I've always measured Mario Party games by the tension it brings. The star stealing, the backstabbing, the teamwork, the fact that skill has nothing to do with whether you win or not. In Super Mario Party that returns, but it dials back the expletive-encouraging randomness considerably. Possibly too much.
I played Super Mario Party multiple ways over the past week. I played it solo, with only computers backing me—which felt as if I booked a karaoke room for all my friends, and no one showed up so I was left with just me and my queue of old Good Charlotte songs. I also played with just my partner, with two computer-controlled characters joining us. (Robo-Peach and Robo-Rosalina were better than me, but not my partner). Then I played it with a full squad; four friends just sitting on a couch, eating chips and dip while playing Mario Party and greasing up the Joy-Cons. The way it's intended to be played, probably.
We had a good time, I won't dispute that. But the seams of Super Mario Party seemed to unravel the more matches we played. In past games, the traditional board game mode was structured by random acts surprising players, and by the end, the person with the most stars came out on top. In Super Mario Party, that's still true, but there's some notable changes that make the outcome less interesting. For instance, in Super Mario Party, on three of its four board game maps (two less than the usual standard of six boards), stars only cost 10 coins to buy contrary to costing 20 coins from past games. In the fourth map, the cost of the star rotates randomly by a lottery ball in the center, but the catch is that there are more stars up for sale and Toadette doesn't move at all, making for an endless circle with two particular routes to reach it every time. Everyone is flush with stars in perpetuity.
Super Mario Party makes stars too affordable, where when you pass by Toadette who's holding onto it, chances are you can buy it and not hang your head in shame. Stealing stars, too, feels not as common as past entries. While the minigames retain their charm and fun, the board game elements feel pared down, where even the bonus stars at the end awarded for miscellaneous criteria are minimized to two awards that don't monumentally change the tides of who wins and who loses. There's a small boost in the Ally System, where a character can join you, netting an extra dice roll and a new special dice too; otherwise, the shock and awe of the board game is gone. Some may see that as a positive, I see it as otherwise.
Super Mario Party introduces a few twists to the familiar formula too, with multiple modes besides its classic board game. River Survival, a new cooperative mode where instead of navigating a board you row down a river, switches up the usual competitive aspect of Mario Party in a welcome way. Unfortunately, it grows redundant as the minigame variety is low and by the end of the river, you're bound to see repeats.
Other modes include simple minigame battles like Square Off, where each win of a little game nets you a block on a cube of 16 squares, and Mariothon, a score-based battle of five minigames. There's also Online Mariothon, an online marathon of minigames that wasn't live at the time of writing this review. The new "Sticker" area isn't much of a mode, but more of a bonus activity where you can decorate photos with in-game stickers. If you want, you can even get new stickers from Birdo loitering around the Party Plaza by answering easy quiz questions, or you can keep talking to Toad in the Party Plaza, eventually unlocking a bunch of stickers to buy with the "Party Points" you earn whenever you play anything in Super Mario Party.
Partner Party is one of the more substantial new modes, even if it's situated on the regular mode's board game maps. In Partner Party, two teams of two have free movement around the board, but only according to the amount they roll. (The difference is board movement is no longer locked in one direction.) The team must communicate with each other and split up their goals, like one may go after the star while the other collects coins around the map. Partner Party is a decent twist on the familiar board game mode, but the traditional Party Mode is still better.
Toad's Rec Room is the only mode that allows two systems to play a game. The downside is that there's only four minigames playable in this way. Also in order to play with two consoles side by side, as seen in in a lot of Super Mario Party's trailers, both Switch owners must own Super Mario Party. The positive is that the minigames are playable without the creative set-up too, but there's only one clear standout that's worth returning to—the tank game.
There is a bright spot among the host of so-so modes though: and that's Sound Stage, a new rhythm-centered mode. It has a lot in common with Rhythm Heaven, where the pace gets steadily faster the deeper into the mode. My only complaint is that Sound Stage is a little too fleeting, with only a handful of minigames. It's great fun though, for what it is.
The minigames, as with all Mario Party games, is where Super Mario Party shines like that star you just stole from your best friend as they curse your first born child. Since Super Mario Party is only playable with a single Joy-Con, making those with adult sized hands maybe a little apprehensive, a lot of the minigames utilize both motion controls and HD Rumble in clever ways. For instance, in "Rattle and Hmmm," you feel the rumblings of three things and following a curtain that hides them, you feel one of their rumbles again and have to guess which Mario character it was (such as a Whomp slamming down or a Bob-Omb exploding). In "Sizzling Stakes," you must flip a perfect cube of steak in a frying pan and crisp it to perfection on all sides—no medium rare here.
There are definitely some low points in the minigames, but largely they had my living room uproarious, which is the ideal situation for anything in Mario Party. The minigames have some great names too, like "Sign, Steal, Deliver," "Senseless Census" (where you count the amount of Toads on a train—it's harder than it sounds), and "Slaparazzi" (a minigame where you run to the paparazzo holding a camera and can slap other characters out of the way). It's a shame that the in-between drama of star collecting and stealing was a little dull.
There's still plenty to throw a party around with Super Mario Party, only contrary to the best entries in the series from GameCube and Nintendo 64, it lacks the pressure that once upheld the board game base. The stars are cheaper, the star-stealing happens less, the bullshit, frankly, is minimal. And in Mario Party, that messiness is necessary. It's what keeps us on our toes. It's what strains friendships, and makes them stronger. It's what separates it from other party games—that randomness forged by code and personal grudges is what dictates who wins, not pure human skill. In Super Mario Party, all I see is a good time for an evening, nothing more and nothing less.
The minigames of Super Mario Party are great, taking advantage of the Switch hardware in unique and creative ways. It's the dialed back board game and its lackluster extra modes that let the whole package down though. While it's still bound to be a great party game to break out when friends visit, it lacks the drama of the best in the series.