perform a number of different effects, many of which resemble the effects of items and special events from previous games, but some of which are brand new.

There's two ways to use a capsule. For a few coins, you can use it on yourself and get a one-shot benefit. Or, you can use the capsule on the gameboard for no charge. You can place a capsule up to ten spaces away from your current space, and attach that effect permanently to that space. Anyone who lands on that space will receive the benefit or punishment until it's written over with a different capsule.

The end result is that every time you play a gameboard will be a unique experience. This also means that you're not going to see very much in the way of star-stealing or teleporting directly to the next star. And since you don't get to pick the items you get from the dispensers, it's a little more difficult to plot a long-term strategy. There's much less motive to take a path that doesn't go directly to the star now; there's no Boo or item shops to tempt you to take the long way to the goal.

It has its advantages and disadvantages. But if there was one thing Mario Party needed at this point in the series, it was change. And for the most part, it works.

I really liked the gameboards themselves in this one. They're all pretty well-designed, and mercifully conservative about trying to inject a lot of extra events into the mix. As far as I'm concerned, each player's actual turn should be as brief as possible, the better to keep the game moving. There are fewer long conversations with NPCs or special action minigames, keeping the pace relatively quick.

And I have to say, I love the scenarios this time around. Yeah, they've borrowed a lot of them from previous games, but so what? A good scenario is a good scenario. And I appreciate the fact that this is the first Mario Party since the first one to break the "five normal boards plus one Bowser Board" pattern that Mario Party 2 started. (Specifically, now it's six normal boards plus one Bowser Board.)

A Mighty Package

The biggest surprise of all is that there's more to enjoy about this game than just the main attraction. Sure, previous Mario Party games have offered players a variety of sideshows, but how many of them have been worth playing? The additional game modes in this version aren't just styrofoam packing peanuts put in to try and make the game look bigger -- each and every one of them is a worthwhile experience. And in an earlier era, any one of them could have been a standalone game all their own.

Take a look what we got here.

Story Mode

For the first time in the series, Nintendo and Hudson have brought us a single player quest experience that is not merely tolerable -- it's actually fun. The heart and soul of it is similar to the Duel Mode in Mario Party 3, only with a lot less dumb luck involved.

Each level takes place on an abbreviated version of one of the gameboards from the main campaign. You can play as one of seven heroes against a trio of Koopa Kids. The object of the game is to eliminate your opponents by making them lose all of their coins. Most of the board game rules from the main game apply, with a few exceptions. All of the Koopa Kids take their turn at once, and mini-games don't automatically occur between turns.

Instead, you have to overtake your opponents on the gameboard to challenge them to a duel. Whoever loses forfeits a certain number of coins, but the player doing the overtaking has less money on the line. There's also a gameboard space that allows you to challenge the entire Koopa pack at once and steal all of their coins, but this is a much less reliable method of attack. Every run through Story Mode gives you four randomly-chosen gameboards, the Bowser Board, and a final boss battle with Bowser himself.

The whole campaign is very satisfying. Not only was I happy to play through it to unlock the last multiplayer gameboard, but I've gone back to play it through multiple times, something I'd never consider doing with previous installments! Each "level" moves quickly enough that it makes for a great "pick up and play" experience, and it's not unreasonable to finish an entire story in one sitting.

Mini-Game Circuit

Mario Kart meets Mario Party. This mode takes place on a go-kart-themed gameboard. Every turn begins with the players matched up into random teams, and a mini-game is chosen at random. The winner(s) get to roll a die and advance. The object is to reach the finish line before your opponents.

But there's a twist. Every player begins the match with two regular mushrooms and one golden mushroom. When the name of the mini-game is announced, you get to choose whether or not you're going to use an item. If you win the mini-game, you'll get to roll more dice than usual. But if you lose, you lose the item -- and there's no chance to get it back. It adds a fun gambling element to the game -- just how sure are you that you can win the next mini-game? Sure enough to risk your one and only golden mushroom?

This is a great mode to try out if you want something a little shorter and less complicated than the main multiplayer mode.

Mini-Game Decathalon

Eh, I've just always had a soft spot for Track & Field style games -- not that the events in this decathalon resemble your typical Track & Field events. But just like in a real decathalon, you're not competing in these ten mini-games just to see who can win the most events; everyone gets scored based on their performance, and the player with the greatest overall score is the winner.

Mini-Game Wars

It's four-player Othello. Players compete in a minigame, and the winner gets to place a tile on a hexagonal game board. As per the usual rules of Reversi, you can capture your opponent's pieces by sandwiching his pieces with your own. As an added twist, certain events in the game will allow you to steal a space already claimed by an opponent. This is a surprisingly long and involved mode of play, easily as long as the main game mode, but with a much greater chance for strategic depth.

Super Duel Mode

It's kind of like Custom Robo in the Mushroom Kingdom. As you play the minigames in the other modes, you earn credits that you can use to buy parts -- bodies, engines, weapons, and wheels, each of which has some effect on the way your vehicle handles.

Custom vehicles are pitted against each other in death matches or capture the flag competitions. You can play against a friend (and his custom-built machine), or enter a three-tiered tournament match against computer players. For a tacked-on game mode, it can be surprisingly fun.

Card Party

As a lover of vintage board games, I was won over by Card Party before I'd even finished selecting all of the options for my first game. It's presented as a "pure" board game, with very little in the way of obvious video game gimmicks (although the game would clearly be impossible without some sort of computer interference). The introduction to each game shows the game's box, complete with indentations for the game cards and the playing pieces: beautiful wooden pawns topped with Mario character heads.

A grid of cards is dealt out to make up the gameboard (the size being proportional to how long you want to play), and the players choose which edge space they want to start at. The cards act as a sort of "fog of war" effect to obscure the playfield; as players roll and move, the gameboard path is only revealed when a player reaches a card that hasn't been explored yet. The maze seems to be randomly determined, making each game unique.

Some of the cards are marked with special events. If you reach a card marked with a mushroom, you get a randomly selected item that you can use to help yourself or hurt an opponent. If you reach a card marked with a question mark, something special will happen -- maybe you'll steal an opponent's star, or maybe you'll be sent back to start. If you reach a card marked with a star, you get to keep whatever stars are printed on it. Most have one star, but some will have two stars or a Ztar, which subtracts from your score.

The game ends when all of the star cards have been found. The player with the most stars wins.

This is a great little lightweight board game, and probably the perfect bonus to put into a Mario Party title. There have been many times when I've booted up Mario Party 5 just to play a quick Card Party.

Beach Volleyball & Ice Hockey

Two complete Mario Sports games. Ice Hockey can be a little tricky to get a handle on, but Volleyball is some quality fun. They both bring back some fond memories of the NES sports games my brother and I would play all the time when we were little.

Partied Out

So if I was so pleased with Mario Party 5, why did I decide that I wouldn't follow the series anymore? Well, there's a lot of reasons.

First of all, Mario Party 6 made a big deal out of Nintendo's new microphone attachment. Outside of Karaoke Revolution, I've never had a very good experience with video games that rely on voice input. What I heard about its use in Party 6&7 pretty much turned me off to the whole experience.

Second of all, with my faith in the series restored, I didn't really want to watch it slip back into mediocrity again. I consider myself lucky that I found one last shining moment in the Mario Party series -- I don't need to be there when it turns up another Mario Party 3.

But most importantly of all -- why do I need another Mario Party? This game clearly demonstrates the apex of the game design. It's a great big box of fun that, in my eyes, does everything right. What more do I need?

I did eventually break my vow to end my allegiance to the Mario Party brand. Of course, that's another story.


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